Amid spiraling tensions between Moscow and the West over the fate of Crimea, Russia has mobilized its air and coastal defenses and more than 1,000 missile and tank units for a month-long drill in Kapustin Yar, around 450 km from the Ukraine border in the Astrakhan district. debkafile’s military sources report that this facility is home to one of Russia’s biggest missile bases. The exercise covers the whole of March and early April, including the March 16 Crimean referendum on secession and its aftermath.
It will conclude with live-firing drills and the deployment of air defense systems in early April, when Moscow calculates they may be needed to thwart any Ukrainian or Western attempt to disrupt Crimea’s expected application to join the Russian Federation.
The referendum, put forward by two weeks to March 16, will ask roughly three million Crimean citizens for a straight “yes” or “no” on whether to remain part of Ukraine or secede to Russia. Since around 65 percent of the voters are ethnic Russians, the region’s future is not hard to predict.
The Russian parliament announced voting on a bill enabling annexation of Crimea to the Russian Federation at the request of a majority would take place on March 21.
President Barack Obama, in an hour-long phone call to President Vladimir Putin early Friday, March 7, declared the referendum was a violation of international law, echoing European Union leaders.
After imposing sanctions on individuals abetting Crimea’s breakaway from Ukraine, Obama urged the Russian leader to cancel the referendum and return his forces to the bases Russia holds on lease in Crimea.
Putin replied that the regime in Kiev and its decisions were “absolutely illegitimate.” He said he appreciated the importance of the Russian-American relationship to global security, and maintained that bilateral ties “should not be sacrificed for individual – albeit rather important – international issues.”
Col. Oleg Kochetkov of the Kapustin Yar district command described the new Russian deployment as “the largest-ever exercise held by air defense units of the Western Military District.” He added: “It is for the first time that all air defense units from the district, including coastal defenses of the Northern Fleet, have gathered in one place.”
Taking part in the exercise are S-300 long-range surface-to-air missiles, Buk-M1 medium-range missiles and Strela-10 short-range missiles.
debkafile’s military sources report that Kapustin Yar is home to one of Russia’s biggest missile bases. From there, the army tested on March 3 its new anti-air missile system S-500, followed the next day by the test-launch of an RT-2PM Topol (NATO codenamed SS-25 Sickle) IBCM.
This flurry of Russian military momentum is partly in response to the military steps announced by the Pentagon in the last 48 hours:
Friday, March 7, the USS Truxtun guided-missile destroyer crossed the Bosporus into the Black Sea to join the fleets of NATO allies Rumania and Bulgaria in a naval exercise, the day after the Pentagon unveiled plans to put another six US F-15 fighters on an air patrol mission over the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Twelve US F-16 fighter bombers and 300 military personnel are to be transferred to Poland over the weekend and more US military exercises are planned in areas around the Russia starting Sunday.