Russian Crimean Bastion and its role in the ongoing invasion in Ukraine

Andrii Ryzhenko
Retired Captain of Ukrainian Navy

Since the early 2000s Russian political elite activated neo-imperialistic campaign to restore the Soviet empire. Ukraine has become a territory of key importance for Russia. Dominance over Ukraine has ideological and symbolic significance for Russia. It constantly strives to maintain and strengthen political and economic influence, and to stop Ukraine’s rapprochement with the West. The leasing of Crimea to the Russian Federation in 1997 became part of the strategy for the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Russia’s intensive militarization of Crimea from 2014 to 2022 changed the balance of power in the Black Sea region in favor of Russia. Crimea gained the features of a Soviet-era military base, whose forces are directed against NATO and individual members of the Alliance, primarily against the United States and Great Britain. Crimean Bastion plays a critical role as a power projector for Russians during an invasion of Ukraine that started on 24th February 2022. 

In September 2016, the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, General Valery Gerasimov, announced the creation of the A2/AD zone in the Black Sea, known as the Crimean Bastion. At the end of 2019, the formation of a deep-tiered A2/AD zone was completed. It consists of the main area around the Crimean peninsula and three mobile zones – around the occupied platforms in the Black Sea, the Kerch Strait, and the Eastern Mediterranean (off the coast of Syria). Moscow is improving the capabilities of these components of the Crimean Bastion and its Command and Control system. The echeloned approach of the Russian A2/AD system is based on the principle of forming a “fortress of the fleet”.

The major threat from Crimean Bastion was the capture of territories in southern Ukraine by landing, amphibious or airmobile operations. By 24th February 2022, Russians concentrated 25 different battalion tactical groups from the 22nd Army corps, 810th  naval infantry brigade (both belong to Black sea Fleet), and 58th Army, for offensive operations in southern Ukraine (Kherson and Mykolaiv district). Notably, the 35,000-strong group of Russian troops located in Crimea is larger in number than the armed forces of most Balkan countries. Russian troops in Crimea had some modern or upgraded weapons, including combat aircraft, missiles, MLRS, tanks, and artillery. After 24th of February 2022, additional 12-15 battalion tactical groups from the 49th Army and 7th Airborne division were deployed to southern Ukraine via Crimea to enforce the creation of a land corridor from Crimea to Russia along the Azov sea coast. Most of these units were deployed by land, alternative ways to deploy using railways and the seaport of Berdyansk (Azov sea) were denied by Ukrainian troops’ fire. On 26th of February 2022,  Russian troops projected from Crimean Bastion captured critical water supply infrastructure of the North Crimean Canal and established full control over the canal, starting from the city of Tavriysk (Kherson region). The dam blocking the flow of water to Crimea was exploded. On 15 March 2022 Russian authorities reported that stolen from Ukraine water reached central Crimea.

This major threat of the Crimean Bastion was realized completely in March 2022 during the first week of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia took under their control 100 kilometers width strip of land from Kherson to Krasnodar district (Russia).

Another threat of Crimean Bastion is significant missile strike potential against Ukraine and European countries. There are four ground-based and five naval-based missile systems in occupied Crimea. Additionally, Russian strike aircraft (Tu-22M3, Su-30, Su-24, MiG-29) carry various missile weapons. The total volley already exceeds 800 missiles, designed to fire at sea, air targets, and on land. The most serious danger is posed by missiles with a nuclear warhead, in particular up to 48 Caliber-PL missiles. They can be fired from the Project 636.3 submarines from a submarine (underwater) position. With a radius of 2,500 km (potentially 4,500 km), they can reach most cities on the European continent. During the invasion in February-April 2022 Russian submarines, surface warships, strike aircraft, and ground missile systems launched at least 400 missiles on Ukraine. All of them are based in the Crimean Bastion. On only 3rd of April 2022 Russians launched from sea and western Crimea around 50 missiles on Odesa, Mykolaiv, Kremenchuk, and Ochakiv. Crimea Bastion’s Air Defense and Electronic Warfare assets aimed to defend mentioned before offensive capabilities against possible counterstrikes.

From the beginning of the war, Russian Black Sea Fleet blocked any economic activities of all Ukrainian ports located on Black and Azov seas. Few vessels were attacked by missiles or artillery from Russian warships for attempts to go. Vessel Helt under Panama flag was sunk on 3rd March 2022 after an attack by 2 missiles from a Russian missile boat. It happened within 14 miles of the port of Odesa (Ukraine). Russians always keep 1-4 warships on blockade patrol in the vicinity of Serpent Island which they captured on 25th February 2022. Between 60 to 90 commercial vessels are still in Ukrainian ports unable to leave due to the Russian threat.

Russia still plans to conduct a major amphibious landing on the Ukrainian coast in the Odesa area. Three attempts of landing were not successful on 1st, 13th , and 22nd of March 2022. After approaching to Ukrainian coast at a distance of visual contact, Russian warships turned around and ceased landing operations. At least during one landing attempt on 1st of March, the mutiny of Russian naval infantry (810th brigade from Sevastopol) aboard was reported. 6-7 Landing warships still are in readiness to conduct landing with 1-2 battalion tactical groups aboard. Another 10-12 warships and auxiliaries are standing by to support amphibious operations (fire support, mine countermeasures, search and rescue).

Ukrainian primary sea denial capability against Russian attacks from sea is performed by coastal artillery 152 mm, MLRS, UAVs, and sea mines. The maximum effective range is limited to 15-20 km. As of 3rd of April, Ukraine reported destruction/damage of 3 landing ships (1 destroyed and 2 damaged), 3 destroyed Raptor amphibious boats, and one damaged missile ship. Ukraine conducted a unique operation on 24th of March 2022 during which the Saratov landing ship (Alligator class) was destroyed with 2000 tons of military cargo. Two Ropucha class landing ships were damaged. Ukraine also deployed a defensive mine laying close to its coastline from Odesa to Skadovsk to counteract Russian amphibious landing forces. Merchant mariners were informed about closed navigation areas.

Crimean Bastion has many common features in tasks, capabilities, and structure with Baltic Bastion (Kaliningrad area) and Barents Bastion (Cola Peninsula area). Ukrainian experiences with Crimea Bastion in 2014-2022 and lessons from the Russian invasion using power projection from Crimea have to be considered seriously to deter possible aggression.

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