Following the Russian military’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, a territory formerly part of Russia but placed under Ukrainian sovereignty by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, under circumstances still hotly contested by Moscow and the Western Bloc, the country has taken extensive measures to fully integrate its newest province socially, economically and militarily. With Western powers continuing to demand the reversion of the strategically critical peninsula to Kiev’s control, Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated shortly after his reelection in 2018 that Russia would under no conditions consider parting with its new territory. This has been accompanied by a surge in the Russian military presence in Crimea, the defence of which due to its strategic location remains a key priority for Moscow.
In January 2018 the Russian military deployed a second division of S-400 surface to air missile batteries to the Crimean peninsula near the port town of Fedosia. As the country’s most advanced long range air defence platform, the S-400 provides Russian forces with coverage over much of Ukraine, including the separatist self declared Donetsk People’s Republic, as well as much of the Black Sea up to the northernmost tip of Turkey and easternmost coast of Bulgaria, as well as much of Moldova and Romania. All of these states other than Ukraine are NATO members. With a 400km range and the ability to intercept both ballistic missiles and combat aircraft, including the United States’ most sophisticated stealth fighters such as the U.S. F-35, the S-400 poses a considerable asset to Crimea’s defence. Alongside the S-400, Russia’s armed forces have also deployed Iskander tactical ballistic missiles to Crimea with a range of 500km. The most advanced short ranged ballistic missile in Russian service, possibly in the world, the Iskander was developed to succeed the OTR-21 Tochka Soviet era solid fuelled platform. The Iskander is capable of carrying a number of warhead types, including tactical nuclear weapons, and have been designed both to maximise both survivability against enemy air defences as well as precision. The missiles remains a key asset which allow Russian forces to neutralise enemy military facilities in the opening stages of a conflict. With Crimea directly facing a number of NATO member states, the strategically critical territory is situated on the frontline of a potential Russian-Western hot war. This is strongly reflected by Russia’s prioritisation of the peninsula’s defence, with the military deploying some of the most advanced weapons systems available to defend Crimea from potential attacks.
Reinforcement of Russian defences in Crimea have continued apace, with the country’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu stating at a meeting of the Defence Ministry’s board in Sevastopol, the regional capital: "In the peninsula there has been created a unique combined force and it is being strengthened steadily. Its advanced high tech weapon systems will leave no chance for a potential enemy that may dare attack this indigenous Russian land.” Minister Shoigu further noted: "This region has always been of tremendous importance to Russia. The country’s future was decided there many times over a period of nearly two centuries. Glorious victories of the Black Sea Fleet went down in world history and became our pride… Crimea today continues to play the most important role in maintaining the country’s military security." He further noted that it was the first time the Russian Defence Ministry had held its board meeting in Crimea. Elaborating on the nature of military developments on the Crimean peninsula, Shoigu further stated: “All measures to develop the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation "are being carried out on the national territory by way of improving the command and control system and organisational structures within the exiting numerical strength… The Russian army’s combat capabilities are being raised through the greater intensity of troops’ training and their rearmament with new weapon systems.” According to Ukrainian government sources, Russia's armed forces have deployed 32,000 personnel to the Crimean Peninsula since 2014.
Alongside deployment of state of the art ballistic missile and air defence systems, the Russian Air Force’s elite Su-27 and Su-30 air superiority fighters have also been deployed to the Crimean Peninsula in considerable numbers. Fighters have been stationed on the peninsula in growing numbers, replacing the lighter and shorter ranged MiG-29s previously deployed. Approximately 24 of the new heavy fighters carried out combat manoeuvres which simulated engagements in nighttime conditions against a hypothetical enemy. The Russian Air Force’s Soviet era Su-24 swept wing strike fighters also took part in the exercises, providing covering fire for ground forces. Pantisr S1 short range air defence combat vehicles, one of the latest additions to Russia’s air defence network, also took part in the exercises. Alongside the S-400, the Pantsir provides Russian forces in Crimea with a multi layered air defence network capable of protecting vital targets from attacks by enemy aircraft as well as ballistic and cruise missiles. These exercises came just three months after large scale artillery drills were carried out by Russian ground forces, and demonstrate the high levels of combat readiness of Russian forces on the increasing militarised peninsula.