Russia’s Strategic Game Changer In The Baltics – OpEd
By Observer Research Foundation
By Rahul Krishna
Kaliningrad is a Russian exclave to the west of the Baltics, bordering Lithuania and Poland, both NATO allies. The reasons Kaliningrad is of immense strategic importance to Russia are many. It is the only port in Europe of Russia’s that remains ice free throughout the year, it houses the headquarters of the pivotal Russian Baltic Navy fleet, it houses two air bases of the Air Force, it houses a large number of Russian ballistic missiles, and its location is particularly advantageous. It is no surprise then that Russia is preparing to exploit the region’s location to gain a strategic military advantage by formulating directed military policy for the region.
The Soviet Union understood the strategic importance of Kaliningrad early on and realised the need to militarise it. It soon became the headquarters of famed Soviet Baltic Navy fleet. Kaliningrad was used as the first line of defence of the inner Soviet Union and played an important role in protecting North-Western Russia from any attack in the Baltic Sea. While initially, Soviet commanders had planned Kaliningrad as a defensive outpost, they slowly began to realise its importance as a support base for an offensive strike as well. Kaliningrad was used by the Soviet Union as an important support base and kept armaments in Kaliningrad that might be used by incoming Soviet soldiers to launch a large scale offensive towards the West.
Post the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Kaliningrad came under Russian administration despite being geographically cut off and surrounded by Lithuania and Poland which soon became NATO allies.
Building military power in Kaliningrad
However, analysis of all of the news flowing in of Russian military exercises suggests that Russia does not intend to follow the plans the Soviet Union had set out for Kaliningrad. Both strategy that has been planned in Moscow as well as on ground exercises have emphasised on the locational importance of Kaliningrad and how a shift in focus needs to occur to exploit this advantage.
Soon after the Crimea annexation, Russia unilaterally suspended an agreement between itself and Lithuania that required Russia to report armaments in the Kaliningrad region.
In the new doctrine for military modernisation, the Russian military claimed that there will be emphasis laid to reinforcing military power in the regions of Crimea, the Arctic and Kaliningrad. Both an increase in construction of military infrastructure and personnel is planned to occur by 2020.
Russia has deployed the short range Iskander ballistic missiles, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to Kaliningrad. Russia undertook anti-submarine training exercises in the Baltic Sea using specialised anti-submarine Ka-27 helicopters. Russia has also positioned coastal radars used to cue K-300P Anti-Ship missiles in Kaliningrad for use in the Baltic sea. The surface to air S-400 missiles, the most modern that Russia has, have been deployed in large number in Kaliningrad. Russia has flown several sorties out of two major air bases, Chernyakhovsk and Donskoye, very close to and at times even over the air space of Lithuania. However, it does seem as if these operations are more like interceptor missions rather than offensive operations.
What does this mean for the West?
All of these concerted actions make it evident that Russia is now focusing on building Kaliningrad to be an effective A2/AD (Anti-Access/Area Denial) base. A2/AD is a strategy by which a military denies its adversary access to certain strategic areas by an employment of various land, air and sea based weaponry. An integration of other commands such as the newly formed Aerospace Command and the Electronic Warfare Command is also expected in Kaliningrad along with conventional military to support this tactical A2/AD strategy.
This strategy being implemented by the Russian military does not bode well for the NATO. Any area denial in the Baltic regions could be catastrophic in the event of a skirmish with Russia. With tensions building, NATO cannot afford the occurrence of such a scenario. The NATO also possesses a largely blue water naval presence in Europe, while the Russians are more acclimatised to green water conditions such as the ones in the Baltic, Black and Caspian Seas. This makes the NATO even more vulnerable to this sort of strategy, something they haven’t particularly addressed so far.
NATO response forces in the region, therefore, will have to be quick in retaliating against such a strategy, however there is skepticism regarding their capabilities in the region at the moment. Logically speaking, implementation of an Anti-Access/ Area Denial strategy might well be accompanied by some form of offensive on the Baltics which will be disastrous for the NATO. NATO generals have expressed concerns over deployment of its quickest response force, the VHRJTF, in Eastern Europe, fearing it will be overrun by Russian troops in the event of a Russian offensive. Reinforcements through the Baltic Sea once again remain key to any form of defense or retaliation.
The US armed forces had acknowledged the threat posed by the Russian strategy and have been actively developing technology specifically to counter A2/AD implementation by Russia in Europe and by China in the South China Sea. Figuratively speaking, for any ground to be won back, the US needs to ensure that this technology is fast-tracked into deployment with NATO forces in Eastern Europe to deter the Russians from enforcing the area denial and ensure these capabilities become operational at the earliest.
To conclude, Russia has finally understood the locational advantage Kaliningrad gives them in any skirmish in the region. They have shaped their military strategy in a way that when they intend to, they have the resources to press this advantage. The NATO now needs to be proactive in plugging holes and developing contingencies for any Russian aggression in this region in the future.
*Rahul Krishna is doing his undergraduate course in Electronics Engineering from the Delhi College of Engineering in India. He interned at Observer Research Foundation in summer 2016. He specializes on strategic studies in Europe and North America as well as policy issues relating to technology
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).