News / Europe

Russian Forces in Crimea: Who Are They, Where Did They Come From?

Military personnel, believed to be Russian servicemen, march outside the territory of a Ukrainian military unit in the village of Perevalnoye outside Simferopol, March 4, 2014.
Military personnel, believed to be Russian servicemen, march outside the territory of a Ukrainian military unit in the village of Perevalnoye outside Simferopol, March 4, 2014.
Ron Synovitz, RFE/RL
There has been much speculation about Russian forces deployed in Crimea since February 28. The West says they're Russian combat troops. Russian President Vladimir Putin says they're just local defense folks. So exactly who are they?

How many Russian troops are now thought to be in Crimea?

Ukrainian authorities have said there are about 16,000 Russian troops in the Crimean Peninsula – with more pouring into the country every day by air and by naval ships.
Independent military analysts agree there are at least this many troops in Crimea.

Tim Ripley, from Jane’s Defence Weekly, said most reports suggest about 6,000 to 7,000 Russian troops recently have deployed to Crimea since February 28 when the intervention began.

Ripley said the normal Russian troop level at Black Sea Fleet facilities in Crimea historically has been about 11,000. But most are seamen or support personnel -- not the kind of ground combat forces that have fanned out on the Crimean Peninsula.
One exception is about 2,000 members of Russia’s 810th Marines Infantry Brigade, which is attached to the Black Sea Fleet and has been identified at some Russian military blockades in Crimea.

What do we know about the freshly deployed Russian forces in Crimea?

The bulk of freshly deployed Russian combat troops in Crimea appear to have come directly from Russia -- rather than already being based at Black Sea Fleet facilities there.

Ripley said that assessment is supported by increased air and naval activity from Russia.

"Crimea is isolated by land from Russia by the mainland of Ukraine. So all of these troops have had to come by air or by ship from Russia," he said. "There seems to be a constant stream of aircraft flying in. The Russians have control of a number of air bases in Ukraine which they have to support their fleet. And also, they have seized a ferry port in the east of Crimea, which is only a couple of miles across the straits to the Kuban [region] in Russia. So they have been shuttling ships full of troops and vehicles into the Crimea from there. A couple of units have been identified as being in Russia’s special forces rapid reaction airborne forces from around Moscow.”

WATCH: Pro-Russian troops remain on Simferopol streets

Christopher Langton, director of London-based Independent Conflict Research and Analysis, suggests most of the recent deployments are from Russia’s Southern Military Command, headquartered in Rostov-on-Don.

"If we look at those uniforms, most of them seem to be, from what can be seen, brand new," Langton said. "There is no insignia. This is a tried and tested [Russian] practice in, for instance, the August war in Georgia in 2008. When Russian peacekeepers were used to move into Georgia proper, they changed their uniforms. They put away their peacekeeping insignia, etc. Now what are the options? There is a naval infantry brigade -- these are highly trained commandos -- at Novorossiisk, also part of the Black Sea Fleet, but in Russia just down the coast from Crimea. Also, in the same military command structure...there are two special forces brigades and a designated airborne division."

What are the limitations for Russian forces on the Crimean Peninsula under its Black Sea Fleet agreements with Ukraine?

Under various agreements between Russia and Ukraine, Russia is allowed to keep up to 25,000 troops on the Crimean Peninsula. Those troops are allowed outside of their bases for operations considered normal to maintaining the facilities. But there are limitations on deployments -- even for training operations.

Under any interpretation, surrounding Ukrainian military bases in the Crimea is seen as an overt offensive activity, regardless of whether shots are fired, and appears to violate the terms of their basing agreements.

Is there any evidence that Russian private security firms have engaged in operations with Russian military forces?

Ripley said security camera footage of the seizure of the Crimean parliament by uniformed pro-Russian gunmen is the most interesting evidence of Russian private security firms playing a role.

“You saw some really fit athletic guys with quite extensive military equipment -- assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and they were carrying big [containers] full of spare ammunition and spare rockets," he said. "They had on identification tape so they could recognize each other in the dark. These were pretty well-organized guys. But they weren’t in the same uniforms as the Russian troops that we saw blockading the Ukrainian bases, which suggests that [some of them were] contractors. The best description I’ve had of them is that they are former Russian special forces who have set themselves up in the private sector. Many of them work under contract to companies that have close links to Russian oligarchs who, of course, have close links to the Russian president. So we see a [Russian] state-private sector synergy there.”

Langton pointed out that much work appears to have been done before Russia’s intervention to raise small local units among Crimea’s ethnic Russians that could be activated in times of tension. He said that could have been done through Russia’s private military sector or by trained special-force operators working in Crimea.

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