A BK-16 and a not-so-secret marina

An interesting picture came to my attention yesterday, showing Rybinsk Shipyard’s BK-16 fast assault craft in an undisclosed small naval marina. Extremely little footage of the BK-16 in service have appeared, so finding one at what looks like a makeshift base warrants a closer study.

A number of vessels, including possibly another BK-16 and a midget submarine, are also present under covers. After some time of looking at satellite maps of Russian and Crimean shores, a picture search, and some discussions with my wife regarding the vegetation around the Black Sea, Baltic Sea, and Russian inland, we managed to locate the likely spot. It seems to be situated in Sevastopol, on the Crimean peninsula. What is interesting is that an earlier picture of the area shows it seemingly being a civilian boat workshop. Now it is clearly in military use, as evident not only by the increased number of vessels, but also by the hoisted naval ensign and the dark green trucks parked between the two buildings.

The likely location from where the picture was taken with some key identifying features marked. Satellite picture from Google Maps

That Russia has taken to using former civilian facilities in Sevastopol, long the main base of the Black Sea Fleet and by extension the main logistical hub for the operations in the Mediterranean and Syria, is perhaps the most interesting fact here. The equipment seems to point towards a smaller unit of marine infantry, possibly a reconnaissance and/or special forces unit. Either there has been such a rapid expansion of units stationed in Crimea since the Russian occupation started that units with a smaller logistical footprint has had to move out of the main facilities, or then this is an attempt to keep the operations of this unit outside of the spotlight. Note that even the rusty fence in the foreground has not been mended since the first picture, meaning that the facilities seems to have been taken over ‘as is’. This might indicate the navy’s stay being only temporary, or it is another sign of the navy trying to keep a low profile (if so, not hoisting the St Andrew’s flag might have been a good idea). Another really interesting question is obviously if there really is a midget submarine under the tarpaulin, and if so, has it been used operationally in the Black Sea?

Belbek and what’s there

Most have probably already seen or at least heard of one of the more stunning videos to appear yesterday, namely that of Col Yuri Mamchur, commander of 204th TABr, leading his unarmed men towards the Russian soldiers firing over their heads. Col Mamchur achieved his goal, and managed to negotiate some kind of an agreement with the Russian forces occupying Belbek air force base (Sevastopol). The whole unit was earlier erroeneously reported to have defected to the ‘Crimean authorities’, but apparently it remains loyal to Kiev and defiant towards the Russians.

I was a bit too trigger happy, and gladly shouted out that there are Su-27’s at the base, having misidentified the tails appearing in the video of the march, and not checked the Ukrainian air force OOB. It is MiG-29’s that the 204th TABr operates. Sorry about that.

Ukraine inherited a sizeable fleet of MiG-29’s of different variants, but today most of the earlier versions are gone, with as far as I can tell, all remaining operational aircraft being of the MiG-29S 9.13 or MiG-29UB 9.51 (two-seat trainer) variants, with a tiny number of upgraded MiG-29MU1 slowly becoming operational. One of the later is apparently at Belbek, although not yet in operational use.

MiG-29’s at Belbek in 2011. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Antropomant.

From this page with pictures as well as video from Belbek, quite a number of MiG’s can be seen. How many of these are truly operational, and how many are in different states of long time storage/disrepair is hard to say, but I counted to 29 airframes (25 in the video, and a further 4 have been seen standing in the QRA-area in earlier photos), with at least 2 being two-seaters. Along with the MiG’s, three Aero L-39 can be seen in seemingly pristine condition with a digital three-tone grey/white scheme, meaning that they are probably of the upgraded L-39M1 version.

Exactly what aircraft are at Belbek at the moment is hard to say. RT gives the numbers as 45 MiG-29 fighter jets and 4 L-39, with only four fighters and one training aircraft currently operational, but I wouldn’t give RT much credit as an objective source normally, and even less so in this conflict. CombatAir reports that it “Seems the squadron had 11 operational Fulcrum C [sic] and UBs […] in 2013″.

It is equally hard to judge what kind of a loss it would be for the Ukrainian air force if the Russians decides to either destroy or take home as a war prize the aircrafts currently being held at the base. If most of the MiG-29’s are indeed in such a sorry state that some reports indicate, the loss of the four (or three?) L-39’s from the already small fleet of refurbished trainers might prove to be an even bigger blow.

As an interesting note, according to this source, 204th TABr traces its roots back to the 62nd Fighter Aviation Regiment of the Soviet air force, and had no less than six Heroes of the Soviet Union during WWII (this source doesn’t give a stragiht connection, but confirms the 62nd IAP’s presence at Belbek up until 1992).

Edit: Apparently, the situation has changed during the writing of this post, and Belbek is now in Russian hands. Will be interesting to follow how this develops from here.

After the Invasion – The Road Forward for Ukraine

Apparently all key points on the Crimean peninsula have been taken over by Russian forces, which now effectively control the area. Any major counter-movement by the Ukrainian armed forces seems to have been curiously absent, which raises questions about the loyalty of the Ukrainian armed forces as a whole and the upper echelons in particular.

My personal opinion is that there seems to have been a window of opportunity to try to retake the major airfields yesterday (280214) morning, when they were function despite the presence of lightly armed soldiers on their grounds. By e.g. having a company or two board regular flights a counter-coup might have been stage by the Ukrainian army. A determined response at this early stage might (keyword) have unsettled the Russians enough to force a peaceful withdrawal. I believe that, as the “enemy” force apparently consisted of relatively few soldiers with only their personal weapons, such an operation could be launched simply by sending of a properly sized unit with their own personal equipment to establish a bridgehead and buy some time to start thinking about the next step. This also means that next to no logistical planning would have had to be done at beforehand, as the unit would operate in a functioning civilian society with (relatively) abundant food and water supplies, hopefully without even needing to fire their weapons. Naturally, if the Russian response would have been to start an all-out counter-attack, the bridgehead would most probably swiftly have been overrun. This does not seem to have been the probable Russian response judged on their operations so far, but fear of similar losses might have been what made the Ukrainian HQ opt against any swift and unsecure troop movements at this early stage. Now, this window is decidedly shut after only a few hours, and the major options for Kiev seems to be either to accept the fait accompli, or to go in with a major force, knowing that this might very well lead to war.

Lars Gyllenhaal amongst others have pointed out that the last time unrest on the Crimean peninsula sparked a major conflict, this conflict spread to both the Baltic Sea and the Arctic, with Finland suffering coastal raids and Sweden harboring fleet detachments from belligerents Britain and France at Gotland. This time around, as stated in my last post, I don’t believe France, Italy or Great Britain (or Turkey for that matter) are prepared to go to war for Crimea. Neither do I believe in Russia trying to seize the whole of Ukraine. Crimea is important strategically, and has a historical significance to Russia (as do Kiev). The rest of Ukraine is interesting, but the situation is not urgent. A similar path as the one taken with Georgia might prove very successful. By capturing part of their territory and proclaiming it an independent state (possibly with a referendum about whether to join the Russian federation or not), they will not only secure the territory in question (and thus safeguard Sevastopol), but also provide the Kiev-government (and other potential troublemakers, like the Baltic states) with a constant reminder about what happens if they get too far out of line.

A few disturbing facts are perfectly clear from this:

1)      Russia is perfectly capable of and has the political willpower to execute a strategic coup against a neighboring state

2)      As has been repeatedly stated by NATO officials before: NATO protects their member states, and their member states only

3)      The “outdated” Cold war-scenarios in which a sovereign country suddenly attacks another sovereign country aren’t outdated at all, but can happen in Europe this very day

Let us hope that the politicians in both Finland and Sweden admit these basic facts, and that we can have an open and serious discussion about what conclusions should be drawn from these points.