Is Crimea gearing up for a NATO invasion?

A serviceman of the Russian Armed Forces during a drill of the Airborne Forces at the Opuk training center in Crimea.

A serviceman of the Russian Armed Forces during a drill of the Airborne Forces at the Opuk training center in Crimea.

Igor Rudenko/RIA Novosti
A battalion group of the Airborne Troops has been airdropped on the peninsula. According to experts, the scale of the exercise currently under way in Crimea suggests the aim is to repel an invasion which only NATO forces, with participation by a regional power such as Turkey, are allegedly capable of.

On March 21, the Novorossiysk mountain air assault division task force – equipped with weapons and military hardware – was airdropped into the Opuk training range in Crimea as part of an exercise by the Russian Airborne Troops. This was revealed to journalists by Airborne Troops Commander-in-Chief Colonel-General Andrei Serdyukov, who is overseeing the exercise.  

A total of 350 paratroopers and nine BMD-2KU airborne infantry fighting vehicles were dropped as part of what has been called “a practical rehearsal of combat operations.”

According to the Airborne Troops Commander in Chief, the next stages of the exercise will involve an assault landing on the shores of the peninsula and inland. During these operations, troops will simulate combat with terrorists and the regular forces of a “notional enemy.”

But who is the 'notional enemy'?

As was clarified by Lieutenant-General Valery Zaparenko, ex-deputy chief of the General Staff's Main Operations Directorate, the scenario being followed in the exercises has the putative enemy attacking an amphibious or combined airborne and amphibious landing operation.

The drills at the Opuk base in Crimea. / Photo: Igor Rudenko/RIA NovostiThe drills at the Opuk base in Crimea. / Photo: Igor Rudenko/RIA Novosti

The first operation will see a minimum of one division of marines deployed (otherwise it cannot be classed as an operation) and the second will see the marines joined by an airborne (air assault) division of the hypothetical enemy.

Admiral Viktor Kravchenko, ex-chief of the Navy General Staff, said that an operation of this scale will be beyond the capabilities of the Ukrainian Armed Forces for the next 15-20 years. He explains that the Ukrainians do not currently have a combat-ready navy nor the necessary assault forces. Kravchenko said that Georgia would also struggle to land a reinforced platoon from the sea, and that if all the ships and military vehicles of Romania and Bulgaria combined were assembled, it would still not be enough to land a marine infantry battalion.

In his view, only NATO's Joint Armed Forces in Southern Europe would currently be capable of carrying out an amphibious landing operation in Crimea.

Turkey is a worry for Russia in this respect, given that Ankara does not recognize the legitimacy of Crimea joining the Russian Federation, according to Kravchenko.

The precise intention of the current exercise is naturally a matter of speculation. But if airborne units and forces are being sent into the exercise zone in response to a combat alert, and are being both parachuted in and air landed, it’s plausible that the hypothetical enemy has used the element of surprise to mount an amphibious operation and may have already carried out a landing on the shores of Crimea.

The exercise could also rehearse pre-planned actions by troops to repel an enemy attack from the sea, Kravchenko added.

A number of experts agree that these operations are the first exercises on this scale to test Crimea’s counter-landing defenses since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Reaction from Ukraine and NATO

"We are keeping an eye on these exercises and the relevant departments authorized to carry out this kind of activity. We are doing this because the exercises are taking place on territory temporarily occupied by the Russian Federation and a large number of personnel of the Airborne Troops of the Russian Armed Forces are involved in it," Vladislav Seleznyov, an officer at the public relations directorate of the Ukrainian General Staff, told the Krym.Realii website. He added that Ukraine was ready to retaliate in the event of any aggression anywhere on the Russian-Ukrainian border.

NATO also reacted negatively.

The alliance's official spokesperson Oana Lungescu told the Kommersant newspaper that "any Russian military exercises in occupied Crimea are illegal under international law as they do not have the consent of the Ukrainian government".

"Since 2014, Russian military activity in the Black Sea region has increased significantly. Russia's wide-ranging military build-up in Crimea poses a challenge to regional stability and international security," Lungescu said. She also noted that the Russian authorities had not informed NATO of the exercises.

For its part, the Russian Defense Ministry quoted the 2011 Vienna Convention, which prescribes that maneuvers have to be notified only when they involve more than 13,000 personnel.

First published in Russian by

Read more: Will Russia and the U.S. enter into another arms race?

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