Wintering in the Baltic (not the Mediterranean): Russia’s Kalibr Ships

Russia’s Kalibr-armed corvettes, officially attached to the Mediterranean squadron, are still in Kaliningrad, and look set to remain there

Read Part 1 & Part 2 of the @DFRLab’s investigation into the unexpected journey of Russian vessel in the Baltic Sea.


“Your greetings and the warmth of your hearts to Kaliningrad!!” — On October 26, the DFR Lab revealed that two Russian Buyan-M class corvettes of the Black Sea Fleet, armed with Kalibr-NK long-range cruise missiles, had entered the Baltic Sea. The deployment was a surprise, because only three weeks earlier, the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) had announced that the ships were to be attached to its Mediterranean squadron.

Source: Russian Ministry of Defense

Headline
The Black Sea Fleet’s newest small missile ships (MRK), ‘Zelenyy Dol’ and ‘Serpukhov’, will join the Russian Fleet’s permanent formation in the Mediterranean Sea.

According to the Ministry’s official statement, “The plan is for the ships to be assigned to the Russian Navy’s permanent operational formation in the offshore maritime zone on the basis of a planned rotation.” The term “in the offshore maritime zone” (в дальней морской зоне) is regularly used to refer to the Mediterranean, as in these further announcements.

However, open sources and posts on social media confirm that the ships were still in Kaliningrad in mid-December, with some sources saying they could remain there as the core of a new unit of modern corvettes.

Still in cold waters

On December 17, the official website of ship-builder “A. M. Gorky Zelenodolsk Factory”, which constructed the Zelenyy Dol and Serpukhov, posted a story congratulating the crews of the two corvettes on the first anniversary of their hoisting the St. Andrew’s flag, the banner of the Russian Navy.

The article contains imagery of the two ships’ crews attending the ceremony, including this picture featuring a memorial in the background:

Source: A. M. Gorky Zelenodolsk Factory

Some photos from the ceremony were also shared on the Instagram feed of the Council of Deputies of the town of Serpukhov, after which the MRK Serpukhov is named:

Source: Serpukhov Council of Deputies / Instagram. Archive.

Translation: On December 17, Yana Kiblitski, a member of the Serpukhov Council of Deputies, congratulated the crew of the MRK Serpukhov on the anniversary of their hoisting of the St. Andrew’s flag. The event took place in Kaliningrad, where the MRK Serpukhov warmly welcomed the delegation from Serpukhov.

Confirming her presence, Kiblitski posted a number of images from the event on her vk.com page, including this one:

Source: Yana Kiblitski / VK.com. Archive.

She also posted about her travel to Kaliningrad, explicitly stating that she was going to meet the crew of the Serpukhov:

Source: Yana Kiblitski / VK.com. Archive.

Translation: “My dear friends, I’m flying again. But I’m taking all of your greetings and the warmth of your hearts to Kaliningrad — the guys from MRK Serpukhov will be very pleased :)”

On December 17, vk.com user Andrey Selin posted images showing the Zelenyy Dol in Kaliningrad, decorated with flags:

Source: Andrey Selin / VK.com. Archive.

The images show views both ahead of and behind the ship:

Source: Andrey Selin / VK.com Archive.

The weather conditions are consistent in all images. Historical weather data found on Wolfram Alpha confirm that the weather was overcast:

Source: Wolfram Alpha

Geolocating the ships

These pictures give enough details to enable us to geolocate the positions of the Serpukhov and Zelenyy Dol during the visit.

The ship monument visible in the image of the award ceremony is a memorial to cutter sailors, located by Wikimapia to 54.637778, 19.945833, on the territory of the base of the 36th Missile Boat Brigade in Baltiysk. Wikimapia includes both a map showing the location of the memorial, and an image, linked to the map, which confirms its identity:

Source: Wikimapia, showing the memorial “To the cutter sailors”
Source: Wikimapia / user BoBa Schian.

This confirms that the anniversary celebration was held in Baltiysk, at the base of the 36th Missile Boat Brigade.

The images posted on VK indicate that the Zelenyy Dol was moored alongside a harbor wall (not a floating pier). Just astern of her, the harbor wall makes a right-angle turn, with a line of trees visible behind.

Ahead of her is a channel with two marker buoys, the port (red) buoy nearer than the starboard (green) one.

Comparing the images with satellite images of Baltiysk available on Google Earth, these features are consistent with a position alongside the harbor wall at 54.636681, 19.945947, just south of the memorial, within the base of the 36th Missile Boat Brigade, and looking south across the fairway:

Image source: Google Earth. “ZD” marks the ship’s estimated location.

The images posted by Kiblitski show that the Serpukhov was moored perpedicular to the shore, in front of at least two piers, with a concrete surface giving way to grass, buildings and birch trees in the background:

By comparison with Google Earth, these give the Serpukhov’s location as 54.636738, 19.949909, alongside the second pier from the east:

Image source: Google Earth. “S” marks the ship’s estimated location.

All three sets of images thus indicate that the Serpukhov and Zelenyy Dol were in port in Baltiysk, at the base of the Baltic Fleet’s 36th Missile Boat Brigade, on December 17.

Context: Baltic Fleet, or Black Sea?

The Russian MoD has not officially confirmed the transfer of the two corvettes to the Baltic Fleet. Its latest official statement is the one from October 5 in which it announced their attachment to the Mediterranean squadron.

However, on October 26, Russian media outlet “Izvestiya” ran a report quoting an anonymous “official source from the Russian Ministry of Defense” which appeared to confirm the deployment.

The Russian MoD has not officially confirmed the transfer of the two corvettes to the Baltic Fleet. Its latest official statement is the one from October 5 in which it announced their attachment to the Mediterranean squadron.

The article reported that the Baltic Fleet would soon be reinforced with a division of Buyan-M class missile corvettes, armed with Kalibr missiles. It went on:

According to Izvestiya’s information, the first two small missile ships — “Zelenyy Dol” and “Serpukhov” — are being transferred from the Black to the Baltic Sea, and will soon join the newly formed division. Three more missile ships will be constructed and sent to the Baltic Fleet by the end of 2020.

“The formation of a small missile ship division and brigade within the Baltic Fleet has already started,” an official source from the Russian Ministry of Defense told Izvestiya. “We are planning to finish the job in two to three years. Currently, the newly-formed divisions have already received their first missile complexes and ships.”

Other references to the ships on the MoD website in late 2016 continued to place them in the context of the Black Sea Fleet. Beyond the announcement of their deployment to the Mediterranean squadron, two articles on the MoD site have mentioned the ships since October.

The first, dated November 22, described a meeting of the Military Council of the Russian Federation in St Petersburg at which the Zelenyy Dol’s crew were announced as winners of the Navy Commander’s prize for the best-prepared small missile ship. The Zelenyy Dol was described as belonging to the Black Sea Fleet.

The second, dated November 28, listed the Black Sea Fleet’s achievements through 2016. It also mentioned the Zelenyy Dol’s prize, and added the fact that the Zelenyy Dol and Serpukhov had launched Kalibr missiles into Syria, the first use in anger of the system.

Given that these comments are retrospective, they neither confirm nor disprove the transfer of the ships to the Baltic Fleet. However, the press release from the Zelenodolsk shipyard said that “representatives of the Black Sea Fleet command” attended the anniversary celebration. It did not mention representatives of the Baltic Fleet.

The formal status of the ships within the structures of the Russian Navy therefore remains unclear.

The formal status of the ships within the structures of the Russian Navy therefore remains unclear. Officially, they are meant to be in the Mediterranean; the presence of Black Sea Fleet staff appears to indicate an ongoing connection with that force; but their presence in Baltiysk and the Izvestiya report suggest a transfer, perhaps a long-term one.

What is clear from the recent imagery is that the ships were moored in the harbor of the 36th Missile Boat Brigade in Baltiysk on December 17, 2016.


Maks Czuperski is Director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab) & Special Advisor to the President. Ben Nimmo is the DFRLab Senior Fellow for Information Defense. Donara Barojan & Nika Aleksejeva are Digital Forensic Research Associates in the @DFRLab’s Digital Research Unit Baltics.

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