(CNSNews.com) – Russia has made a decision to deploy strategic bombers and nuclear-capable short-range missiles on the Crimean peninsula, a senior lawmaker said Monday, as Moscow marked the fifth anniversary of its controversial annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula.
The claim came from Viktor Bondarev, who chairs the defense and security committee of the Federation Council upper house, and was formerly head of Russia’s Aerospace Forces.
State media quoted Bondarev as saying Crimea-based Tupolev Tu-22M3 bombers would be modernized to enable them “to deliver warheads to any point in Europe, hitting any type of enemy anti-missile or air-defense facilities.”
(Russia’s Tu-22M3 aircraft are being fitted with new KH-32 long-range cruise missiles, according to Russian state media.)
Bondarev said deploying the long-range supersonic bombers in Crimea “has drastically changed the balance of forces in the region.”
He portrayed the move as a response to the U.S. deployment of the “Aegis Ashore” ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Romania, and specifically its Mark-41 vertical launching systems, which poses a “serious challenge” for Russia.
The BMD facility, which went operational in mid-2016, is located in Deveselu, about 450 miles west of Russian-occupied Crimea.
Bondarev said Russia would also deploy in Crimea Iskander short-range ballistic missiles, and a range of surface-to-air missiles.
The nuclear-capable Iskander is a tactical ballistic missile with a range of up to 250 miles, so the BMD facility in Romania would not be within range, although Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline, and its third biggest city, Odessa, would be.
President Vladimir Putin has warned that, once the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty is terminated later this year, Russia will respond to the U.S. deploying missiles of the type outlawed by the INF by following suit, anywhere in the world.
In a speech to lawmakers last month, he said Russia will be compelled to “respond with mirror or asymmetric actions,” in the event the U.S. introduces new missile systems in Europe.
Putin has long charged that the Mark-41s used in the Aegis Ashore systems, in both Romania and Poland, violate the INF Treaty on the grounds they are capable of firing missiles that are prohibited under the treaty.
The U.S. denies any violation, saying that it is the Russians who have contravened the treaty, by deploying a cruise missile named SSC-8 (Russian designation 9M729). It is that alleged violation that the Trump administration has cited as justification for its decision to walk away from the INF Treaty.
If confirmed, the decision to have Tu-22M3 bombers in Crimea adds to the ratcheting up of Russia’s response to the BMD system, which the Kremlin has bitterly opposed since the George W. Bush administration.
The U.S. says the shield aims to protect its NATO allies from the missile threat posed by Iran, but Moscow maintains it is designed to weaken its own deterrent.
Russia has already stationed Iskanders in Kaliningrad, its exclave bordering Poland. The missiles are well within range of the Aegis Ashore base in Redzikowo, in northern Poland.
Bondarev’s comments came on the day Putin flew to Crimea to celebrate the fifth anniversary of his signing of a treaty incorporating the strategic peninsula, which is a little larger than Vermont, into the Russian Federation.
That move came days after a referendum in which 97 percent of voters in Crimea supported joining Russia, according to official results. The U.S. and much of the international community disputed the legitimacy of the vote, and refused to recognize the outcome.
The U.S. and E.U. imposed rounds of sanctions on Russia over the years since, and just week more were added, “in response to Russia’s continued aggression in Ukraine.”
In a recent statement marking the anniversary, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated the U.S. stance that “Crimea is Ukraine and must be returned to Ukraine’s control.”
But in Moscow on Monday, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was quoted as saying the economic sanctions, political pressures and military threats were “useless” in changing Russia’s position on Crimea, and that its unification with Russia was “forever.”
Visiting the peninsula for Monday’s anniversary, Putin told a gathering in Simferopol that “the events five years ago resulted in an incredible growth of patriotism across Russia and also demonstrated the great power of truth and justice.”