With New Deployment, Russia Aims at Air Dominance over Black Sea

Russia has announced the deployment of more advanced air defense systems to Crimea, a move to protect the region from what one official called NATO’s “air hooligans.”

In August, the18th anti-aircraft missile regiment of the 31st Air Defense Division, based in Feodosia, will be equipped with Russia’s top-of-the-line S-400 Triumf air defense system. It’s yet a further buildup of Russia’s defenses along its southwestern border against what it sees as a hostile western military threat in the Black Sea. This would complement Russia’s system of land-based anti-ship missile defenses along the Black Sea, which already effectively let Russia control the surface of the sea.

“Placing the S-400 air defense system on duty in Crimea effectively locks down the Crimean sky against any attack from the air. The very fact of the placement of this advanced air defense system in Crimea will keep honest all NATO aviation based in the Black Sea region,” said Crimea’s vice premier, Ruslan Balbek.

The deployment is most likely directed against the United States as the only air force likely to threaten Crimea by air, said retired Colonel General Igor Maltsev, a former commander of Russia’s air defense force.

“What airborne weapons pose a threat to us at this operational theater? Saying that Bulgaria or Romania’s air forces are a force to be reckoned with is out of question. Turkey will hardly ever consider sparking an overt conflict with Russia. I think, that the S-400 deployment to Crimea is meant to prevent the United States from staging any provocations” in the region, he said.

U.S. military officials have called attention to Russia’s buildup of these sorts of systems in the Black Sea. “Russia has created a very dense pattern of ‘A2-AD,’ or anti-access and area denial. We need to be investing in those capabilities and capacities that allow us to enter into an A2-AD environment and to be able to reinforce,” said General Philip Breedlove, former commander of U.S. forces in Europe, at a Senate hearing in March, where he referred to the need to “puncture” those defenses.

The S-400 announcement was made as two simultaneous NATO naval drills take place in the Black Sea. More than 25 ships and 1,700 sailors from Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Turkey and Spain are taking part in Breeze 2016 off the coast of Burgas, Bulgaria. (Your correspondent happened to be in Burgas last week and managed to spot one participating ship, a Turkish patrol boat, pictured above.) And on Monday, the U.S., Ukraine, Turkey, and Romania started the confusingly similarly named Sea Breeze 2016 off the coast of Ukraine. At its recent summit, however, NATO put off a decision on creating some sort of permanent NATO naval structure in the Black Sea.

In June, Russian President Vladimir Putin complained about the increased tempo of NATO military exercises around the Baltic and Black Seas. “We are being accused of carrying out some military activity. Where? In our own territory,” Putin said. “In the meantime the ongoing events near our borders are regarded as something normal… All this is aimed at undermining military parity that took decades to establish.”

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