June 10, 2021

Crimea’s nuclear potential: a return to Soviet practices


On April 12, amid escalating tensions along the Ukrainian border, Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Taran expressed concern that “Crimea’s infrastructure is being prepared for potentially storing nuclear weapons” (Radio Svoboda, April 14). Even though Mr. Taran did not supply evidence for this claim, it is plausible to assert that such nuclear potential in occupied Crimea certainly exists.

According to experts, Russia possesses up to 2,000 nuclear warheads at present (The Bulletin, March 15), some of which may already be located in Crimea. Illustratively, in late 2016, “Object-100,” an underground stationary complex for the storage and combat use of two cruise missile divisions, was restored on the peninsula (Interfax, November 18, 2016). Created in the Soviet era, it has been utilized by Utes missile systems equipped with P-35B or 3M44 Progress cruise missiles capable of carrying a 350-kiloton nuclear warhead. The combat readiness of Object-100, which can hit targets at a range of up to 300 kilometers, was confirmed during military exercises in November 2016 (RIA Novosti, November 18, 2016). Crimea is also home to at least three Bastion-P mobile coastal-defense complexes armed with the P-800 Oniks missile (range of up to 800 km).

The P-800 missile is capable of carrying a 10-kiloton nuclear warhead (Lenta.ru, September 25, 2019).

During the Cold War, Soviet sea-zone naval vessels – small missile ships, guard ships and anti-submarine corvettes – could all be equipped with nuclear weapons. Taking into account the preservation of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) and the absence of changes in Russian policy regarding these weapons (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, September 29, 2020, and January 28), the practice may well have continued.

Looking at the current Black Sea Fleet in Crimea, the 11th brigade of anti-submarine ships in Sevastopol consists of five Project 1135/6 guard ships, which are armed with the dual-capable Kalibr cruise missile system. The brigade also includes the Moskva, the lead ship of the Project 1164 Atlant class of guided missile cruisers, carrying the P-1000 Vulkan anti-submarine missile system. The Vulkan can be equipped with a 350-kiloton nuclear warhead. Moreover, the Moskva is equipped with the nuclear-capable S-300F anti-aircraft missile system (OPK, December 28, 2017; Rusonline.org, April 5, 2019; TASS, Kchf.ru, accessed June 4).

Two small Project 1239 missile ships and four Project 1241 missile boats are stationed in Sevastopol. Each of these vessels is armed with Moskit or Termit anti-ship missiles that can deliver 15-kiloton and 120-kiloton nuclear warheads, respectively. Moreover, the 68th coastal defense ship brigade in Sevastopol has two small Project 1124M anti-submarine corvettes with a 533-millimeter mine-torpedo armament, capable of carrying the RPK-6M Vodopad anti-submarine missile system or the VA-111 Shkval complex. These can be equipped with a nuclear warhead of 200 and 150 kilotons, respectively (OPK, December 28, 2017; Rusonline.org, April 5, 2019; TASS, Kchf.ru, accessed June 4).

Sevastopol is also home to the 31st Air-Defense Division with its two S-300PM detachments and four S-400 detachments. The 48N6 missile fired by both systems can theoretically carry a nuclear warhead. It is expected that the S-500 complexes, capable of launching a 77N6-N1 missile with a small nuclear warhead, will also eventually be deployed to Crimea (Avia.pro, March 18).

In March 2014, the authorities announced the imminent deployment of the Tu-22M3 Missile Carrier Regiment to the airbase in the Crimean village of Gvardeyskoe (Regnum, March 31, 2014). Reports of those plans were repeated in July 2015 (Interfax, July 22, 2015) and January 2016 (Modernarmy.ru, January 17, 2016). In March 2019, the first Tu-22M3 supersonic bomber landed in Crimea, seen as a potential sign of the looming permanent deployment of these strategic aircraft there (RIA Novosti, March 18, 2019). However, given that the airfield in Gvardeyskoe has been undergoing reconstruction since 2015 (Gvardeyskoe.ru, March 19, 2015), it is probably not yet ready to permanently accept these long-range strategic aircraft. The Tu-22M3 can carry from one to three X-22 cruise missiles or up to 10 X-15 cruise missiles, both of which are nuclear capable. Tu-22M3s are also capable of using nuclear free-falling bombs. Relatedly, as part of the 37th Mixed Aviation Regiment, six Su-24M tactical bombers are located at the Gvardey­skoe airfield. These jets are capable of carrying two unguided, free-falling RN-28 nuclear bombs (Topwar.ru, June 26, 2018).

The long-term appearance of Iskan­der-M tactical ballistic missile systems in Crimea is possible as well (Riafan, August 15, 2020). Iskanders from various Russian regions were already present on the peninsula during the Kavkaz (Caucasus) 2016 exercise, and they regularly participate in other drills, deploying close to the Ukrainian border (Topwar.ru, December 15, 2018; Janes.com, April 8). In response to the United States’ withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in 2019, Russia promised to, by the end of the following year, create a ground-based version of the Kalibr cruise missile and a Zircon ground-based hypersonic missile system, which would have ranges of up to 2,600 and 2,000 kilometers, respectively (TVZvezda, February 5, 2019). In October 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised, purportedly as a sign of good faith willingness to lower tensions, that Moscow would unilaterally pause any deployments of ground-based intermediate-range missiles in Europe; he encouraged Western counterparts to follow suit (Izvestia, October 26, 2020). Yet such mobile, ground-based nuclear-tipped missiles can easily be sent to Crimea, and no one would know about it, simply because no verification mechanisms exist. For example, Moscow already plans to deploy the first Bastion-S stationary mine-based anti-ship missile systems, which can be armed with these dual-capable missiles (Interfax, July 2, 2015).

After the forcible annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in early 2014, this region de facto became Russia’s south-westernmost territory. Given that all of the Soviet Union’s western republics hosted tactical nuclear weapons on their territory during the Cold War, Russia today likely also plans to deploy TNW to Crimea, and presumably has already done so. According to this author’s most conservative estimates, there may be up to 30 nuclear warheads deployed on the peninsula now. That said, non-strategic nuclear weapons are a gray area of European security. And in the absence of any monitoring or limitations on TNW, Russian activities in this sphere by definition destabilize the security situation in Europe and more generally.

The article above is reprinted from Eurasia Daily Monitor with permission from its publisher, the Jamestown Foundation, www.jamestown.org.