18 March, 2019 marked the fifth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. On this date in 2014, Russian commandos blockaded Simferopol International Airport, military bases across the peninsula, and the Crimean parliament building. This action marked the beginning of Russia annexing Crimea, which eventually contributed to the start of fighting in Eastern Ukraine between Russian-supported separatists, and Ukrainian government forces. Moscow’s actions brought about a deep freeze in its relations with the West, and significantly altered the way Russia is perceived, and treated by the rest of the world.
Russian President Vladimir Putin marked the anniversary with a visit to the peninsula. He visited two powerplants currently under construction, and lauded efforts to improve the infrastructure of the Crimea. This is not the first improvement project Russia has undertaken in recent times. Last year a bridge connecting southern Russia to the Crimea was constructed. These are steps necessary to Crimea’s continued re-integration with Russia.
Behind the anniversary celebrations, there are other signs of re-integration taking place which go unmentioned by the world media. For months now, Russia has been undertaking a gradual military buildup of its forces on the Crimean peninsula. Additional batteries of SA-21 Growler (S-400) surface-to-air missiles arrived at Russian airbases there. This deployment was followed by a staggered redeployment of Russian warplanes to Crimea. The buildup continues, with the latest installment being Russian long range Tu-22M Backfire bombers. Moscow claims that the presence of Backfires is intended as a counter to the US deployment of its missile defense system in Romania.
There’s certainly a degree of truth attached to the reasoning. However, with the Ukrainian presidential election coming up at the end of the month, having Backfire bombers based so close to Ukrainian territory and airspace could also be perceived as an attempt by Russia to overtly affect the election.