Vladimir Putin may or may not have lost his grip on reality, but his desire to tighten his grip on Crimea is surprisingly logical if you consider the history and strategic importance of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. A closer look at Russia's forces along the southern Ukrainian coast reveals a lot of Putin's thinking.
The Black Sea is not a small place. It is roughly the size of California, or about 60% larger than the Persian Gulf, and is bordered by Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia and Turkey. That being said, when it comes to large naval armadas like an American Carrier Strike Group, it is not exactly the Pacific Ocean. This is especially true considering that a Peninsula at the center of this body of water is bristling with anti-ship missiles… and they don't even belong to the country that they're based in.
Russia's sudden seizure of the land mass known as the Crimea, a peninsula jutting out from Ukraine, just a stone's throw from Russian's south western border, was startling to the west, but in all reality Russian forces invaded what militarily seemed like their own stronghold.
A Short History Lesson
Historically speaking, the Black Sea Fleet and its Sevastopol base date back 1783, and was founded by Prince Potemkin. The Crimea Peninsula actually belonged to the Russians as far back as 1954, at which time Khrushchev symbolically "gave" the landmass to Ukraine.
This gift of sorts had little consequence as Ukraine remained a Soviet state until the dissolution of USSR back in 1991. When this occurred, a severely weakened Russia was left having to share its naval fleet and bases in Crimea with Ukraine, although command and control was still heavily lopsided in Russia's favor. In 1997, the fleet was split 70-30% with Ukraine as a settlement over ownership of once soviet military assets. As part of this deal, Russia would have to lease its Black Sea Fleet's headquarters in Sevastopol and its associated air bases, from Ukraine. The lease would run through 2017.
Russia's lease of multiple military installations in the Crimea was not much of a problem until Vladimir Putin became more interested in wielding power over the former Soviet Block state, all the while a major portion of the Ukrainian population wanted much closer ties with Europe.
By the mid 2000's it was clear that Russia's strategic lease that allowed the Black Sea fleet to remain in Crimea would most likely not be renewed in 2017. Many in government at the time saw the arrangement as more of a "soft occupation" than a strategically beneficial agreement. The non-renewal of the Black Sea Fleet lease agreement would not only require Russia to move the majority of its naval troops and flotilla over to the eastern coastline of the Black Sea, but it would also mean that Russia would no longer have a powerful, if not intimidating force, sitting garrison on Ukrainian soil. Additionally, there have been some key discoveries when it comes to energy deposits on the west side of the Black Sea, an area that is readily accessible, if not potentially claimable, from the territorial waters off the Crimea Peninsula.
In 2010, the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych would see to it that Russia's strategic fortunes in the region change for the better. Under a highly controversial deal, the lease of the Russian naval master base at Sevastopol, and its associated air bases, would be extended 25 years, with another five year option after that.
This long-term lease would be partially in exchange for a 30% reduction in Russian natural gas prices for Ukraine. The execution of this agreement would mean that Russia would continue having heavy naval firepower, attack aircraft, and a large maritime landing force garrisoned in Ukraine potentially until 2047. This was a massive strategic win for a reinvigorated Russia who's influence was rapidly expanding once again in the region, whether it be by the carrot or the stick.
Then in a massive turn of events, just last month Yanukovych was ran out of the country as uprisings gripped the Ukrainian capitol of Kiev, and began to spread to other areas of the country. With Yanukovych's ouster from government, and his subsequent helicopter escape to Russia, the Black Sea Fleet's long established home, one of higher strategic importance than ever, was now almost totally at risk once again. Just days later we saw the "invasion" of the Crimea Peninsula by Russian forces, operating in an unidentified fashion throughout key strategic areas in the semi-autonomous Ukrainian state.
Russia's foreign naval bases are seen by Putin as absolutely key fixtures needed to revive the country's image as a world superpower. A largely overlooked fact about the ongoing Syrian crisis was that Russia has their only Mediterranean naval port in Tartus, Syria. Should Assad fall so would Russian access to their port.
This would mean that the Russian Navy would be hard pressed to operate at any sort of sustained tempo in the Mediterranean as they would have to sail all the way to the northern reaches of the Black Sea just to receive repairs, resupply, refuel and rearm. Hence, among other reasons, Putin's incredibly strong support for the Assad regime.
The mainstream news often does not report these simple rational motivators because they tend to overlook military strategy or capabilities, and long-retired golfing generals are hardly a place to get the latest analysis on such matters. Yet, the facts are clear, without Tartus the Russian Navy would be all but locked out of having a sustained future presence in the Mediterranean.
When it comes to Crimea, the motivation to keep the naval base in Sevastopol is as great, if not greater, than those relating to Syria, but for very different reasons. Mainly those being the ability to have a massive military "beachhead" on Ukrainian soil should Putin decide to annex the country in full, energy claims in the north west Black Sea Region, control of oil pipelines that crisscross the country, and as leverage to control the future of Ukrainian foreign policy. Then there is a "soft" rebuilding of the old Soviet Union that is clearly underway in the form of Russia's "Eurasian Union." Clearly Putin sees Ukraine as a western anchor to this historically eerie initiative, and the Black Sea Fleet is a means in which to defend that union in the future. In the end Putin clearly sees his foreign naval ports as an integral military facet of his strategy for reintroducing Russia onto the world stage as a super power, and thus he will not let them go without a serious fight.
The leased Russian naval port in Sevastopol is no coastguard station. Sevastopol is the center of gravity for the Black Sea Feet, with all of its heavy surface combatants and about 70% of the rest of the fleet based there. It houses a pocket armada of naval firepower and amphibious landing capabilities that still represent a serious threat to anyone on Putin's unwanted list. Going off of the latest information and publicly available satellite imagery, Russian forces in Crimea before Putin's shadowy blitzkrieg looked something like this:
1X Slava "Glory" Class Guided Missile Cruiser: The flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, this ship is one of the most powerful surface combatants in the Russian Navy, only outmatched by the borderline battleship-sized Kirov Class.
Slavas are often referred to as "carrier killers" as they are packed with 16 massive and deadly SS-N-12 "Sandbox" anti-ship missiles. These are very large cruise missiles weighing some five tons each. They are capable of flying over 300 miles at speeds of up tp mach 2.4 and can deliver a massive one ton armor piercing warhead onto their target.
The Sandbox was built to be launched is salvos and is incredibly well networked considering they were designed originally in the 1970s. The missiles work as a team during an attack, varying speed, altitude and approach vector to confuse and overwhelm their target's ability to defend itself. A deadly swarm of SS-N-12s can even pass along retasking or retargeting orders if a missile in the formation is destroyed or if their target set changes.
Additionally, these "carrier killers" were built to receive mid-course guidance updates from other SS-N-12s or maritime patrol aircraft so that they can be fired far from their target's ability to detect the launch ship. Simply put, these are large, fast and deadly school-bus sized missiles, and are especially dangerous when employed in large numbers.
The Slava class also possesses a powerful ability for area air defense and is outfitted with 64 S-300F, S-300FM "Fort" or S-300PMU "Gargoyle" long range surface to air missiles.
These massive SAMs are capable of shooting down everything from low flying cruise missiles, fighter-sized aircraft and even incoming ballistic missiles, even under intense jamming conditions. The S-300 has a range of over 50 miles in its older S-300F configuration, and about 100 miles in their newer FM and PMU configuration. These missiles are launched via a rotary vertical launch system implanted into the deck of the Slava Class Cruiser. Additionally, close in air defenses are provided by a SA-N-4 "Gecko" short range missiles and a gaggle of AK-630 precision aimed close-in defense cannons.
Finally, the Slava Class also has 24 anti-submarine mortars and 10 torpedo tubes, along with a 130mm multipurpose gun and a Kamov KA-27 helicopter for over the horizon targeting, attack, and anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare duties.
1X Kara Class Large Anti-Submarine Warfare Ship: This old but proud beast was built to take the fight to American submarines with devastating effects. She is the last of her kind and armed with 8 SS-N-14 "Silex" anti-submarine missiles. The Silex is a massive high-speed delivery vehicle of death.
Weighing in at almost four and a half tons, it can fly 25 miles from its launch ship at close to the speed of sound, and assisted by external targeting, such as from a helicopter or anti-submarine patrol aircraft, it can release its torpedo that will then dive up to 1,500 feet below the ocean's surface to find its submerged target. The Silex missile can also be used against surface vessels. The torpedo it normally carries to attack submarines is switched out with a 400-lb shaped-charge warhead. Once properly configured, the missile simply plows into its target and let's its high explosive payload do the dirty work.
Then there are the Kara's twin RBU-6000 and RBU-1000 short range anti-submarine rocket launchers for dealing with submerged threats up close and personal. These weapon systems work by bombarding an enemy submarine with a massive salvo of actively guided rockets packed with shaped charge warheads. The Kara class also has a KA-27 anti-submarine warfare helicopter and she also packs 10 533mm torpedo tubes fitted onboard for good ship and submarine blasting excitement.
For air defense, the Kara Class also is equipped with the SA-N-3 "Goblet" SAM system. These are basically rocket propelled telephone poles that can take out bomber sized targets at over 30 miles from their launch point. The Kara Class carries a whopping eighty of these vintage, but still deadly SAMs. Also included in the ship's air defense are SA-N-4 "Gecko" andAK-630 point defense systems. Finally there are a pair of 76mm multi-purpose guns for targets that fall outside the abilities of the ship's already massive arsenal.
To be blunt, this ship was made to kill things under the waves in mass and with prejudice, if it sits on top of those waves or maneuvers high above them it can also kill those targets as well, but its real passion in life is to implode western submarine hulls. In an age where multi-purpose capabilities are essential for justifying the cost of any large surface combatant, the Kara is a big hulk of a dinosaur with very large, albeit blunt teeth.
1X Kashin Class Destroyer: Another oldie but goodie, the "Smetlivy" is the last of her class and is currently active with the Black Sea Fleet. She was upgraded in the 1990's with some new gear that would make her a relevant naval player into the new millennium. She is equipped with eight modern SS-N-25 "Switchblade" anti-ship cruise missiles which are roughly equivalent to the prevalent AGM-84 Harpoon missile in service with the US Navy and allied forces around the world. The missile can be launched at over 80 miles away from its target and skims the sea at high-subsonic speed. Once it is about to strike its target it can impact right above the target's waterline or it can pop up and attack from above, where a warship's armor is traditionally the thinnest. Additionally the Smetlivy is equipped with SA-N-1 "Goa" surface to air missiles, five torpedo tubes, 2 RBU-6000 ASW rocket launchers and a pair of AK-726 76mm multi-purpose guns. She also packs a KA-25 or KA-27 chopper for multi-role anti-surface/anti-submarine warfare and logistical duties.
2X Krivak Class Missile Frigate: Like much of the Soviet Navy these ships are far from new and are approaching the end of their usefulness, but they still pack four of the aforementioned deadly SS-N-14 "Silex" anti-ship and anti-submarine missiles. Beyond that they have SA-N-4 defensive anti-air missiles and four 76mm guns, along with a pair of RBU-6000 anti-sub rocket launchers and a quartet of torpedo tubes. Usually Krivaks also sail with mines onboard numbering in the dozens.
In fairly recent satellite imagery, one of the Krivak Class Frigates appears to be upgraded to Krivak III configuration, as it lacks the 76mm guns on its stern and the Silex missile "quad pack" on its bow. In these systems place there is a single 100mm gun and a helicopter operations area, hangar, and an embarked KA-27 chopper. These "Krivak III" configured ships are usually operated by the Border Guard so it is not clear if this ship has replaced a standard Krivak Class frigate or just took its place temporarily.
2X Nanuchka Class Guided Missile Corvettes: These fast vessels are meant to sneak up on the enemy and launch their SS-N-9 Siren anti-ship missiles. These missiles have a range over 75 miles and pack a whopping 1,100-lb warhead.
7X Large Amphibious Landing Ships: In addition to the armada listed above, the Black Sea Fleet retains a sizeable beach landing capability seven large amphibious landing and support ships, some capable of dropping 20 tanks directly on the beach. This amphibious ship brigade is currently made up primarily of "Alligator" and "Ropucha" class landing ships.
7X Anti Submarine Corvettes: This force is made up of six "Grisha" Class large corvettes and one "Mukha" class hydrofoil. These ships carry torpedoes, anti-submarine rockets and mines, as well as a multi-purpose main gun.
12X Assorted Coast Patrol & Minesweeping Craft: The rest of the Black Sea Fleet is made up of about a dozen assorted craft, four of which are dedicated minesweepers, while the rest are various patrol and small logistics ships.
Black Sea Fleet Air & Ground Support Forces
Let's now move to the Russian assets on the Crimea Peninsula that don't float in the water. Russia has deployed the K-300P coastal defense missile system in unknown numbers to Crimea. This sucker is a road mobile advanced anti-ship missile system and is said to be extremely effective and resistant to countermeasures.
The missile can reach out over 150 miles and can be targeted via external sensors. The missile itself is based on the SS-N-26 high supersonic ramjet powered missile and approaches its target at around two and a half times the speed of sound. Additionally, this missile has many modes to tailor the attack profile best for the target type. Simply put, whether you are a marine landing force, a frigate on patrol off the coast or carrier group, this thing is scary as hell and hard to find and destroy.
The Russian Navy is also in the air over and around Sevastopol. Located north of Russia's leased Black Sea Fleet headquarters is Kacha Air Base where the majority of the Black Sea Fleet's anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare aircraft and helicopters are based. Around forty or so choppers are based there, with the majority of these being the KA-27 "Helix" type, some of which deploy with the fleet. Also, larger Mi-14 "Haze" anti-submarine helicopters are stationed here for long range patrol duties, although they may be in the process of being retired. There are also about another dozen or so Mi-8 "Hip" transport choppers on hand for logistical and troop transport duties.
Additionally, about a dozen medium transport aircraft live at this field, including AN-12 and AN-26 models. Finally, for long range sea control and search and rescue missions, the aging Beriev-12 flying boats still soldier on here, although they may have started replacing them with the more capable IL-38 "May." The Be-12s have not been able to land on the water for some time due to the lack of seals on their weapons bay doors and other apertures.
Russia's aerial capability on the Crimea Peninsula does not end with "just" some anti-submarine helicopters, dated flying boats and a couple dozen logistical support aircraft. No, Russia has yet another layer of anti-ship missile and targeting capability in the Crimea, this being a squadron of partially upgraded swing-wing SU-24/M/MRs based at Gvardeyskoye Air Base near the center of the autonomous Ukrainian state.
These "Fencers" belong to the Russian Navy and are capable of carrying a wide selection of attack munitions, including laser and TV guided bombs, and of course, more anti-ship missiles! In fact there is a wide variety of these types of missiles for the Fencer mission planner to choose from, including the mach 3 Kh-31 or subsonic KH-59M.
The Fencers can also provide limited air to defense if need be, although they would be little match for any modern fighter aircraft. The SU-22MR version is a high-speed reconnaissance aircraft that can infiltrate its target area at low level using the SU-24M's terrain following radar and includes panoramic cameras, a side-looking radar (SLAR), and an infrared line scanning system.
Finally, shock troops are also part of the Black Sea Fleet, including a full Naval Infantry Brigade. Russia's Naval shock troops are roughly analogous to US Marines, and the Brigade based in Sevastopol consists of close to 3,000 troops and are quite capable. Here is a breakdown of sub-ubits within the 810th Separate Naval Infantry Brigade:
- 880 Separate Naval Infantry Battalion
- 881 Assault Battalion
- 888 Reconnaissance Battalion
- 1613 Artillery Battery
- 1619 Air-Defense Artillery Battery
- 382 Infantry Battalion
So What If The U.S. Wanted To Confront Russia?
It is absolutely clear that Russia's surface combatant element of Black Sea Fleet is highly focused on a single goal: Surviving so that it can deny potential enemies access to the northern part of, if not the entire Black Sea. The sheer number and variety of Russian anti-ship missiles on that Peninsula is jaw dropping.
Virtually every major Russian asset in Crimea carries standoff-range anti-ship missiles, from a cruiser level all the way down to their fast attack corvettes and littoral patrol ships. Not to mention the road-mobile advanced ASM units, land-based ASW and ASuW helicopters and aircraft and the fleet's SU-24 attack jets. Layers upon layers of anti-ship and anti-submarine defenses can be deployed, with little notice, from Sevastopol and throughout the peninsula's mainland.
Beyond this incredible anti-surface and sub-surface warfare ability, the Black Sea Fleet's anti-air capability is fairly robust, with multiple surface combatants supplying various tiers of area and point air defenses. In addition, there is a capable land-based Russian air defense unit at the ready as part of the 810 Separate Naval Infantry Brigade. Simply put, almost the entire non-infantry based Russian detachment in the Crimea is focused on either detecting and rapidly engaging surface and sub-surface targets at various ranges, some of which are extreme, or defending itself against aerial bombardment.
Seeing as an American or NATO flotilla would have to sail through the narrow Bosphorus strait (and no the particulars of the Montreux Agreement is not worth diving into) and into the mouth of the Black Sea, such a mission would be perilous while a conflict or even extreme tensions were underway vis-a-vis Russia.
Yes, American Carrier Strike Groups, or even small US Destroyer or Cruiser centric flotillas, are very capable at defending themselves, but having the Black Sea fleet let loose a full on anti-ship missile barrage on a US naval strike group would certainly end in burning hulls with tattered US flags blowing in the wind. You forfeit your ability to surprise your enemy when you have to float slowly through the center of Istanbul to get to your area of operations. The the narrow Bosporus strait creates a "fatal funnel" for even the most advanced warships to survive and attack from. Since there is only one way in or out of the Black Sea for heavy ships, the mouth of Bosporus on the Black Sea Side would become a shooting gallery for the Black Sea Fleet as US or NATO ships emerged from the strait. Remote targeting would not even be necessary as visual spotters could call in the ship's position and Russia's anti-ship missile arsenal could be set on "fire and forget." In this mode the missiles will kill any surface contact they detect within a certain pre-planned geographical area.
The Black Sea Fleet may be a dated hodgepodge of vessels of various vintages, but the weapons they pack are numerous and primarily aimed at overwhelming a capable enemy's defenses. Remember, all it takes is a few "squirters" to break through a flotilla's layered defenses, ending in a multi-billion dollar, ultra-modern warship floating down to the seafloor.
Operating in an enclosed body of water like the Black Sea is nothing new to the US Navy, as they have operated in a similar manner for decades in the Persian Gulf. What is different is that we were not facing the massive blunt hammer of Russia's military in that region. Additionally, during even a limited conflict with Russia, the US Navy would be secluded from operating in the northeast area of the Black Sea, as that region could be quickly fortified with advanced coastal anti-ship missile emplacements and extremely dangerous long range air defense systems.
With all this in mind, one of the only ways I believe the US Navy could operate in mass with any margin for safety in the Black Sea would be to preemptively strike the Russian Black Sea Fleet before entering the region, a move that could also potentially start World War III. Another option would be to stay out of the Black Sea in full, and use standoff naval weaponry and an aircraft carrier's air wing to conduct operations over the Black Sea at long ranges. The reality is that a Navy's most potent weapon is simply "being there" as a prod for resolving foreign policy issues and as a reminder of what the consequences of failing to do so could entail. This is something that airpower is less effective at and the psychological effect is diminished when such a flotilla is forced to operate literally an ocean away from the hotspot in question.
Another final would be to get a carrier strike group, or at least some Destroyers and Cruisers, into the Black Sea right now, as it may catch Russia off guard. Once they are in there they are at risk of confronting the Black Sea Fleet directly, along with Russian warplanes operating out of its own territory on the Black Sea's eastern seaboard. Such a move would almost certainly end with a buildup of NATO land based aircraft on Turkey's northern boarder to support such an action if it were to be sustained. Although this move could be made without shots being fired, it would end with a ton of opposing military hardware operating within a fairly confined space. Such a situation, especially if it occurred over a long period of time, would be quite volatile to say the least.
Currently, there are two US Navy ships that may still remain in the Black Sea after the end of the Olympic Games. The first is the aged frigate USS Taylor, which is laid up in the northern Turkish Port of Samsun, and the massive command and control ship USS Mount Whitney. The USS Mount Whitney is an ideal asset to have in the region, as its situational awareness and intelligence gathering abilities are unparalleled, but it is almost totally defenseless.
In fact, both of these vessels are all but defenseless against a barrage anti-ship missile attack, relying only on electronic and physical countermeasures and the Phalanx Close In Weapon System (CIWS) to repulse such an onslaught. The rumor is that they will soon be joined by one or two Arleigh Burke Class Destroyers, potentially the USS Truxton and/or USS Donald Cook (UPDATE: USS Truxton Sails Through Bosporus Strait). Often times, two AEGIS ships are required in a single hot spot at one time, as one can provide ballistic missile defense while the other searches for air-breathing threats. The AEGIS system cannot currently do both tasks at the same time. If these US guided missile ships, some of the most deadly in the world, do indeed enter the Black Sea, it's a safe bet that Russia will see this as a direct threat and will deploy even more capable and heavy hitting TU-22s armed with the near hypersonic KH-32 anti-ship missiles to the region.
These US ships, and the ones already in the region, are in effect sailing into what could become a anti-ship super missile engagement zone, the likes of which the world has not seen for decades. Should the current Cold War like rhetoric turn into a shooting war, something that can happen in a blink of an eye, these US Destroyer's AEGIS combat systems may be tested like never before in what could be a dire fight for their own survival.
While the U.S. may be able to put pressure on Russia through economic and diplomatic measures, and it can also send some strategic signals, of which a US armada churning through the Bosporus Strait would be about the largest one possible. None-the-less a battle in the Black Sea is extremely unpalatable if not horribly catastrophic when put into a geopolitical context.
Although Putin's action have been bold to say the least, we have not seen the massive military buildup and reinforcement of strategic and tactical units that we should expect to see from someone who is planning for a wider conflict. In fact, the best conclusion we can draw from Russia's current order of battle in the region, with the Black Sea Fleet as its centerpiece, is that it mirror's the Kremlin's policy for the region: HANDS OFF AND KEEP OUT!
Now we will just have to see if Washington heeds this warning...
Photo Credits: AP, WikiCommons: Black Sea Map: Morgan Einstein, Bora Class: Cmapm, Matka Class: Vissarion, TU-22: Alex Beltyukov, Missile Launch: Russian Navy. CIWS firing and Destroyer Lineup: US Navy. And a huge thanks to Ivan Voukadinov for sharing is great shots from his base visits to the Crimea before all this went down! For more of Ivan's work please click here.