The news media and private web sites are full of rumors that Russia has deployed nuclear weapons to Crimea after it invaded the region earlier this year. Many of these rumors are dubious and overly alarmist and ignore that a nuclear-capable weapon is not the same as a nuclear warhead.
Several U.S. lawmakers who oppose nuclear arms control use the Crimean deployment to argue against further reductions of nuclear weapons. NATO’s top commander, U.S. General Philip Breedlove, has confirmed that Russian forces “capable of being nuclear” are being moved to the Crimean Peninsula, but also acknowledged that NATO doesn’t know if nuclear warheads are actually in place.
Recently Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Meshkov said that NATO was “transferring aircraft capable of carrying nuclear arms to the Baltic states,” and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reminded that Russia has the right to deploy nuclear weapons anywhere on its territory, including in newly annexed Crimea.
Whether intended or not, non-strategic nuclear weapons are already being drawn into the new East-West crisis.
First a reminder: the presence of Russian dual-capable non-strategic nuclear forces in Crimea is not new; they have been there for decades. They were there before the breakup of the Soviet Union, they have been there for the past two decades, and they are there now.
In Soviet times, this included nuclear-capable warships and submarines, bombers, army weapons, and air-defense systems. Since then, the nuclear warheads for those systems were withdrawn to storage sites inside Russia. Nearly all of the air force, army, and air-defense weapon systems were also withdrawn. Only naval nuclear-capable forces associated with the Black Sea Fleet area of Sevastopol stayed, although at reduced levels.
Yet with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, a military reinforcement of military facilities across the peninsula has begun. This includes deployment of mainly conventional forces but also some systems that are considered nuclear-capable.
Naval Nuclear-Capable Forces
The Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol includes nuclear-capable cruisers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes, and submarines. They are capable of carrying nuclear cruise missiles and torpedoes. But the warheads for those weapons are thought to be in central storage in Russia.
There are several munitions storage facilities in the Sevastopol area but none seem to have the security features required for storage of nuclear weapons. The nearest national-level nuclear weapons storage site is Belgorod-22, some 690 kilometers to the north on the other side of Ukraine.
There is a rumor going around that president Putin last summer ordered deployment of intermediate-range Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers to Crimea.
One U.S. lawmaker claimed in September that Putin had made an announcement on August 14, 2014. But even before that, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in March and annexed Crimea, Jane’s Defence Weekly quoted a Russian defense spokesperson describing plans to deploy Backfires to Gvardiesky (Gvardeyskoye) along with Tu-142 and Il-38 in 2016 after upgrading the base. Doing so would require major upgrades to the base.
Russia appears to have four operational Backfire bases: Olenegorsk Air Base on the Kola Peninsula (all naval aviation is now under the tactical air force) and Shaykovka Air Base near Kirov in Kaluzhskaya Oblast near Belarus in the Western Military District (many of the Backfires intercepted over the Baltic Sea in recent months have been from Shaykovka); Belaya in Irkutsk Oblast in the Central Military District; and Alekseyevka near Mongokhto in Khabarovsk Oblast in the Eastern Military District. A fifth base – Soltsy Air Base in Novgorod Oblast in the Western Military District – is thought to have been disbanded.
The apparent plan to deploy Backfires in Crimea is kind of strange because the intermediate-range bomber doesn’t need to be deployed in Crimea to be able to reach potential targets in Western Europe. Another potential mission could be for maritime strikes in the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea, but deployment to Crimea will only give it slightly more reach in the southern and western parts of the Mediterranean Sea (see map below). And the forward deployment would make the aircraft much more vulnerable to attack.
Iskander Missile Launchers
Another nuclear-capable weapon system rumored to be deployed or deploying to Crimea is the Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile. Some of the sources that mention Backfire bomber deployment also mention the Iskander.
One of the popular sources of the Iskander rumor is an amateur video allegedly showing Russian military vehicles rolling through Sevastopol on May 2, 2014. The video caption posted on youtube.com specifically identified “Iskander missiles” as part of the column.
A closer study of the video, however, reveals that the vehicles identified to be launchers for “Iskander missiles” are in fact launchers for the Bastion-P (K300P or SSC-5) costal defense cruise missile system. The Iskander-M and Bastion-P launchers look similar but the cruise missile canisters are longer, so the give-away is that the rear end of the enclosed missile compartments on the vehicles in the video extend further back beyond the fourth axle than is that case on an Iskander-M launcher.
While the video does not appear to show Iskander, Major General Alexander Rozmaznin of the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, reportedly stated that a “division” of Iskander had entered Crimea and that “every missile system is capable of carrying nuclear warheads…”
The commander of Russia’s strategic missile forces, Colonel General Sergei Karakayev, recently ruled out rumors about deployment of strategic missiles in Crimea, but future plans for the Iskander-M short-range ballistic missiles in Crimea are less clear.
Russia is currently upgrading short-range ballistic missile brigades from the SS-21 (Tochka) to the SS-26 (Iskander-M) missile. Four of ten brigades have been upgraded or are in the process of upgrading (all in the western and southern military districts), and a fifth brigade will receive the Iskander in late-2014. In 2015, deployment will broaden to the Central and Eastern military districts.
The Iskander division closest to Crimea is based near Molkino in the Krasnodar Oblast. So for the reports about deployment of an Iskander division to Crimea to be correct, it would require a significant change in the existing Iskander posture. That makes me a little skeptical about the rumors; perhaps only a few launchers were deployed on an exercise or perhaps people are confusing the Iskander-M and the Bastion-P. We’ll have to wait for more solid information.
As a result of the 1991-1992 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, roughly 60 percent of the Soviet-era inventory of warheads for air defense forces has been eliminated. The 40 percent that remains, however, indicates that Russian air defense forces such as the S-300 still have an important secondary nuclear mission.
The Ukrainian military operated several S-300 sites on Crimea, but they were all vacated when Russia annexed the region in March 2014. The Russian military has stated that it plans to deploy a complete integrated air defense system in Crimea, so some of the former Ukrainian sites may be re-populated in the future.
Just as quickly as the Ukrainian S-300 sites were vacated, however, two Russian S-300 units moved into the Gvardiesky Air Base. A satellite image taken on March 3, 2014, shows no launchers, but an image taken 20 days later shows two S-300 units deployed.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Russia has had nuclear-capable forces deployed in Crimea for many decades but rumors are increasing that more are coming.
The Russian Black Sea Fleet already has many types of ships and submarines capable of carrying nuclear cruise missiles and torpedoes. More ships are said to be on their way.
Rumors about future deployment of Backfire bombers to Crimea would, if true, be a significant new development, but it would not provide significant new reach compared with existing Backfire bases. And forward-deploying the intermediate-range bombers to Crimea would increase their vulnerability to potential attack.
Some are saying Iskander-M short-range ballistic missiles have been deployed, but no hard evidence has been presented and at least one amateur video said to show “Iskander missiles” instead appears to show a coastal missile defense system.
New air-defense missile units that may have nuclear capability are visible on satellite images.
It is doubtful that the nuclear-capable forces currently in Crimea are equipped with nuclear warheads. Their dual-capable missiles are thought to serve conventional missions and their nuclear warheads stored in central storage facilities in Russia.
Yet the rumors are creating uncertainty and anxiety in neighboring countries – especially when seen in context with the increasing Russian air-operations over the Baltic Sea and other areas – and fuel threat perceptions and (ironically) opposition to further reductions of nuclear weapons.
The uncertainty about what’s being moved to Crimea and what’s stored there illustrates the special problem with non-strategic nuclear forces: because they tend to be dual-capable and serve both nuclear and conventional roles, a conventional deployment can quickly be misinterpreted as a nuclear signal or escalation whether intended or real or not.
The uncertainty about the Crimea situation is similar (although with important differences) to the uncertainty about NATO’s temporary rotational deployments of nuclear-capable fighter-bombers to the Baltic States, Poland, and Romania. Russian officials are now using these deployments to rebuff NATO’s critique of Russian operations.
This shows that non-strategic nuclear weapons are already being drawn into the current tit-for-tat action-reaction posturing, whether intended or not. Both sides of the crisis need to be particularly careful and clear about what they signal when they deploy dual-capable forces. Otherwise the deployment can be misinterpreted and lead to exaggerated threat perceptions. It is not enough to hunker down; someone has to begin to try to resolve this crisis. Increasing transparency of non-strategic nuclear force deployments – especially when they are not intended as a nuclear signal – would be a good way to start.
Additional information: report about U.S. and Russian non-strategic nuclear forces
This publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.