Russia's plan to deploy bombers in Crimea may be seen as a warning sign to NATO and accelerate the renewed arms race between Moscow and the West.
A Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker multirole air-superiority fighter has landed at the carrier-borne aviation training center of the Novo-Fyodorovka airfield in Crimea. Photo: RIA Novosti
Last week the Russian Ministry of Defense announced plans to deploy a squadron of Tu-22M3 long-range bombers in Crimea. For many experts, the move has been in the cards since the end of last year. The ministry itself openly describes it as "one of the measures taken in response to the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile base in Romania."
The decision will significantly reduce the capacity of the southern sector of the Euro ABM anti-missile defense shield and, undoubtedly, prompt similar countermeasures from NATO.
At the same time, the unique geographical location of Crimea will compel the North Atlantic Alliance to substantially revise and beef up its defense plans in the Black Sea region, with a considerable rise in outlays as a consequence. It should be noted that, for more than a year, Moscow has refrained from this kind of "extreme measure," which now puts Washington and its allies in a tight spot.
Long before the days of military aviation, control of Crimea essentially meant control of the Black Sea. Jutting far out to sea, the Crimean peninsula allowed fleets based in its ports to strike anywhere along the Black Sea coast without delay.
Moreover, the excellent natural protection of Crimea's harbors made them virtually invulnerable to invasion from the sea. Evidence thereof are the various Russian-Turkish conflicts and the Crimean War, during which a combined British-French-Turkish invading force got well and truly bogged down.
However, whereas the squadrons of Imperial Russia took several days to locate and destroy the enemy, in modern warfare it is just a matter of minutes. Therefore, Russia's retaking of Crimea could give it a crucial head start in the event of a global conflict.
There is a historical precedent that clearly illustrates the advantage of having airbases located in a region such as Crimea. On the morning of June 5, 1967, Israeli warplanes took off from home soil towards the Mediterranean. Turning south in formation over the sea, they dealt a devastating blow to Egyptian airfields.
Egypt, anticipating an incursion from the direction of Sinai directly across its border with Israel, and in possession of a Soviet-built combat-capable air defense system, was caught off guard. Cairo suffered a severe body blow, losing almost all its air force on the ground.
Thanks to Russia's defense ministry, NATO now finds itself in a similar situation. If Russian long-range bombers were to take off from Crimea, NATO commanders would not be able to figure out their destination until they started turning above the neutral waters of the Black Sea.
NATO has always understood the strategic importance of Crimea's harbors and airbases. A base in Crimea would allow Washington and its allies to take full control of the Black Sea and threaten the Russian Navy, which, deprived of Sevastopol, would be effectively holed up in Novorossiysk. However, following the incorporationof Crimea into Russia, the West has repeatedly denied the existence of such plans.
The deployment of a Tu-22M3 squadron to Crimea has been expected since last year. As such, in October 2014 a group of Republicans on the U.S. congressional defense committee warned U.S. President Barack Obama of such possibility. And in March 2015, as part of a snap inspection of combat readiness, Russia temporarily deployed ten such aircraft to Crimea.
The siting of long-range supersonic bombers in Crimea makes all military installations of Russia's potential foes in the Black Sea region extremely vulnerable, and preempts the formation of a combined hostile fleet in the Black Sea. The Euro-AMB complex in Deveselu, Romania, poses no threat to Russian long-range bombers. NATO's deployment of anti-missile systems in Europe is intended only for detecting and intercepting ballistic missiles.
In that regard, starting this year Romania is due to host 24 SM-3 land-based missile launchers as part of three mobile batteries under NATO command. Their target will be short- and medium-range missiles with a range of 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles). The SM-3 is also designed to intercept ballistic missiles at trans-atmospheric altitudes.
Accordingly, in order to protect its missile defense systems, NATO will likely be forced into the retaliatory step of placing more modern air defense systems and fighter aircraft in Romania, Bulgaria and other Black Sea countries. Even so, in the event of actual conflict, intercepting the Tu-22M3 would be quite a challenge.
Having lost one aircraft in the Georgian conflict of 2008, the Russian military drew a number of conclusions about the tactics of deploying long-range bombers. In August 2008 Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn stated that the Russian command had "made certain realignments in the combat training of the Russian Air Force."
By transferring a Tu-22M3 squadron to Crimea, Russia is forcing NATO to hike its outlays on protecting the airspace of Black Sea members. At the same time, the costs involved in deploying the new missile defense systems and locating additional aircraft will be many times more than those incurred by Russia. It is even possible that the Alliance will have to expand its presence in Georgia, as well as enter into negotiations with Turkey, which has established good neighbor relations with Moscow.
Some of the new infrastructure and additional forces could no doubt be used by Washington in future operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS); however, that would not go down well in Sofia, Bucharest or even Tbilisi.
One way or another, the net result could be an escalation of the renewed arms race. The Kremlin is trying to spell out its right to deploy troops in any region of Russia, thereby deterring NATO from strengthening its presence in the Black Sea.
Perhaps Moscow's ultimate aim is to ease the international tension and return to a constructive dialogue with the West in the foreseeable future. However, it remains a big unknown as to whether its chosen tactic will have the desired effect.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.