Is Russia shipping nuclear-capable cruise missiles to the Baltic while saying they’re headed for the Mediterranean?
Ship movements in the Mediterranean and North Sea and comments posted online suggest that two Russian warships armed with long-range, nuclear-capable “Kalibr” cruise missiles are sailing to the Baltic — despite official statements to the contrary.
While the world has been watching the passage of the Russian Navy’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, down the English Channel on the way to Syria, another ship movement has the potential to raise tensions on NATO’s eastern flank. This is the apparent Russian deployment of two small missile corvettes armed with the Kalibr long-range cruise missile (NATO reporting name “Sizzler”) to the Baltic.
The Kalibr can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads, and its maximum range against land targets, according to Russian arms site arms-expo.ru, is 2600 km. This makes it a far more capable weapon than the land-based Iskander missile (reported range 500 km), whose recent deployment to Kaliningrad provoked tensions with the Baltic States and NATO (see our previous posts, “Troubled Waters” and “The Iskanders Have Landed”).
The Russian Navy’s new vessels
The ships in question are the “Zelenyy Dol” (hull number 602) and “Serpukhov” (603), classified as “Buyan-M”-class Small Missile Ships (Russian: Малые ракетные корабли, or МКР). They are among the Russian Navy’s newest vessels: both entered into service with the Black Sea Fleet at the end of last year, and were home-ported in Sevastopol. On 19 August, while steaming in the eastern Mediterranean, they fired their main weaponry for the first time in anger, launching three cruise missiles at targets in Syria. The Russian Ministry of Defense published video of the launches.
They returned to Sevastopol after this exploit, but in early October it was announced that they would return to the Mediterranean, with Black Sea Fleet spokesman Nikolai Voskresensky quoted as saying, “In the Mediterranean Sea, the Serpukhov and Zelenyy Dol are set to join the permanent operational task force in the distant maritime zone on a planned rotational basis.”
On 5 October, both ships were photographed by ship-spotters as they passed through the Bosphorus a mile apart:
The general expectation was that they would head south for the Syrian coastline. Indeed, Kremlin propaganda outlet RT stated that the two ships “will assist in the military operation against Islamic State”.
However, naval blog site 7fbtk.blogspot.com challenged that account, quoting a 16 September statement from the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense as saying that the two ships were due to be transferred to the Baltic. The MoD had said that the ships were due to head north via Russia’s inland waterways in late September; that deadline was missed, the transit never materialized and the claim was never widely reported.
But the blogger revived it, quoting open sources as saying that the ships were expected in Malta in mid-October, and added, “Having travelled that far west with a tug, it seems even more likely that Serpukhov and Zelenyy Dol will continue to the Baltic Sea. But the small patrol combatants will require several port calls (Ceuta? Lisbon?) and/or logistical support by a naval tanker. The Baltic Fleet would benefit greatly from the introduction of Kalibr-armed warships. While Kalibr-capable ships and submarines are tested in the Baltic Sea before being transferred to the Black Sea Fleet, the Baltic Fleet currently has no Kalibr-capable ships or submarines in its own permanent inventory.”
Away from Syria
Sure enough, on 9 October, ship-spotters in Valletta, Malta, posted images of the two ships, together with a tug known as SB-36, moored in the Grand Harbor. Website maltaspotting.com, which regularly monitors ship movements in the harbor, confirmed their presence and predicted a departure of 12 October.
On 10 October, a website dedicated to Russian military equipment, sdelanounas.ru, posted a series of photos and video of the three ships in Valletta. The text accompanying them read: “The small missile ships left Sevastopol on 4 October and are, at the moment, making the transfer to the Baltic Fleet.”
The Zelenyy Dol, Serpukhov and SB-36 were filmed leaving Valletta on 11 October, a day ahead of schedule and very shortly after the arrival of a British Type 45 destroyer in the harbor:
Круизный порт Валлетта на Мальте превратился во вторую Женеву, а гавань Grand Harbour - в общежитие для кораблей проти…vk.com
The blogger of 7fbtk was right in his estimation of their next possible port of call, because on 15 October, just as the Kuznetsov battle group was putting to sea in the High North, the Zelenyy Dol and Serpukhov were reported by Spanish local paper El Pueblo de Ceuta as approaching the Spanish port of Ceuta on the south side of the Straits of Gibraltar. On 17 October, the same newspaper reported that “there have been almost 200 Russian sailors in town since yesterday”, together with a photo of the three ships in harbor:
Posts on social media confirmed the ships’ arrival, with Gibraltar ship-watching twitter feed @key2med posting a brief text on their arrival.
And the sdelanounas.ru website once again reported their arrival, and again commented that they are “currently making a transfer” to the Baltic Fleet.
The following day, El Pueblo de Ceuta reported the approach of a cruise ship to the port. Almost in passing, it added that the Russian warships, which had been due to stay for four days, in fact only stayed for one.
The corvettes completed various victualling and provisioning operations, in particular taking on 40 tons of fuel oil per ship and 25 tons of drinking water and unloading garbage. (…) While it had been initially foreseen that they would stay four days in port for their crews to rest, in the end they were (here) only one day.
Then where did the warships go? The apparent answer came two days later, in a BBC report on the moves of the Kuznetsov group. According to this report, the UK Ministry of Defense “said another British destroyer, HMS Dragon, was due to meet two Russian corvettes traveling north towards the UK from the direction of Portugal”. The BBC did not name the corvettes, but the only Russian corvettes reported in those waters were the Zelenyy Dol and Serpukhov.
The identity of the two northbound corvettes appeared to have been confirmed on 21 October by a report from Interfax on the movements of the Kuznetsov group. This stated that “Another British destroyer, the Dragon, will wait south of Britain for the Russian corvettes Zelenyy Dol and Serpukhov, which are coming from the Mediterranean and are armed with Kalibr-NK cruise missiles, and should join the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier group.”
At that stage, it was theoretically possible — though unlikely — that the Buyan-Ms would indeed join the Kuznetsov group.
But late in the afternoon of 23 October, the head of the Dutch Navy, General Rob Verkerk, tweeted an image of two Russian warships with the caption, “Pressure on the North Sea. Passage (S-N) of two (new) Russian Navy corvettes of the Sviyazhsk class through the Dutch Exclusive Economic Zone. Photos from a NH-90 (helicopter).”
“Sviyazhsk” is the alternative name for the Buyan-M, named for its first ship, the Graf Sviyazhsk.
The images left in no doubt that the ships were the Zelenyy Dol and the Serpukhov, both from the numbers on their hulls and the details of their upper works:
The Zelenyy Dol in Valletta
Thus the claims that the corvettes were to remain in the Mediterranean, or escort the Kuznetsov, appear incorrect. Conversely, their transit of the entire length of the Mediterranean, up the Atlantic and into the North Sea is fully consistent with a destination in the Baltic. Reports from Ukrainian intelligence, blogs and the media of various countries point in the same direction. It appears, at the very least, highly likely that they are heading to the Baltic.
A significant upgrade
The addition of two Buyan-M-class missile ships to the Baltic Fleet would represent a significant upgrade to Russia’s Baltic Fleet, and a significant new element in an already troubled sea. They are armed with the “Kalibr” missile system, gleefully (and tastelessly) described by the Sputnik propaganda outlet as “Russia’s winged incinerator”.
According to the website of the Black Sea Fleet, each Buyan-M-class corvette carries 8 launch units of the “3C14 Kalibr-NK” missile. No other website refers to the “3C14” designation; other references are to the 3M series. However, on the Cyrillic keyboard the letters M and C are next to each other. Other sources state that the corvettes are armed with the 3M14 variant.
A website dedicated to reporting and advertising Russian weaponry, Oruzhie Rossii, shows imagery of Kalibr missiles and gives some details:
- range against sea targets: 350 km
- range against land targets: 2600 km
A separate site, techcult.ru, offers a table of the main Kalibr export (not domestic) variants and their known specifications:
The site points out that the specifications of the domestically-used missiles are secret, but also states that the range of the domestic 3M14 is a reported 2600 km.
Уничтожены командный пункт и база террористов в районе н.п. Дар-Тааза, завод по производству минометных боеприпасов и …function.mil.ru
The missiles are transported in vertical launch silos amidships, as shown in this footage from the 19 August MoD launch video:
A range of 300 km against naval targets would give the following coverage of the Baltic Sea from the port of Baltiysk:
A range of 2600 km for land targets would put Reykjavík just in reach:
The Baltic Fleet’s surface combatants, according to website russianships.info, currently consist of the following classes:
2 x Sovremenyy-class destroyers armed with the “Moskit” (SS-N-22 “Sunburn”) anti-ship missiles, reported range up to 240 km (for the export version; other reported versions have half that range)
4 x Steregushchy-class guided-missile corvettes armed with “Uran” (SS-N-25 “Switchblade”) anti-ship missiles, range 130 km, according to the website of its producer
2 x Neustrashimyy-class guided-missile frigates also armed with the Uran system (the Yaroslav Mudry is in this class and has this armament; online sources report that its sister ship, the Neustrashimyy, does not)
4 x Nanuchka-class small missile ships armed with the “Malakhit” (SS-N-9 “Siren”) anti-ship missile, reported range 120 km
The Moskit and Malakhit are reportedly capable of carrying nuclear warheads, but their range is an order of magnitude less than a Kalibr’s. Meanwhile, the Iskander land-based missiles, whose (apparently temporary) deployment to Kaliningrad’s land forces in early October raised such tensions, have a reported range of 500 km.
Thus, if the reporting is accurate and the ships are indeed headed for the Baltic, the addition of “Kalibr” missiles would increase the strike range not just of the Baltic Fleet, but of Russian forces in the Baltic region, fivefold. Russian officials’ and news agency statements that the ships are to be based in the Mediterranean would appear at best inaccurate, and at worst, deceptive.
The Kuznetsov group is making bigger waves, and has the potential to have a greater military impact in the Mediterranean. But the two small corvettes, with their modern, nuclear-capable missiles, may yet have an impact out of proportion to their size in the Baltic.
Ben Nimmo is the Senior Fellow for Information Defense in the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab. Maks Czuperski is Strategic Communications Advisor to the President of the Atlantic Council and leads the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab.