In the Russian propaganda the information wave about the flight of the “Tu-214ON” plane over the Crimea does not subside. For example, there are reports of alleged “special attention” to this flight by NATO experts. Also, this flight was presented by the Russians as “the result of the achievements of Russian industry”, as “new opportunities for air reconnaissance”, and so on. Therefore it is necessary to understand a situation in more detail.
On March 4, 2021, a “Tu-214ON” observation aircraft made a reconnaissance flight from the military airfield near Taganrog. It was stated that he conducted this flight in a new capacity – to test the camouflage of Russian military facilities on the coasts of Crimea and Krasnodar Krai. The “Tu-214ON” also allegedly tested the ability of Russian air defense systems in these areas to detect air targets in passive location.
According to “RIA Novosti”, “the main purpose was to check the camouflage and security of military facilities, units and formations located there, including the Sevastopol and Novorossiysk naval bases”. The flight lasted more than three hours and included “assessment of the effectiveness of the installed on-board surveillance equipment” .
The events were preceded by information “noise” in January 2021, when a number of Russian publications reported that the “Tu-214ON” would allegedly be used for reconnaissance purposes after Russia’s withdrawal from the Treaty on Open Skies (TOS). It was stated that the two aircraft data would be used to monitor the results of various weapons tests and to assess the effectiveness of the exercises. It was reported that until the procedure to leave the TOS is completed, both “Tu-214ON” allegedly “will be in reserve” .
And in February 2021, it was announced that “Open Sky” aircraft could be used to solve a number of military tasks, such as monitoring the security of military facilities. To do this, both aircraft will receive additional equipment and undergo additional upgrades. It was pointed out that the level of the aircraft radars can be increased four to six times .
The fact is that the forced US’s TOS withdrawal procedure was the another negative consequence of Russia’s aggressive policy. It will be recalled that the TOS aimed to strengthen confidence-building measures and controls in the field of military security, that it was signed in 1992 and suggested that member states could openly collect information about each other’s armed forces.
Russia used “An-30B” and “Tu-154M LK-1” aircrafts to conduct flights under the TOS over the participating States’ territories. Later, a special aviation surveillance aircraft “Tu-214ON” (“Open Sky”) was created to replace them at “Tupolev” OJSC on the basis of the “Tu-204” passenger aircraft. To this end, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced a tender for research and development work “Equipping TU-214ON aircraft with digital cameras of domestic production to ensure the Open Sky regime in compliance with international treaties”. The purpose of the work was to equip the aircraft with a complex of optoelectronic surveillance that meets the requirements of TOS (product “Tsifrovik”) .
As a result, it was announced that the on-board aviation surveillance complex, developed by OJSC “Vega” Radio Construction Concern, was located on planes, as part of relevant digital aerial photographic equipment, television and infrared cameras, side-view radar systems, on-board digital computer system and navigation system. The first “Tu-214ON” was assembled at the Kazan aircraft plant in 2011, and the second by the end of 2013.  According to the statements made in 2021 by the head of “Vega”, the equipment installed on them had to be “modified” for intelligence purposes.
At the same time, it should be reminded that until 2019, the United States did not allow both “Tu-214ON”s to fly over its territory, as it was not certified as onboard equipment. The Russians have been periodically “making noise” about this in the TOS since 2012, but it did not end until the planes were inspected. Russia was forced to organize the first stage of such mandatory event with the participation of 56 specialists from 20 countries, participating in the TOS, in May 2018 at the Kubinka air base near Moscow. Then “Tu-214ON” “performed four demonstration flights” .
It should also be noted that in fact, despite the large number of equipment, “retrain” “Tu-214ON” for other tasks is extremely difficult. There is a big difference between “Open Sky”’s and reconnaissance planes. The Russian Air Force has a reconnaissance aircraft based on the same “Tu-214”, the “Tu-214R”. This machine is a long-range radar survey aircraft that has been specially equipped for conducting radio engineering and optoelectronic reconnaissance, including the high-resolution optoelectronic system “Fraction” .
However, the “Tu-214ON” can really perform the functions of “self-control”. Therefore, during his flight on March 4 over the Crimea, the occupiers confirmed that they controlled the level of camouflage provided for a set of their measures. These aggressor’s steps are aimed at preparing for the new strategic command and staff exercises “Zapad – 2021”. For example, according to an official statement issued by the Russian Defense Ministry on the same day, more than 130 company tactical groups of the agressor’s Southern Military District began bilateral exercises at 30 military training grounds located in the mountains, on the coast, in forests and steppes. Among other things, these events took place in the occupied Crimea.
In all, by the end of March, the occupiers’ plan to conduct more than 80 company tactical exercises, 90 % of which will be “bilateral”, involving the naval component, the interaction of “units of all-military units and marine units”. Also, more than 20 planes and helicopters will be used every day to “perform training and combat missions”. The next stage of combat training of military units of the aggressor’s Southern Military District will be to conduct relevant battalion tactical exercises in April, 2021 .
These exercises have a clear offensive nature, as it was exemplified by the events held on March 4 at the “Raevsky” range in the Krasnodar Territory with a “reinforced assault battalion of the Guards assault Kuban Cossack Regiment”. In this exercise alone, under the command of Major-General Andriy Sukhovetsky, commander of the Novorossiysk Guards Airborne Assault Mountain Unit, more than 500 servicemen of the regiment, about 50 units of combat and special equipment, 4 transport and combat helicopters “Mi-8AMTSh” (“Terminator”), 2 “Ka-52” (“Alligator”) attack helicopters and 2 “Su-25” attack aircraft.
Thus, such attempts of the Russian army to carefully disguise its preparations in the Crimea, to test this disguise by “Tu-214ON” flights, are obvious parts of the single broad intention of the aggressor state.
6. https://function.mil.ru/news_page/country/[email protected]
8. https://structure.mil.ru/structure/okruga/south/news/[email protected]
9. https://function.mil.ru/news_page/country/[email protected]