WaPo naturally links this development with recent menacing moves by Russia, including the accusation that “Ukrainian saboteurs,” arrested by the Russians, were operating in the Russian-held area a week ago. Ukraine interprets this as the prelude to a military action by Russia, and has put Ukrainian troops on high alert, deploying additional units to the line of confrontation with Russia in eastern Ukraine.
WaPo observes that the extended intercept range of the S-400 allows Russia to hold aircraft at risk deep in Ukrainian territory.
But ultimately, such factors serve as an excuse to deploy the S-400 — not as the primary, militarily justified reason. Ukraine doesn’t have anything Russia needs the S-400 to counter. The tense situation between Russia and Ukraine is a nice pretext for Moscow to deploy the S-400 for Putin’s real purpose: to harden his posture against NATO.
As always, consult the map. Moving S-400 batteries to the Crimean Peninsula enables Russia to hold at risk the entire central Black Sea, including portions of Romanian and Turkish air space.
Russia can hold Ukrainian aircraft at risk with older weapon systems, and from a variety of locations. In the central Black Sea, to which Crimea offers a front-row seat, Russia now has a modern, highly credible veto over NATO air operations (and civil air transit routes, for that matter). The S-400 is an off-road mobile system, modular and rapidly redeployable. Although the units receiving the new equipment are in Sevastopol, and a second position at the peninsula’s land border, the launchers can be moved anywhere there’s a bit of space for a stable set-up. The starred deployment positions on the map represent options that give Russia the most comprehensive combined coverage.
In Russia and the “breakaway” province of Abkhazia (in Georgia), which is occupied by Russia, Moscow has maintained older S-300 systems for several years. Those batteries ensure there is no exploitable air space to the east of the Black Sea “blackout” now being set up.
The types of NATO aircraft most likely to be at risk are intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (ISR) platforms like the Air Force RC-135 and the Navy P3, P-8, or EP-3E. We deploy fighters to operate in the Black Sea only rarely, for military exercises. (The Air Force deployed two F-22 strike-fighters to Romania for an exercise in April, a move so unusual that CNN reported it.)
But the operating environment in the Black Sea, already shifting with Russia’s deployment of additional anti-air fighters and long-range-cruise-missile-equipped navy ships, is changing materially with the deployment of the S-400 to Crimea. The safety of our ISR missions can’t be assumed at this point. Russia’s behavior in northern Europe indicates that complacency about that would be very ill-advised. The commanders of our Europe-based forces aren’t going to spill their guts to the public, but the things that are changing are significant. We either go bigger, or pull back.
Meanwhile, as the NATO mission in Afghanistan slides inexorably onto the political back burner, it is well to remember that if we lose the always-precarious land logistics route through Pakistan and the Khyber Pass, the last viable alternative we really had to that route ran from Romania to Central Asia across the air space of the Black Sea. It has to cross the Caspian Sea as well. Russia is now fortifying the entire block of air space in such a way that we can’t hope to use it without Moscow’s say-so.
I wrote about this vulnerability last year, when Putin shut down our access to the Afghanistan logistics route we used to call the Northern Distribution Network. Air Force officer Dan Ryan wrote at medium.com in a similar vein in December 2015. He included an NPR map showing what once were the multiple logistics routes we had into Afghanistan. Today, the one highlighted in yellow is the only air bridge that might conceivably be an option, if we lose access through Pakistan — and Russia has now arranged to hold it fully at risk.