Franz Klintsevych, a high-ranking member of the Russian Federation Council (upper house of parliament), denounced the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), on January 8, for their activities in the Baltic Sea region. According to Klintsevych, who serves as the first deputy chairman of the Federation Council’s Defense and Security Committee, the US and NATO have allegedly “turned Europe into a powder keg.” The senator also warned that Russia’s response to these activities would come soon and be “harsh and decisive” (Newkaliningrad.ru, January 8, 2017). Recently, similar wrathful comments by Russian officials were also made in reaction to the deployment of additional US military equipment to Germany as well as the fact that approximately 4,000 American soldiers are to be deployed to seven eastern NATO countries, ranging from Estonia to Bulgaria (Deutsche Welle, January 6).
One could have expected that the Russian response threated by Klintsevych would primarily be limited to the Baltic Sea region. Indeed, this area has already been subjected to pervasive militarization in recent years, with Kaliningrad oblast increasingly occupying a prominent place in the Kremlin’s regional geopolitical aspirations (see EDM, July 11, 2016; October 12, 2016; November 7, 2016). Yet, as it turned out, for now Moscow’s promised retaliation seems instead to have mainly materialized in the southern direction.
On January 13, it was announced that Russia had deployed S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile complexes on the territory of illegally annexed Crimea. In fact, as underscored by several Russian officials, this advanced anti-air missile system was tested in Crimea during the Kavkaz 2016 war exercise, held primarily on the territory of the Southern Military District last August (Rosbalt, January 13, 2017). According to Lieutenant General Viktor Sevastyanov, who commands the 4th Army of the Russian Air Force and Air Defense Forces, the deployment of such formidable weaponry as the S-400 will not only complement already exiting air defences there but also extend Russia’s air control over the area for “hundreds of kilometers” (Interfax, January 13).
Designed by Almaz-Antey Central Design Bureau in the late 1990s, the S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft weapon system (NATO classification: SA-21 Growler) was officially introduced in 2007. Its main tasks are primarily concerned with targeting aircraft (both strategic and tactical), ballistic missiles and hypersonic targets. The reported effective kill range of this system varies, depending on the source, from 60 to 400 kilometers. According to Russian military experts, the complex is able to simultaneously track up to 300 air targets, irrespective of their altitude of flight or speed. Incidentally, this complex has been used by the Russian military operating in Syria, at Khmeimim, where Russia’s permanent air base is located (RIA Novosti, November 26, 2015). It has also been claimed that this type of weaponry could be effectively used against the R-17 Elbrus (NATO terminology: SS-1C Scud-B) as well as the United States’ Tomahawk subsonic cruise missile.
Lieutenant General Sevastyanov further announced, on January 14, that “additional numbers of S-400 Triumf complexes are to be deployed on the territory of Crimea” (Interfax, January 14). During his press conference in Feodosia, the military official did not specify the exact number or the tentative dates of the deployment. He did, however, promise that this information would eventually be disclosed. He also claimed that with the deployment of these complexes, the Crimean peninsula’s military potential will have grown exponentially within a brief interim.
Signs of the imminent militarization of the Black Sea region by Russia were clearly visible as early as 2014, soon after Crimea’s annexation (see EDM, September 24, 2014; December 9, 2014). However, it was during the summer of 2016 that the deployment of S-400 complexes to the peninsula was first publicly raised by the former commander of the Black Sea Fleet, Vladimir Komoyedov. In the meantime, it should not be forgotten that S-400s (along with the Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery system) were publicly exhibited in Kerch, on November 19, 2016, as part of a military recruitment campaign entitled “Contract service—your choice.” Taken together, these demonstrative actions by the Kremlin in broader terms highlight the Russian government’s determination to act assertively and decisively to accrete additional military might to the country’s southern flank. This may (and is likely to) have serious and far-reaching consequences for the balance of power and security in the Black Sea region, putting under immediate jeopardy not only Ukraine but adjacent members of NATO.
In addition to these recent tangible actions in Crimea, Russia has also been conducting similar steps on its northwestern flank for some time (see above) with plans for additional deployments. On January 13, it was announced that four S-400 Triumpf divisional units would be deployed on the territory of the Western Military District over the course of 2017 (TASS, January 13). According to the Russian Federation Council, which plans to host a special session in Kaliningrad this coming July devoted to border security, “Kaliningrad oblast is one of the key regions in terms of Russian national security. The level of military preparation of the entire Western Military District […] depends on Kaliningrad” (Newkaliningrad.ru, January 3, 2017).
These actions—the simultaneous militarization of two flanks—means first of all that Moscow is trying to conduct its own policy of “containment” with respect to NATO by putting pressure on the Alliance’s most vulnerable areas. The (re)emergence of two major Russian military outposts—Kaliningrad and the Crimean Peninsula—are bolstering the development of an “arc of pressure” stretching from the Baltic to the Black Seas. Another element of this Russian regional military build-up is tightly associated with an attempt to enflame anti-US sentiments in Europe as well as undermine unity among the Europeans. For instance, Vladimir Kozin, a member of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, has openly accused the US and NATO of “keeping Europe in constant distress” while simultaneously urging for Moscow to apply greater pressure on European countries (RIA Novosti, January 10). Indeed, the recent deployment of the S-400s to Crimea—as well as such planned deployments to Kaliningrad—are carefully designed by the Kremlin to push all these goals.