The Russian military will deploy nuclear-capable Tupolev Tu-95 and Tu-22M3 strategic bombers on the Crimean peninsula. Additionally, the Kremlin is setting up an Iskander missile deployment in Kaliningrad, the Russian territorial exclave on the Baltic Sea coast, for a military exercise. Russia’s state-run TASS news agency quoted a source close to the Russian Defense Ministry who noted, “Strategic missile carriers TU-22MS will be transferred to Crimea in the course of a surprise combat readiness inspection.”
In Kaliningrad, the Russian military will continue to build its Baltic Sea presence by relocating jets and bombers to the region. “Ground troops in the Baltic region will be boosted by the Iskander missile systems of the western military region. They will be delivered by big assault landing ships of the Baltic Fleet,” TASS quoted its source as saying.
The report added that Russia was additionally carrying out a “surprise readiness inspection” of its Northern Fleet, western military region, and airborne assets on Monday. The inspection will cover “38,000 troops, 3,360 weapons units and military equipment, more than 55 warships and submarines and 110 aircraft and helicopters.”
Following a spate of anti-government protests in Ukraine, Russia moved to annex Crimea in February 2014. The Crimean peninsula has been of strategic significance to Russian leaders dating back to at least the Imperial era — the peninsula offers Russia access to the Black Sea, and subsequently, the Mediterranean by way of the Bosphorus. Additionally, the Russian Navy’s sole warm-water port is located in Sevastopol.
Kaliningrad is Russia’s portal to the Baltic Sea and the North Atlantic. It additionally borders Poland and Lithuania, both NATO members with a deep skepticism of Russia’s strategic intentions in Eastern Europe. Russia’s Iskander missiles have a range of 500 km and are capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz stated that the timing of Russia’s military deployments westward was no coincidence: “Russia is making this gesture before the European Council meeting. It is trying to influence European Council decisions concerning extending or adding new sanctions.”
Russia’s decision to annex Crimea last year and to provide material support to anti-government Ukrainian rebels has prompted a major political backlash from NATO-allied states, including economic sanctions and political isolation. Current tensions between Russia and the West echo the sort of strategic rivalry that existed between NATO and the Warsaw Pact led by the Soviet Union.
Recent comments by senior Russian leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, suggest that the Kremlin is planning on extending the militarization of Russia’s western front to protect Crimea and deter any NATO military action. Comments by Russian foreign ministry officials have also suggested that Russia may deploy nuclear weapons in Crimea.