The buildup of Russian air combat capability in Crimea has been announced but only seen in glimpses. Yesterday, Twitter posts showed this militarization in vibrant color. The most stunning being a shot of Belbek AB. Once the home to mostly broken down Ukrainian MiG-29s, it now appears to bristle with Su-30 and Su-35 fighters, but this tweet is inaccurate.
Even before hostilities erupted last winter, Russia had maintained a dizzying array of anti-access naval capabilities in the region. After the invasion of Crimea, the Kremlin made it clear that both sea and air defenses would be bolstered and greatly upgraded.
Part of this initiative was the disclosed deployment of SU-30s to the commandeered Belbek Air Base, but the picture above would be the first confirmation that the single seat SU-35 Super-Flanker derivative is also deployed there. The truth is the picture was taken at another Russian air base from earlier this year. If it were authentic, it would give one of the first clear insights as to how many Russian Flankers of any type were deployed to the Crimean base.
In addition to the photo supposedly from Belbek Air Base, what appears to be S-300PMU surface to air missile systems were spotted on the move in northern Crimea, along the border with Ukraine. It is widely assumed that S-300s were deployed to Crimea earlier this year, but setting up these long-range SAMs on the border would allow Russia to reach many miles into south central Ukraine during a time of expanded conflict. In other words, they could deny access to Ukrainian combat aircraft acting in support of Ukrainian ground troops, in effect sterilizing the airspace within many dozens of miles from the border.
Combined together, S-300s and SU-30 Flanker fighters, whether pictures here or not, give Russia a robust ability to defend Crimea from external attack and to project power beyond its own borders. Maybe more importantly, they, along with Russia's armada of anti-ship platforms, will work as a strong deterrent when it comes to curious NATO aircraft and ships venturing close to Crimea's border. But like almost all information trickling out of the region, we have to take it with caution, as misinformation, both deliberate and indeliberate continues to be a major obstacle when trying to create a clear view of this shadowy conflict.