By holding Russian military aggression for the eighth year in a row, Ukraine is recording the withdrawal of Russian troops and weapons to our borders and to the occupied territories of the East and Crimea. Kyrylo Budanov, the Chief of the Defence Intelligence of Ukraine, stated this in a comment to the Ukrainian Security and Cooperation Center (USCC).
“From the first days of occupation, the Kremlin has turned the Crimean peninsula into a military base for control of the Black and Azov Seas, provocations and threats to the countries of the entire Black Sea coast, including Ukraine and our NATO allies. We see the threat not only to Ukraine, but to the whole of Europe, which is growing every day.
In the Ukrainian language there is a phrase “unpunished evil grows”. This is exactly what happened to Nazi Germany almost 100 years ago, and today we are seeing the same scenario with the Russian Federation. However, global aggression and blackmail should not characterize our time. That is why Ukraine launched the Crimea Platform as the first step in international diplomatic pressure. It will be followed by others.
We are ready to fight until the complete deoccupation of the Crimean peninsula. Crimea will be liberated, and criminals – punished. We will do everything possible and impossible for this”, – Kyrylo Budanov stated.
Also, according to the Ukrainian special services, Russia has not returned to its permanent location all the units involved in large-scale military exercises earlier this year, but has only increased its contingent in Crimea.
In particular, this concerns the 56th Guards Air Assault Brigade (unit 74507, Kamyshyn, Volgograd Region, Russia). The special services observed its deployment in the Crimea in April, immediately after the large-scale exercises at Cape Opuk. Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu announced a plan to reformat the brigade into the 56th Air Assault Regiment with a permanent base in Feodosia in March. The decision was made in the framework of increasing combat capabilities.
According to the latest information from our sources, it also became known that during the reformatting of 56 brigade into a regiment, the occupiers envisaged the creation of three battalions, departments and support units:
- BTR-82A (up to 40 units) with a permanent location in the northeastern part of Feodosia. As of April, this military town housed 171 separate airborne assault battalions (combat composition: up to 40 units of BTR-82A, 6 units of self-propelled artillery guns 2C9 “Nona”, about 15 units of armored vehicles “Rys”) consisting of 7 Airborne Assault Division of the Airborne Troops of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. It is possible that this battalion will be part of 56 Airborne Assault Battalion;
- BMD-2 battalion set;
- BMP-2 battalion set, permanent deployment point – a restored military town northeast of the village of Pervomaiske. According to preliminary data, an arsenal of weapons (disbanded in 2021) has been restored near the township, which allows for the storage and replenishment of ammunition of these battalions;
Management of the newly created regiment will be located in Feodosia, and the newly created unit is planned to be located on the basis of 171 Separate Airborne Assault Battalion of 7 Assault Airborne Troops of the Russian Federation. The specificity of the battalion is fighting in mountainous areas, so it is possible that in the future the battalion will be redeployed to the place of the former 10th Brigade of the Special Operations Regiment of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, in the north-eastern part of the Crimean mountains.
At the same time, the occupiers made sure that the withdrawal of the battalion (BTR-82A) took place without attracting the attention of local residents, as the vehicles of the newly created unit are located on the northern outskirts of Feodosia.
This deployment also allows the battalion to be transferred by road to the northern part of the Crimea or to the Kirovske air base (about 40 km).
The caterpillar equipment (BMD-2, BMP-2) of the newly created regiment is located in Pervomaiskyi, which allows to quickly transfer equipment to the railway station “Vladyslavivka” or to the Kirovske air base (about 15 km), and therefore – quickly transfer troops to the area of hostilities.
Also according to our sources:
– from March 21 to 24, 2021, from the Krasnodar Territory of Russia to the occupied Sevastopol were transferred personnel and 7 units of equipment (MZKT-65273 – 1 unit, MZKT-7930 – 2 units (on the basis of the chassis are placed weapons systems such as “Iskander”, “Bastion”, “Bal”), KamAZ-43101 – 3 units, MBU – 1 unit) from the 2nd division of the Black Sea Fleet of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.
– On July 11, 2021, from Yekaterinburg (Russia) to Simferopol, a railway echelon with an unidentified unit of the Rosguard with a total number of up to 2,000 people and military equipment moved. The transfer of these forces was probably carried out as part of the exercises of the Rosguard troops “Zaslon-2021”, which were held from July 12 to 30 and is a preparatory stage for the exercises “West-2021”.
As of the beginning of March 2021, two armies of the Air Force and Air Defense of the Russian Armed Forces, as well as the Black Sea Fleet, were deployed near the state border of Ukraine. The total number of the group deployed was 89 thousand people (in March), and from April 20 was to increase to 110 thousand. Head of Ukraine’s military intelligence Kyrylo Budanov stated this on April 14, emphasizing that such measures are not typical for this period. According to him, the Kremlin was checking the readiness of troops for operational if a political decision is taken.
The Russian exercises were indeed large-scale. On April 22, the Russian occupiers turned Cape Opuk in the Crimea, which is a nature reserve, into a military proving ground. According to Russia’s Ministry of Defense, the exercises involved more than 10 thousand servicemen, 1,2 thousand units of weapons and military equipment, over 40 warships and 20 support vessels, as well as about 50 combat helicopters. Such a number of servicemen and equipment is usually not deployed in Crimea.
Also on April 22, the Russians suddenly announced the withdrawal of troops involved in the exercises to a permanent location from April 23 to May 1 (statement by Russian Minister Shoigu: here).
On April 23, the Crimean media reported that “not even having time to cover weapons, the units are collectively and urgently leaving their locations” and heading for the Crimean Bridge on their own. The media reported that sometimes the entire lane was khaki due to the mass ride of vehicles from the peninsula.
Despite this, activists reported the continuation of shootings at Cape Opuk on April 27, while eyewitnesses recorded the movement of a column of military equipment in the direction of Sevastopol, not the Kerch Bridge. In particular, they reported road accidents caused by the military near Sevastopol.
On April 29, summing up the exercises, the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation Valeriy Gerasimov announced that the personnel had already returned to their places of deployment, and the commander of the Russian Airborne Forces stated that the personnel of the 7th, 76th, and 98th airborne divisions returned after exercises from the Crimea to Novorossiysk, Pskov, and Ivanovo. Their equipment and weapons will be transported to the place by May 12.
A few days earlier, on April 26, the US Defense Intelligence Agency published a report stating that by conducting such exercises, Russia was trying to strengthen its long-term military presence in Crimea. In particular, to deter Western naval and air operations. Thus, Russia also declares its readiness to hold the peninsula.
In Russia itself, they often like to repeat: “He who owns Sevastopol, owns the Crimea, and we who owns the Crimea, owns the Black Sea”. And this is one of the main reasons for the occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula.
Crimea is a military base
However, despite statements by the Russian leadership about the withdrawal of troops, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on 6 May before a meeting of EU defense ministers that the Alliance had seen only a slight reduction in the number of Russian troops:
“We have seen some reduction in the number of Russian troops, but tens of thousands remain. We are also seeing that Russia has kept a lot of weapons and equipment. They’re also imposing restrictions in the Black Sea, including restricting access to the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait”.
This is confirmed by satellite images of military equipment from the Crimea.
On May 14, Acting Deputy Chief of the U.S. Mission to OSCE Elisabeth Rosenstock-Siller said that despite the statements about the troops’ withdrawal, “Russia recently transferred Air Assault elements to Crimea, along with T-72B3 battle tanks, 120mm mortars, 122mm howitzers, and armored vehicles, among other equipment and hardware”.
After the exercises, two large landing ships of the Northern Fleet, “Alexander Otrakovsky” and “Kondopoga” stayed in Crimean waters. According to the latest public information, these ships continued to perform tasks in the Black Sea. In July, they monitored the Ukrainian-American Sea Breeze – 2021 exercise and participated in inter-naval exercises.
The Russian occupiers continued to actively conduct various exercises, as well as demonstrations of military equipment on the peninsula after May 1.
In particular, military servicemen inspected the equipment of the Russian army “on the occasion of May 9” in the village of Lenino, located 60 km from the Opuk proving ground. Tanks and infantry fighting vehicles were exposed, as well as various artillery systems, including a self-propelled heavy artillery “Pion”, capable of firing nuclear munitions.
In particular, those included “Rys” and “Typhoon” armored vehicles, BTR-82A and BTR-80 armored personnel carriers, “Pantsir-C” anti-aircraft missile-gun systems, “Chrysanthema” and “Osa-AKM” missile systems, Russian medium-range air defense system S-400 “Triumph”, “Ball” and “Bastion” coastal missile systems, combat vehicles of the “Grad-M” multiple launch rocket system. Probably some of them took part in the exercises.
More than a month after the exercise, on May 27, at a meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna, Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Mission to the OSCE Courtney E. Austrian pointed out that Russia continues to leave a significant part of its armed forces in Crimea and along the Ukrainian border, despite statements about their withdrawal after increasing its military presence there in March and April.
But despite this intensified militarization of the peninsula, especially in the context of the spring exercises, the number of troops proved too small for the Kremlin.
On June 21, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered the deployment of 21 000 additional Russian servicemen to Crimea to help Crimean residents affected by the disaster. In addition, 1 367 units of vehicles and special equipment were transported.
On July 6, eyewitnesses began to report another large-scale movement of military equipment on the peninsula.
22.07.2021: movement of a column of 152-mm divisional self-propelled howitzers:
Also, according to the Ukrainian special services, after the occupation of the Crimea, the military leadership of the Russian Federation suspended the construction of the complex “NITKA” (scientific and test simulator of ship-based aviation), which is part of the 859th Center for Combat Use and Retraining (Naval Aviation of the Russian Navy) in the Krasnodar Territory of the Russian Federation. Instead, in the training of deck aircraft, preference is given to a complex located near the town of Saki in the Crimea. The main advantage of the Crimean complex is that the runway is built in a metal structure as opposed to concrete in Yeisk. This implementation of the simulated runway allows to more realistically train pilots of aircraft carriers of deck aircraft.
How militarization is justified
For the massive increase in the military contingent not to bother the Crimean residents, Russia is trying to justify their stay and the constant increase by threats of attack from NATO or Ukraine, and the media are trying to create the most positive reputation for the Russian military.
Since the beginning of April, the issue of relocation and redeployment of NATO troops has been buzzing in the Russian media and social networks. The key message was that Ukraine and NATO are preparing for the war for Crimea:
- April 3. The possible aggression of Ukraine and NATO against Crimea will end tragically for the initiators of the conflict. This was stated by State Duma deputy from the Crimean region Mikhail Sheremet.
- A NATO force of 37 000 will be stationed on the border with Ukraine. “According to Ukrainian officials, as the clashes between Ukraine and Russia develop, the Crimean peninsula will become NATO’s first strategic goal when crossing the border with Russia”, – “Soha” media reported.
- April 13. “Troops are moving”: Shoigu announced the concentration of 40 000 US and NATO troops near the Russian border.
- April 14. Ukraine can unleash hostilities against Crimea by organizing provocations with the support of the United States with the death of its servicemen, Russian Security Council Secretary Mykola Patrushev said.
Similar messages were spread on social networks. After NATO’s expected “attack” did not take place, Russia began to justify the presence of a huge contingent by its humanitarian mission in Crimea.
Shoigu said that it was the Russian military that stopped the water blockade. The 32 km long temporary water supply system built by them ensured an uninterrupted water supply for the inhabitants of Crimea. At the same time, it should be reminded that any water, first of all, goes to the maintenance of the servicemen themselves, and their number on the peninsula is constantly growing.
Also, the Crimean occupational authorities promote the positive role of the Russian military in overcoming the consequences of the natural disaster that occurred on the peninsula in late June. For example, reports that 40 military mobile units of Russia’s Defense Ministry reinforced the temporary dam in Yalta. 20 units of military equipment were also involved.
Russian media reported on holding “subbotniks”, particularly in Yalta, when residents from across the peninsula cleared the city’s streets together with the military. They also disseminated information about the opening of mobile points of the Ministry of Defense for detecting infectious diseases, and disinfecting streets to combat the causative agents of acute intestinal diseases.
In late June, the Russian Defense Ministry reported that the military cleared 122 kilometers of roads, more than 54 cubic meters of socially important facilities (schools, kindergartens, hospitals), homesteads and building facades, restored over 51 kilometers of destroyed drains and gutters, removed 3 thousand cubic meters of garbage, cleared the channels of two rivers. There is no confirmation of this information from independent sources.
At the same time, all these reports of military involvement are targeted and obviously cannot justify the deployment of 21 000 troops and more than 1 000 units of military equipment to the peninsula.
For example, in Kerch, which was also badly affected by the weather, residents complain that no one fought the consequences of the disaster at all, and people collected garbage on their own:
And most importantly – there is no information that military servicemen and equipment left the territory of the peninsula after completing their tasks.
Since the beginning of the occupation of the peninsula, Russia has been increasing its military contingent in Crimea almost every year, turning a once resort and thriving place into a militaristic fortress. It is clear that this was the main goal of the occupation of Crimea because the peninsula has a very favorable geopolitical location. This allows Russia to have significant advantages and the ability to influence the Black Sea region and push for its rights in the Black and Azov Seas. Moreover, Moscow uses the peninsula as a base to ensure Russia’s military presence in Syria.
The Crimean people already understand the real reasons for the occupation, share their thoughts on social networks, and feel nostalgia for the Ukrainian Crimea.
It bears recalling that Ukraine has initiated an international platform for the return of the peninsula – the Crimean Platform, which will set off in Kyiv on the eve of the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s Independence. The purpose of the platform is to discuss ways to de-occupy Crimea.
Authors: Oksana Kuzan and Solomiya Khoma