Russia has sent “squadrons” of nuclear-capable Tu-22M3 strategic bombers to Crimea in response to the deployment of U.S. Navy Aegis Ashore missile defense installations in Romania, according to a report in Russian state-run media.
“The deployment of American missile defense systems in Romania came as a major challenge, in response to which the Russian Defense Ministry made the decision to deploy long-range missile-carrying bombers Tupolev Tu-22M23 at the Gvardeyskoye air base,” Viktor Bondarev, the head of the Russian Federation Council’s Committee for Defense and Security, was quoted by Russia’s TASS news agency as saying Monday.
“This move has drastically changed the balance of forces in the region,” Bondarev said of the missile defense shield.
While the bombers are capable of carrying nuclear weapons, it is unclear if those weapons would come with the bombers when they are sent to Crimea.
Washington views the missile shield, which U.S. and NATO officials switched on in May 2016, as vital to defending itself and Europe from so-called rogue states — especially Iran — a claim Moscow has disputed. Rather, the Kremlin has said, the move is actually aimed at blunting Russia’s own nuclear arsenal.
U.S. officials have said that despite Washington’s plans to continue to develop the capabilities of its system, the shield would not be used against any future Russian missile threat.
That, however, could change after the U.S. departed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which Russia formally suspended its participation in on March 4.
In a statement released Monday, NATO condemned “Russia’s ongoing and wide-ranging military build-up in Crimea,” and said it was “concerned by Russia’s efforts and stated plans for further military build-up in the Black Sea region.”
On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin marked the fifth anniversary of Moscow’s widely condemned annexation of Crimea from Ukraine with a visit to the Black Sea peninsula.