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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russia Update: July 22, 2015

Publication: Russia Update
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russia Threatens Deployment in Crimea of Tu-22M3 Nuclear Bombers to Counter US BMD in Romania

Russia may beef up its forces in Crimea with Tu-22M3 long-range strategic bomber aircraft as a counterweight to the US anti-missile defense base placed in Romania, reported, citing the Russian Defense Ministry.

The US and Romania signed a Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) agreement in 2011 enabling the US to build, maintain and operate a land-based BMD base.

The US has an agreement with Romania to build an SM-3 missile defense interceptor site later this year and to deploy a more capable SM-3 interceptor (the Block IB)

Although the connection between the BMD and the bombers to be placed in Crimea is "fairly attenuated," says, this will be Russia's answer to the appearance of US BMD systems in Europe.

The Tu-22M3, known by NATO as the "Backfire," "may be deployed" on Russian-occupied bases in the Crimea, Interfax reported, citing a source within the Russian Defense Ministry. This is "one of the measures taken in response to the deployment on Romanian territory of American anti-aircraft bases."

At this stage it is "acknowledged as sufficient" to place a squadron of Tu-22M3s, although in the future the number of airplanes may be "increased to the size of a regiment," said the source. The US base in Romania would "fall into the zone of action" of the Tu-22M3s, the source added.

The Kremlin's propaganda outlet Sputnik International said six Tu-22M3s would be delivered to the Defense Ministry by the end of the year.

1*EN-h1LdFGm3N7l0HVF7slw.jpegPhoto via War is Boring

The White House has repeatedly said that European anti-missile defense is not aimed at Russia, but is intended to deter an attack by Iran.

The UN Security Council and the EU endorsed an agreement with Iran to ease sanctions in exchange for curbing its nuclear program, but it faces opposition both in the US Congress and Iranian Revolutionary Guards and among Middle Eastern states, notably Israel and Saudi Arabia.

For its part, the Kremlin has warned repeatedly that Romania, a former Russian ally in the now-defunct Warsaw Pact now in the EU, could come under attack in a conflict between Russia and NATO.

Last month, Yevgeny Lukyanov, deputy secretary of Russia's Security Council announced that the countries where anti-missile defense systems are based will "automatically become our targets."

Russia reportedly deployed TU-22M3s as part of a drill in Crimea in March 2015.

Previously, Aleksandr Lukashevich, a representative of Russia's Defense Ministry said that the US was turning Romania into "a bridgehead for the US and NATO" although "Russia does not represent any threat to Romania."

East European countries have seen it differently since Russia's invasion of Ukraine and a conflict that has already continued despite efforts to enforce ceasefires for a year and a half, with at least 6,500 civilians killed, and both the Crimean peninsula and territory in the southeast of Ukraine taken over by combined Russian and separatist forces.

The Tu-22M3 is an improved version of the Tu-22M, one of the oldest planes in the arsenal of the Russian Air Force. Its chief purpose is to carry tactical nuclear weapons to deliver strikes on the enemy's territory from a base many kilometers from the target.

By a quirk of fate, the commander of the Tu-22M fleet in the Soviet era was Dzhokhar Dudayev, a Chechen general in the Soviet Army who later led the rebellion in his home republic and was assassinated by Russian forces in the first Chechen War.

Today, there are an estimated 93 to 150 Tu-22M3s in Russia's arsenal, says

Last year, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu demanded that aircraft engineers modernizing the planes achieve a "high level of performance for all types of long-range missile carriers." He said he was "happy with the pace at which we are moving to the Tu-22M3s."

Russia has had a hard time keeping its military planes in the sky,  strained by constant combat-alert exercises and aggressive air space patrols related to the war in Ukraine. Six military planes have crashed in the last 7 weeks although no Tu-22 has been known to crash recently.

In October 2014, says, members of the US House Armed Services Committee, at that time chaired by Rep. Howard McKeon (R-CA) wrote a letter to President Barack Obama in which they characterized Russia's plans to deploy the Tu-22M3 squadron and also tactical Iskander nuclear missiles as a decision already made. They said the plan was a flagrant violation of international arms control agreements which would enable Russia to gain military superiority as a result of its annexation of Crimea. The Congressional members urged that the US break off all NATO contacts with Russia and ban its overflights over strategic areas in the US and NATO companies previously falling under the "Open Skies" agreement.  The authors of the letter wrote:

"Locating nuclear weapons on the sovereign territory of another state without its permission is a devious and cynical action. It further positions Russian nuclear weapons closer to the heart of NATO, and it allows Russia to gain a military benefit from its seizure of Crimea, allowing Russia to profit from its action."

In January 2015, two Republican chairs of subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee followed up with a letter to then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry regarding Putin's recurring threats of deployment of nuclear weapons in Crimea:

“We believe the U.S. must immediately take actions to respond to Russia’s threats to European security and to change President Putin’s calculus. These policies, which have not been updated to reflect that Russia has no interest in being a partner to the West, and, in fact, views the West as a military threat, were naive at inception and are simply dangerous at present.”

In the view of Aleksandr Perendzhiev, a leading expert at the Association of Military Political Analysis, the potential of these bombers to deliver a nuclear strike is "a hint for the American partners," a term President Vladimir Putin and other officials still use for the US due to cooperation on Iran and some other global issues, despite Western sanctions related to the war in Ukraine and Russia's aggression against Europe in a serious of provocations in the last year.

"Here we can speak not only of Romania. American ships constantly come into the Black Sea," said Perendzhiev.

Andrei Kortunov of the Russian Council for International Affairs said the connection between the Tu-22M3s and the BMDs was strained, however (translation by The Interpreter):

"The immediate answer to the appearance of anti-missile defense is ballistic missiles, still and all. This is just a deployment of bombers -- what can be done right away. NATO's activity in the near Black Sea region has now really rapidly grown. And here it is not only a question of anti-missile defense, but a whole complex of measures and steps: these are war exercises on Ukrainian territory and the overall presence of the US Navy. So from the Russian perspective, the deployment of the bombers is a necessary step and a reciprocal measure to defend its interests."

Yet increased US military activity was a response to Russia's war on Ukraine in the first place.

Regarding the plan to place nuclear weapons in Crimea, Kortunov said:

"Russia's tactical nuclear weapons have long been a headache for the US. But it must be understood that this issue can affect not only the US but our neighbors on the Black Sea which is hardly in Moscow's interests. I don't think it's advantageous for Russia for Turkey to feel a threat from the territory of Crimea."

Kortunov, a liberal from the perestroika era, said that Russia should give some guarantees in this regard.

There is no precise information on whether nuclear weapons will be deployed in the Crimea if the bombers capable of carrying them are deployed. But in March 2015, soon after the Russia's Anschluss of the Crimea, Mikhail Ulyanov, director for the department on non-proliferation and arms control of the Defense Ministry issued a clarification that Russia has the right to place nuclear weapons on all its territory, including the Crimea.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick and Pierre Vaux