In a “significant” military buildup over the past 18 months, Russia has increased its troops, aircraft, and weapons in Crimea and improved its Soviet bases and S-400 anti-aircraft systems (13). One U.S. official described Defense One’s satellite imagery analysis of the region “a deliberate and systematic buildup of [Russian] forces on the peninsula” (1).
These upgrades give Russia more control over the Black Sea and “puts offensive fighters and ships closer to the Middle East,” widening Russian strike capability to cover all of Ukraine and beyond the Black Sea, possibly even parts of the Middle East. With this expansion, Russia can “strike targets beyond the Black Sea, including southern Europe and Syria, without even departing Sevastopol” according to a second U.S. official (1). Building up on the Black Sea will enable Russia “to project power beyond their immediate environment” according to Sarah Bidgood, director of the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program at Middlebury College (1). Bidgood said that this buildup puts pressure on NATO to assert dominance over the Black Sea, making for “a really dangerous environment.” Russia could block the Mediterranean Sea lane, a key shipping route for Western forces’ Syria operations.
Sea of Azov
Through this buildup, Russia aims to seize the Sea of Azov’s entire coast, including key Ukrainian port city Mariupol, said Serhiy Nayev, the commander of Ukraine’s Joint Forces Operation (JFO) (10) The city is located about 100 kilometers from rebel-held Donetsk and “is seen as a key element of a potential land corridor from Russia to the Crimean peninsula,” especially because it has sea access and is serving as the temporary provincial capital while Donetsk is under rebel control (11).
Ukraine will face significant economic losses if Russia seize Mariupol. Since 2014, the war has caused Mariupol and neighboring port Berdyansk to lose $400 million combined, taking a huge hit on Ukraine’s struggling economy. In 2018, Russian ships stopped “150 Ukrainian or Ukraine-bound trade ships for days” in the sea, causing millions of dollars in damage and forcing steel producers to cut their losses (7). Steel accounts for two-thirds of Mariupol’s exports, as the city is located near coal mines and iron ore deposits.
The “Steel Monster”
As of June, Russia had approximately 30,000 troops in Crimea and plans to add 7,000 to 10,000 more by 2025, according to Vadym Skybytskiy, acting deputy commander of Ukraine’s Defense Ministry Main Intelligence Directorate (14). Russia reactivated the 150th Motorized Rifle Division in September 2016, signalling the start of more mobilization to come. With two tank regiments instead of the traditional one and “unusually large number of tanks,” the Russian media refers to the division as a “steel monster” (2). In 2018 alone, Russia’s Southern Military District went from fielding “415 tactical aircraft and 259 helicopters” in January “to over 500 tactical aircraft and 340 helicopters” by the year’s end (2). In 2018, Russia also increased its number of battalions near Ukraine’s border from 8 to 12 and possibly “formed a third motorized rifle regiment” (2). In December 2018, a video captured Russia sending BMD-2 infantry fighting vehicles (IFV) into Crimea via the Kerch Strait (6). Russian airborne units are the only part of the Russian army that would use these IFVs, so it is very likely that Russia has deployed “elements of the 7th Guards Airborne Division” in Crimea (2). In January 2019, “Russian sabotage and reconnaissance groups became more active in Donetsk and Luhansk regions” with reconnaissance tripling, according to Nayev. They were also regrouping, which indicates that they are preparing for an offensive.
Russia will continue to bolster its forces in Crimea by constructing the Voronezh-M radar system in Sevastopol in 2019, aiming for a 2023 completion (5). The radar system will have a detection range up to 6,000 kilometers. Standing ten stories tall, the building will require a lot of electricity, and Russia previously could not find a sufficient supply source. This is no longer a problem because Crimea started supplying electricity to mainland Russia’s Kuban region.
The Kerch Strait incident in November 2018 partially led Russia to grow its presence in Crimea. During the incident, Russia intercepted three Ukrainian ships that it claimed violated Russian territorial waters. The confrontation left six Ukrainians wounded, per Ukraine’s report, and led Ukraine’s then-president Petro Poroshenko to impose martial law in east Ukraine (9).
Russian media called the incident as a “minor skirmish” and portrayed Poroshenko’s decision to impose martial law as a dictatorial overreaction and tactic for his reelection (4). The Kremlin used this media portrayal of a politically unstable Ukraine to fire up pro-Russians living in Ukraine and to justify increasing its military presence in Ukraine.
Shortly after the Kerch Strait incident, in December 2018, Russia disseminated news stories that Ukraine planned to use chemical weapons on rebels, a claimed Ukraine dismissed as “absurd” (3, 12). Similar to its goal with Kerch Strait propaganda, the Kremlin aimed to rationalize increasing its involvement in Crimea by depicting Ukraine as a dangerous and unstable neighboring territory. The chemical weapon accusation appears to be convenient rather than moral for the Kremlin. Ironically, in November 2018, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, who Russia supports in the Syrian Civil War, allegedly used chemical weapons against his own citizens in Douma. Despite its concern that Ukraine possibly possessed chemical weapons that it might use, Russia did not investigate the claims that its ally had recently used chemical weapons.
The Kremlin has significant motivation to wag the dog using its war in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin is up for election in 2024. His poll numbers are at historical lows, with 2 in 5 Russians saying they do not want him to be re-elected (8). The Kremlin will continue to use its accusations that Ukraine is politically unstable and dangerous to rally up Russians for war and distract them from domestic issues. The Kremlin’s uptick in military activity in Ukraine could entice NATO to rush to Ukraine’s support, giving the Russian government more material that it would use to alienate its people against the West.
1. Bowden, John. 2019. “Russia staging ‘significant’ military buildup in Crimea: report.” June 12. The Hill. https://thehill.com/policy/international/448081-russia-staging-significant-military-buildup-in-crimea-report.
2. Chang, Felix K. 2019. “Are the Russians Coming?: Russia’s Military Buildup Near Ukraine.” February 25. Foreign Policy Research Institute. https://www.fpri.org/article/2019/02/are-the-russians-coming-russias-military-buildup-near-ukraine/.
3. “Donetsk warns Kiev may use chemical weapons in conflict zone.” December 4, 2018. TASS. https://tass.com/world/1034342.
4. “Election ploy? Poroshenko declares martial law in Ukraine after Kerch standoff.” November 26, 2018. RT. https://www.rt.com/news/444928-martial-law-poroshenko-election-kerch/.
5. Jones, Bruce. 2019. “Russia gives more details about Voronezh early warning radar station for Crimea.” April 5. Jane’s Defence. https://www.janes.com/article/87714/russia-gives-more-details-about-voronezh-early-warning-radar-station-for-crimea.
6. @loogunda. 2018. “#Kerch Strait bridge, Crimea bound tracked vehicles on transporters.” December 8. 8:24 AM. Twitter.
7. Mirovalev, Mansur. 2019. “Ukraine’s Mariupol stuck between war and Russian blockade.” June 17. Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/ukraine-mariupol-stuck-war-russian-blockade-190617095417448.html.
8. “Number of Russians Opposed to Putin’s Re-Election Reaches 6-Year High – Poll.” July 30, 2019. Moscow Times. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/07/30/number-of-russians-opposed-to-putins-re-election-reaches-6-year-high-poll-a66622.
9. Roth, Andrew. 2018. “Kerch strait confrontation: what happened and why does it matter?” November 27. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/27/kerch-strait-confrontation-what-happened-ukrainian-russia-crimea.
10. “Russia triples recon activity in Donbas, preparing for offensive – Commander Nayev.” January 24, 2019. UNIAN Information Agency. https://www.unian.info/war/10420062-russia-triples-recon-activity-in-donbas-preparing-for-offensive-commander-nayev.html.
11. Schreck, Carl. 2015. “Mariupol: A Strategic And Symbolic Target For Pro-Russian Rebels.” January 24. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. https://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-mariupol-strategic-symbolic-target/26811511.html.
12. “Statement by the delegation of Ukraine on Russia’s claims about chemical weapons.” November 29, 2018. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine. https://mfa.gov.ua/en/news-feeds/foreign-offices-news/69083-zajava-delegaciji-ukrajini-u-vidpovidy-na-zvinuvachennya-z-boku-rosiji-shhodo-khimichnoji-zbroji.
13. Tucker, Patrick. 2019. “EXCLUSIVE: US Intelligence Officials and Satellite Photos Detail Russian Military Buildup on Crimea.” June 12. Defense One. https://www.defenseone.com/threats/2019/06/exclusive-satellite-photos-detail-russian-military-buildup-crimea/157642/
14. “Ukraine intel assesses size of Russia’s military force amassed in occupied Crimea.” June 21, 2019. UNIAN. https://www.unian.info/politics/10592634-ukraine-intel-assesses-size-of-russia-s-military-force-amassed-in-occupied-crimea.html.