President Putin announced on October 18 that Russian MiG-31 combat aircraft armed with Kinzhal hypersonic missiles would be patrolling international airspace over the Black Sea. Is it going to change balance between Russia and NATO?
It is worth noting that Putin's statement was made against the background of the conflict between Palestine and Israel, as well as in the context of the appearance of two US aircraft carrier groups off the coast of Israel. Most likely, though, Russia's decision does not come as a response to the escalating crisis in the Middle East.
"This is not a threat… but on my instructions, the Russian Aerospace Forces are beginning to patrol permanently in the neutral zone of airspace over the Black Sea," Putin said.
Indeed, Kinzhal missiles can reach targets in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea from the Black Sea, but it still seems that this is not the main target for the Russian MiG aircraft. After all, Russia has an air base in Syria to deal with the Middle East crisis.
Patrol missions over the Black Sea do not come as an innovation either. These aircraft went on experimental combat duty in the Black Sea back in December 2017, long before the open confrontation between Russia and NATO. More than 300 such missions had been conducted by the middle of 2018.
This practice was continued afterwards, and the Russian authorities did not even intend to make any secret of it at all — information about Black Sea air patrols can be found on the Internet.
Putin's decision appears to be a public warning to the West against further escalation in the region. It may also come as a military-technical response to the transfer of long-range ATACMS missiles to Ukraine.
There is no exact data on the type of the missiles that were transferred to Kyiv. One should always proceed from the worst case scenario, and here it goes about a potential range of 300 km. It was said that there was a limited supply of 20 missiles, but this should not reassure anyone. Having used this amount, the US will analyse how Russian air defences respond to such attacks and supply more.
This is when MiG-31 warplanes can play an important deterrent role.
Experts suggest that MiG-31s with Kinzhals are needed to carry out instant strikes on the launchers that fired ATACMS on the Russian territory. However, missile launchers leave the site after the attack almost immediately. Therefore, the option of a quick response seems doubtful.
It appears that Putin made the announcement about air patrols to intimidate NATO. His announcement was a psychological weapon.
The range of ATACMS missiles is larger than that of previous modifications for HIMARS. Therefore, Kyiv will need a greater depth of target reconnaissance. Roughly speaking, Kyiv was happy with reconnaissance of 100 km deep into Russia, but now the Ukrainians need to take into account the maximum ATACMS range — up to 300 km.
NATO drones in airspace over the Black Sea play an important role for Ukraine in terms of target reconnaissance. The Crimean Peninsula as well as the entire Russian coastal zone of the Black Sea become vulnerable to actions of NATO reconnaissance drones.
MiG-31 fighters will be able to counter drones above the Black Sea. After all, this aircraft was originally designed as a long-range fighter-interceptor of cruise missiles. However, intercepting NATO UAVs looks too bold for Russia as well.
Russian President Vladimir Putin got the West worried again by signing Decree No. 915. The news did not produce any public effect in Russia