An Ukrainian Air Force Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29 Fulcrum (Image © Yuri Dinilyuk)

Conflict at the Crimea: Situation Report and Air Assets

LATEST UPDATE 25 MARCH 2014 | The February military conflict at the Crimean peninsula (Krim) has not only re-ignited old pains between powerful Russia and political unstable Ukraine, in might lead to a full-scale war. Reports about activities in the air and on land and sea are sketchy and sometimes incomprehensible. We at AIRheads↑Fly have tried to make some sense of the situation as far as the air part goes set against the geopolitical-military background.

Featured image (top:) An Ukrainian Air Force Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29 Fulcrum (Image © Yuri Dinilyuk)

Although the air side of Ukrainian MiG-29 Belbek Airbase was taken in the early stages of the conflict, Russian soldiers entered the adjacent administrative and housing area on 22 March 2014 using smoke grenades, an armoured personnel carrier and a truck, and fired shots with their automatic rifles to force the Ukrainian troops to surrender.

On Monday 3 March 2014 Russian forces completed their siege of very much all Ukrainian military installations at the Crimea that have not been taken yet. They include the Ukrainian bases in Novoozerne and Ljubimovka near Simferopol. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence the Ukranian Navy corvette U209 Ternopil and the command ship U510 Slavutych were still at the docks of their part of the naval base of Sevastopol, received a Russian ultimatum to abandon ship or they would be stormed by Russian forces. The commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet – also in Sevastopol – denied this, but journalists like Kyiv Post’s Christopher Miller confirmed they clearly heard the Russian minehunter/patrol ship Turbinist (912) deliver the message through its speaker systems. Sources in Kiev say they received a Russian overall ultimatum as well: give up all military installations at the Crimea before 05:00 (03:00 UTC) or they will be stormed. Later in the third week of March the Ukrainian naval vessels, including the only Ukrainian navy submarine were captured by Russian forces. Earlier reports that the Ukrainian navy was able to fled to sea proved wrong, with another fouyr light frigates, a patrol vessel and the only submarine being captured by Russians.

Meanwhile about 3,500 Russian forces were on high-alert readiness training near the Baltic republics, making the governments of Lithuania, Poland and Sweden nervous. In a reaction Sweden forwarded a small detachment of its “incident reaction force” to the Baltic Sea island of Gotland. The USAFE sent six additional F-15 and a KC-135 to Lithuania with about a dozen F-16s reportedly on their way to Poland as well.

Official strength Ukrainian armed forces 2013

Source: Ukrainian Ministry of Defence Annual Defence Review
Air Forces Command
Troops: 40,600
Combat aircraft: probably 120 (before the Russian take-over of the Crimea 160 officially operational)
Transport aircraft: 25 or less
See Overview: the Air Forces of Ukraine.

Land Forces Command
Troops: 57,000
Main battle tanks: 686
Armoured personnel carriers: 2065
Combat helicopters (Mi-24s / armed Mi-8s): 72
Artillery guns: 716

Naval Forces Command (as of 24 March 2014)
Troops: probably about 6,000 – 8000 of an official of 14,600
Vessels: 6-14, incl. 1 frigate (U130) and at least 2 corvettes.
Maritime patrol aircraft: 1-3 (before the Russian take-over officially 3 airworthy)
Anti-submarine helicopters: 5-8 (before the Rusian take-over officially 8 airworthy)
Main battle tanks (marines): unclear, before the Russian take-over 41
Armoured personnel carriers (marines): unclear, before the Russian take-over 160
Artillery guns (marines): unclear, before the Russian take-over 47

Air Mobile Forces Command
Troops: 6,100
Armoured personnel carriers: 310

Early on Sunday morning 2 March 2014 the Ukrainian government decided to call up military reservists, followed by a larger scale mobilisation, in preparation of a possible full-scale conflict with neighbouring Russia. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence the active armed forces have about 159,000 men and women, civilians included. Estimates of the number of reserves during a full-scale mobilisation run up to a million.

Since 27 February 2014 Russia is strengthening its military installations in and around its giant Black Sea Naval Base on the southwestern tip of the Crimea. Russian ground troops from the navy, army and its allied Ukrainian and ethnic-Russian paramilitary forces have been taking hold of strategic locations in the Crimean capital of Simferopol and further into the peninsula, which is officially Ukrainian territory according to internationally law.

After the Russian parliament has given Russian president Vladimir Putin a more or less blank check to do whatever Mr. Putin seems necessary, the Ukrainian interim government put its forces on full alert as of 18:00 local time in Ukraine (16:00 UTC). Ilyushin IL-76s and Mi-8s have been flying into Sevastopol, Hvardiyske (Gvardeyskoye) and Simferopol, rotary wing assets reportedly flew into the Saky Naval Air Station that the Russian Black Sea Fleet already ran before the conflict.

About 6,000 additional Russian troops have been flown in to the Crimea up to noon on 1 March 2014, according to the Russian defence ministry. They mostly used Mi-8s and IL-76s. According to Moscow they are there to protect the Russian fleet assets and to assist self-proclaimed independent government of the Crimea. In a press release spread via Russian Interfax press agency on 1 March the pro-Russian prime minister states that: “Russian Black Fleet navy personnel now guards important buildings at the Crimea”. The Ukrainian government says Russia deployed 15,000 additional troops, and the latest estimates spoke even of 23,000 troops. Parts of the 3,500 Ukrainian ground troops at the Crimea peninsula are surrounded by Russian forces. So far the Ukrainians haven’t put up much resistance, likely trying to avoid bloodshed at gunpoint.

Russian forces might get support from parts of the apparently 5,000 men of Ukrainians Berkut paramilitary/para-police militia that are said to have received Russian passports after the Ukrainian government decommissioned the entire unit because of its role in the riots in the capital of Kiev.

Around 16:00 local Moscow time (14:00 UTC) on 1 March 2014 the chairman of the Russian senate (Federal Council) confirms that Russia will probably send a limited military force to Ukraine because of “security reasons”. The always outspoken Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt calls the situation on the Crimean peninsula “a Russian take-over. There is no doubt about that.”

Russian president Putin subsequently asked the Russian parliament to okay more forces to be send to the Ukraine “to stabilize the situation until the Ukranians find political stability”. After a relatively short discussion the Duma agreed to Mr. Putins request to do whatever is needed to protect the interest of Russia and Russian citizens anywhere in Ukraine. The people’s representative leaves it solely up to the Russian president to decide how many troops will be send and where in Ukraine they might show up.

Large scale action
In theory this could mean a possible invasion of the eastern parts of the country, like in and around the partly pro-Russian city of Kharkiv. But later on Friday Russian sources downplayed such a large scale action, at least for the time being. “The fact that that the President has the green light, doesn’t mean more will happen soon”, according to a Russian government spokesperson. In fact, after the US, the EU, the UN, Sweden and Germany tried to mediate tensions for the eastern part of Ukraine lowered somewhat.

A historic shot of an Aeroflot Ilyushin IL-76 with CCCP markings at Leeuwarden AB in the Netherlands (Image © Elmer van Hest)
A historic shot of an Russian Air Force Ilyushin IL-76 with CCCP and Aeroflot markings at Leeuwarden AB in the Netherlands. This particular IL-76 was reportedly used for zero-gravity flights. Over the last few days, Russian IL-76s have been flying in reinforcement to the Crimea. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Belbek MiG-29 base
On 28 February 2014 Russian forces seized control of the Ukrainian military airbase and the MiG fighter jets of Belbek, Ukrainian military sources told international press agencies, with reportedly as many as 40 MiG-29s and 2 L-39s captured. As fleeing former Ukrainian president Yanukovych reportedly sought refuge with the Russian fleet, Ukraine’s military chief of staff admiral Yuri Ilyin ordered one or more MiG-29 fighter planes in the direction of the Russian naval base on 25 February 2014.

Officially the Ukrainian Air Force had about a hundred ex-Soviet Fulcrums, with at least seven modernized to MiG-29UM1 standard and likely airworthy. Reports about the origin of the Fulcrum flights near Russian installations are inconclusive. There are up to more than 30 MiG-29s operating with the 204th Tactical Aviation Brigade at Belbek just north of Sevastopol. According to some Russian sources they closed down parts of the airspace over the peninsula in the early stages of the stand-off.

Kirovs’kyi (Kirovskoye)
The military air base of Kirovs’kyi (Kirovskoye), on the eastern part of the Crimean peninsula, was initially reported to have been put under Russian control on 28 February as well. But on 1 March 2014 a Ukrainian general showed AP photographer Darko Vojinovic the destroyed air control tower equipment. “Russian troops broke into the air control tower and smashed much of the equipment on Friday”, according to the general.At least until 2008 the Ukrainian Air Force regularly flew from Kirovskoye, including with MiG-29s. The current Google Maps aerial imagery still shows the base in a fairly active state.

The Mil Mi-8AMTSh armoured tactical transport helicopter (Image © Russian Helicopters)
The Mil Mi-8AMTSh armoured tactical transport helicopter (Image © Russian Helicopters)

Troops have also been reported landing on the airfield of Simferopol, where on 27 February 2014 Russian forces from Marines Brigade 810 already showed up “to guarantee security” according to a spokesperson of the group to a television crew. The identity of the group was confirmed on 1 March 2014 to The Telegraph correspondent Roland Oliphant.

Other seized locations
Amongst other strategic locations Russian forces seized on 1 March 2014 are Ukrainian border patrol locations ins Sevastopol and the Ukrainian armed forces SAM site in Jevparoija. Early on Sunday 2 March Russian forces reportedly disarmed Ukrainian military personnel at a radar station in Sudak.

Beriev Be-12 / Kamov Ka-27 / Navy
The Ukranian Navy in Sevastopol and Yevpatoria has partly fled to sea, according to international press agencies who estimate the number of ships that left port on about 10. But this is denied by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence. The whereabouts of the 3 operational Beriev maritime patrol aircraft and 7 of the 8 operational Kamov Ka-27 Helix anti-submarine helicopters are unknown. Amongst the reserves and support aircraft are AN-26s. The Ukrainian Southern Fleet assets might move closer to the Western Naval Base of Odesa to protect it against possible Russian movements.

In fact an Ukrainian source on the ground on 7 March said one KA-27, three Mi-14s, two AN-26s and one Beriev Be-12 were able to flee Saky Airbase for the Ukrainian mainland and possibly landed on the airfield of Western Navy Fleet Base city of Odesa. The Ukrainian Naval Frigate U130 Hetman Sahaydachny arrived in the port of Souda, Crete, Greece on 28 February 2014 for a friendly visit. The vessel has been part of the anti-piracy operation Atalanta near the coast of Somalia. The Ka-27 helicopter on board made 50 sorties, according to an Ukrainian press release. According to the admiralty the vessel and its helicopter are still there on 2 March. Russian reports that the frigate supposedly were denied by the Ukrainian admiralty and the vessel docked in Odesa on 6 March 2014, bringing the flagship of the Ukrainian navy home.

The Ministry of Defence in Kiev confirmed rear admiral Berezovsky, commander of the Ukrainian Southern Fleet at Sevastopol and the whole Ukrainian Navy, has been relieved of his duties and that he is now sought for defecting to the pro-Russian self-declared autonomous government of the Crimea. The Ukrainian Sea Guard (Морська охорона or Mors’ka OkhoronaKertj) supposedly left their bases of Kertj for Mariupol and Sevastopol for Odesa, but there are no air assets involved here.

    Mi-8s / Mi-28 / Sevastopol
    Up to six Mil Mi-8s (NATO-name Hip) have been flying in reinforcements to the naval facilities in Sevastopol. They supposedly have been escorted by up to a dozen Mi-28s (NATO-name Havoc), possibly Mi-28N Night Hunters. Unconfirmed but apparently caught on film in the afternoon of 28 February 2014 are a dozen Mi-8s and attack helicopters allegedly flying towards the Russian naval base at the Crimea. The number of troops airlifted into the Russian naval base was on 28 February 2014 about 2,000 men and women, quickly rising to 6,000 by noon on 1 March 2014 and later to 15,000.

    Mi-24s / Kacha
    A dozen Mil Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters have been seen flying towards Kacha Airbase.

    At least twice four Russian Air Force or chartered Aeroflot Ilyushin IL-76s are said to have been flying in troops from Moscow-Kubinka to Anapa just east of the Crimea in the Krasnodar region.

    Large-scale exercise
    Officially the Russian military conducted a large-scale military exercise, started 26 February and lasting to 3 March 2014. According to official statements it involves 150,000 troops, 90 aircraft, over 120 helicopters, 880 tanks, 1,200 armoured and unarmoured vehicles and artillery and up to 80 ships. The Russian forces in the Western Military District (opposing NATO), Central District and the forces in the Baltics started emergency readiness drills that included refueling of aircraft.

    © 2014 AIRheads’ editor Marcel Burger

    Air Force of Ukraine
    With the Crimean military-strategic-political situation in full throttle the Ukrainian Air Force (see overview)
    is caught in the middle of a huge 6 year reorganisation that was started in 2009. The peacetime
    strength of the air force is projected to be 20,000 to 23,000 personnel, including 18,000 to 20,000
    in uniform. Obsolete weapons are to be scrapped or used for spare parts, including some of the
    reserved MiG-29s, and the aim is to get newer Western fighter aircraft in the future. Proposed
    levels speak of 120 combat aircraft supported by 50 to 60 transport and special mission aircraft.
    Included in the transport projects is nationally produced Antonov AN-70s.