Prospects of Nuclearization of the Crimean Peninsula

Prospects of Nuclearization of the Crimean Peninsula

Since 2014, assumptions about the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons on the Crimean Peninsula have riddled the Western press. However, it has not been materially confirmed whether or not this is the case, and the implications of such a move remain limited in scope – for the time being. 

Russian Deployment in Crimea

Since March, Russia has deployed Tupolev Tu-22M3 nuclear-capable bombers on the Crimean Peninsula in response to the US deployment of Mark-41 vertical launch systems in Romania. This show of strength is not too novel or surprising, given Russia’s exertion of military control over the peninsula. Compared to the pre-occupation period, Russia has more than doubled its military personnel from 12,500 to 31,500, deployed more than 680 armoured vehicles, 170 artillery pieces, 100 fighter planes and some 40 tanks. The presence of non-strategic Russian dual-use nuclear forces in Crimea is not new either; they have been positioned on the peninsula since Soviet times.

However, the decision to move the Tupolev’s Tu-22M3, as well as the decision to reopen the nuclear warhead storage facilities in the Crimea, does indicate that Russia is considering the possibility of nuclearising. While it is true that there are several ammunition storage facilities in the Sebastopol area, none seem to have the necessary security features for the storage of nuclear weapons.

Implications of Russian Deployments

Given its current nuclear posture, it is highly unlikely that Russia will deploy nuclear weapons in Crimea in the near future. Russia already can launch a damaging attack on any European country, and moving weapons to Crimea does not materially increase its offensive nuclear capability.

One of the primary instigators of the move is President Trump’s announcement of US withdrawal from the INF Treaty, removing the main legal limitation for the deployment of short- and medium-range nuclear weapons. Following Donald Trump’s decision, Putin made it clear at last December’s annual press conference that if this type of weapon appears in Eastern Europe, Russia will have to guarantee its security. Moreover, Moscow has investments to secure, as it’s expected to allocate 300 billion rubles (3.8 billion euros) this year to Crimean development and integration into Russia.

Further, the uncertainty generated in the West by these actions is an end in itself, strengthening Putin’s domestic perception. The tactic also sends a message to the Russian public, creating an impression of force and thus diverting attention from the country’s economic and social problems.

Importantly, Russia is posturing and demonstrating its seriousness. Military exercises on the peninsula intend to show NATO that Russia is not going to backtrack on the issue of Crimean territory. With the current deployment of nuclear-capable weapons, Russia is signalling its capability and willingness to strike as a  deterrent to any NATO military involvement. Also, Russia’s decision was intended to distract NATO’s attention from Russia’s covert activities in eastern Ukraine.

Russia is also intentionally generating confusion around its military posture. As early as 2014, several Russian officials announced the possibility of using nuclear weapons preventively to implement a downscaling strategy. Although the option of the pre-emptive strike was not included in the Russian military doctrines of 2010 or 2014, the recent deployments in Crimea raise doubts as to whether it is included in the classified annexes of those doctrines. And, of course, public statements by Russian politicians on the destruction of the Baltic States and Poland, do not help to clarify whether the weapons are there for offensive purposes or not.

The Uncertainty of Nuclear Security

The uncertainty about weapons movement and storage in Crimea illustrates the special problem of non-strategic nuclear forces because they tend to be dual-use and serve both nuclear and conventional functions. This dynamic is paralleled by the temporary rotating deployments of NATO nuclear-capable combat bombers in the Baltic States, Poland and Romania.

All parties involved in the Ukrainian crisis must be particularly careful and precise about the messages they want to convey when deploying dual-use forces. Otherwise, the deployment may be misinterpreted and lead to exaggerated threat perceptions and escalation. However, it is not enough to hope that deterrence will generate stability. Diplomatic and negotiation mechanisms, as well as demanding increased transparency, will be essential in de-escalating the threat and mitigating anxieties.

Nuclear-capable forces currently in Crimea are equipped with nuclear warheads or will be in the near future. They are more likely to be used for conventional missions, either in assistance operations or training. Now, the West will remain vigilant but not surprised by these displays of force, at least until 2024 (when Putin’s term ends), and to some extent, resign itself to Russia’s occupation and control over the Crimea.

Categories: Eurasia, Politics

About Author

Manuel Herrera Almela

Manuel Herrera is a Geo-political risk analyst at the Geopolitical Analysis Cabinet of the Spanish Ministry of Defence. He previously worked as a research assistant at the Nuclear Security Programme in the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi (India), where he devoted most of its research to the Iranian nuclear file and the Indo-Pakistan conflict. He has also worked for the Department of the Interior of the Catalan Government as a researcher on a project concerning the main mechanisms for exports control of sensitive nuclear materials of the EU. He regularly collaborates with several Spanish and foreign think tanks, newspapers, and several intelligence cabinets. He is currently a PhD candidate at the King Juan Carlos University of Madrid where he is writing a thesis on the EU Non-Proliferation policy. He holds a master's degree in International Security from IBEI and a master's degree in European Union Studies from the European Institute in Bilbao. He also has a bachelor degree in International Relations from the Ramon Llull University of Barcelona.