NATO has been a slow learner in terms of reacting to Russia’s actions.
Only a few years ago, the Russian threat towards the Baltics seemed like something out of the darkest nightmares—an impossible scenario, merely a theory, worthy of a Tom Clancy novel. Even after the Russo–Georgian War of 2008 and the subsequent exercise “Zapad 2009”, in which Russian forces trained for a rapid advance into the Baltic States, analysts who warned of such a scenario were ridiculed and blamed for spreading senseless paranoia.
However, the recent toxic cocktail of Russia’s military reforms and aggressive foreign policy—most notably the military actions in Ukraine and Syria—has become all too visible. And no one is laughing anymore—high-ranking US and other NATO generals are openly discussing the very real scenario of war in the Baltics, as if the genie is suddenly out of the bottle.
And equally suddenly—as if the years of rapprochement with Russia, “reset” and “the Cold War is long over” speeches never happened—it’s fashionable again to talk about the rapid deployment of US forces to Europe, deterrence, equipment prepositioning and armoured warfare in the 21st century.
The Exclave’s Role on the Playing Board
Although many of the simulations and scenarios involve so-called “little green men,” rediscovered in the Crimea operation, and the territory of the potential conflict is usually mapped around the eastern borders of Latvia and Estonia, US generals are keeping a keen eye on and openly express grave concerns about the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which borders Lithuania and Poland.
Several threat scenarios exist concerning Kaliningrad, from conventional warfare through escalation to hybrid warfare and use of tactical nuclear weapons, as was practised in the 2009 exercise. The feasibility of such scenarios depends on several factors—the tactical situation, the current deployment of forces and the posture of both NATO and Russia.
An optimist would say that the strategic and tactical situation of Kaliningrad hardly favours Russia. A territory occupied during the Second World War, when Soviet forces scared away, killed or expelled the local people of East Prussia, became an exclave following the fall of the USSR.
Sandwiched between two NATO countries, Poland and Lithuania, Kaliningrad can be reached via air or sea routes that in theory could be blocked. In a game of draughts there is a situation in which one piece is sandwiched in the corner and cannot move. It therefore “rots”.
A somewhat similar example might be the Channel Islands, off the coast of northern France. During the Second World War, these islands were the only British territory occupied by Nazi Germany, and remained so long after D-Day, until May 1945. The Germans fortified the islands expecting an invasion, and kept a significant garrison there, but eventually both soldiers and local people had to starve as the Allies simply ignored the rotting draughtspiece.
In 2004, a Russian military analyst named Mikhail Khodarenok warned his compatriots about a scenario in which, in the event of war between NATO and Russia, Kaliningrad would be blocked and neutralised with ease in several days. Moreover, the analyst claimed, NATO’s superiority in high-tech weapons systems would allow the Alliance to launch a successful blitzkrieg on Russia. The spearheads would be launched from the Baltic States, naturally.
In fact, the revised Russian national security strategy states that NATO, and particularly the United States, poses a direct threat to the motherland. Indeed, over the last year or so there has been a noticeable shift in the Russian view of the Baltics.
Russian military analysts, who once laughed at the military of the Baltic States and claimed that a single regiment of Russian paratroopers could sweep into one or all of the three countries in a matter of days or even hours, are now warning of a real threat that these countries allegedly pose to Russia. They are most concerned about US deployments, which “could be increased in a matter of days”. Some Russian analysts, like Vyacheslav Samoilov, have claimed that the US is even secretly transferring equipment to the Baltics, while recent exercises in Lithuania and Estonia are aimed at the local Russian population—with the Balts allegedly being trained to suppress a potential rebellion.
Such inspiration about rebellious local populations, who have “spontaneously armed themselves with weapons from the hunting stores”, clearly comes from Ukraine. But Kaliningrad is already Russian territory, supposedly armed to the teeth. It is often called the most militarised place in Europe. That, however, is not quite true. Kaliningrad used to be heavily militarised, during the final days of the USSR and the first few years of modern Russia. An impressive 100,000-plus troops, 850 tanks, 1,200 APCs, 350 artillery pieces and 180 aircraft were deployed there. But these numbers have since decreased quite dramatically. Lithuanians, for example, have become used to the transit of endless lines of rusted old tanks being transported to Russia via railway. It is hard to say how much equipment remains in Kaliningrad, but it is still believed that Russia keeps enough materiel for three full divisions in the exclave.
The divisions in Russia, however, have mostly become relics of the past. Despite recent announcements of three new divisions in Russia’s most powerful Western military district, most of these units have been reformed into brigades. This ambitious process started after the 2008 war with Georgia and, despite economic, bureaucratic and other setbacks, it is still in full swing. According to 2010 data, there were just over 10,000 troops left in Kaliningrad, mainly in the 336th Marine Brigade in Baltijsk and the 79th Motor Rifle Brigade in Gusev, with approximately 4,000 troops each. The only other significant ground unit is the separate 7th Motor Rifle Regiment, based in Kaliningrad city itself.
So, in theory, it is a weak force: Poland alone maintains an entire 16th Pomeranian (Mechanised) Division on its border with Kaliningrad, composed of the 9th Armoured Cavalry Brigade and two mechanised brigades, supplemented with artillery and air-defence regiments, against two Russian brigades and one regiment.
True, the Polish division’s equipment is old, but the pace of modernisation in the Polish armed forces means that upgraded Leopard 2 tanks may soon appear near the border. Poland already has more Leopard 2s than Germany, and old Russian T-72s are hardly a match for the modernised panzers.
Furthermore, the 11th Mosurian Artillery Regiment has been re-equipped with 24 modern self-propelled howitzers. The accurate fire from these 155 mm pieces can reach the main Russian rocket-artillery brigade, the 152nd Guards at Chernyakhovsk. This brigade is one of the first to have started to replace the Tochka-U tactical missile with the new Iskander-M. The latter systems are not only newer, but the missiles themselves are more evasive, as they fly not the usual trajectory of a ballistic missile, but rather of a cruise missile. Iskander-M missiles are also difficult to detect on radar and can carry both conventional and 80-kiloton nuclear warheads over 500 kilometres. The INF treaty-breaching Iskander-K cruise missile version can reach targets as far away as 2,000 km. Nuclear warheads are reportedly being kept in Kaliningrad, as storage sites have seen extensive refurbishment.
It is not easy to determine the Kremlin’s intentions, as Russian forces have launched several snap large-scale exercises without any advance warning to NATO. At the same time, NATO is stepping up the training of rapid reaction forces, which would take only days to be activated.
A2/AD: A Factor That Changes Everything
Even in the best case, the Alliance would face a growing challenge as Kaliningrad becomes associated with the A2/AD factor. Kaliningrad is a base for Anti access/Area denial weapons such as S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, and anti-ship missile batteries have become quite a headache for NATO military planners.
In the event of a snap exercise-turned-invasion, one would need to neutralise a very potent A2/AD force in Kaliningrad. And that is a problem, because over the last 25 years the Allies have not faced such a powerful and integrated air-defence network.
In fact, a number of American generals, including SACEUR Philip Breedlove himself, have warned several times in recent months that NATO has not faced an adversary with the sophisticated weapons systems, from artillery to anti-aircraft and electronic warfare systems, that Russia possesses. Experience gained in Afghanistan and even in Libya would not be sufficient against an adversary such as Russia, as NATO’s technological superiority in the air can be matched by the A2/AD factor as well as in numbers. NATO simply does not have sufficient numbers in Europe to counter such a threat. The commander of the US Air Force in Europe, General Frank Gorenc, has recently admitted that his force has reduced in size physically by 75%, and by 60% in terms of personnel, since the end of the Cold War. Not having enough strike and electronic warfare platforms means that it would be very hard for NATO to achieve air superiority—a factor that has played a key role in recent conflicts.
At the same time, besides the 400-km radius S-400 anti-aircraft system in Kaliningrad, which covers the whole of Lithuania, the Russians have a powerful Voronezh-DM phased array VHF early-warning radar—which can cover the entire Baltic Sea region. In private conversations, some US generals have warned that any attempt to neutralise Russian anti-aircraft defences in Kaliningrad with current capabilities would be a one-way, unsuccessful mission.
Meanwhile, Russian bombers armed with standoff weapons have been flying en masse from the Western military district over the Baltic Sea in attack patterns against Sweden and Denmark. “Visitors” have been intercepted over the North Sea close to the United Kingdom and as far away as Portugal. Training to close off the Baltic Sea from NATO reinforcement resembles exercises during the Cold War, when Soviet forces trained to close the Atlantic to allied convoys. This time, however, the sea is smaller and the distance to Russian bases is shorter.
Although Russian A2/AD capabilities should not be overestimated, they can be used in defensive as well as offensive roles, as they are mobile. Blocking the Russian Baltic Fleet in port also may appear easy, but Russia has clearly demonstrated in Syria that it can fight a modern war from a great distance, launching cruise missiles, just like NATO. What should be worrisome, however, is the fact that cruise missiles have been launched from small ships like corvettes in the Caspian Fleet as well as upgraded Kilo-class submarines—the type of vessels Russia has in its Baltic Fleet.
The war in Syria has become not only an exhibition for Russia’s domestic audiences, but also a training ground for old and new military hardware as well as personnel. It was never a surprise that Russia possessed weapons such as cruise missiles, but their effective demonstration in a real war sends a clear signal that this is a capability NATO would have to face in the event of conflict over the Baltic states.
Latvia, for instance, has on several occasions encountered Russian surface ships, from intelligence-gathering platforms to amphibious assault ships, very close to its maritime borders. Even without the cancelled French Mistral-class vessels, Russia’s Baltic Fleet has four amphibious assault ships, which can carry two full marine infantry battalions with dozens of tanks, as well as two Zubr-class air-cushioned landing craft, each capable of carrying a company of marines.
The Key Lies in the Undefended Gap
However, all that dancing at sea can be seen as a diversion, meant to confuse and disrupt NATO forces and stretch their already thin resources. The real threat may come from a single action in the short, 100-km wide strip of Polish land known as the Suwalki Gap that separates Belarus and Kaliningrad. US commanders who recall their service as lieutenants during the Cold War may remember the Fulda Gap—an area of lowland plain in Germany that was deemed to be the obvious route for a Soviet armoured thrust into Western Europe. The entire US V Corps, along with other American units, numbering 300,000 troops in total, would have defended the Fulda Gap and West Germany. Now there are only 30,000 US troops in Europe, and there are no significant NATO units in the Suwalki Gap at all. The nearest units are a single Lithuanian mechanised battalion and a company of Home Guard. Lithuania would be hard-pressed to defend the gap, even with an increased defence budget, additional purchases of Javelin anti-tank missiles, self-propelled howitzers, infantry fighting vehicles with long-range Spike missiles and an almost-completed deal for a medium-range anti-aircraft system, as well as the reactivation of a second mechanised infantry brigade and the creation of new units. Lithuania has, after all, plenty of places to worry about the Russians: they could pour across at many points of the 270-km border, which is mainly formed by rivers and lakes.
Poland has nothing in the Suwalki Gap, even though historically it is an invasion route, even for the Poles themselves; in 1920, units from the 2nd Polish Army outflanked Bolshevik forces through these woodlands and defeated them, at the same time capturing Vilnius and thus effectively souring relations with their historical allies, the Lithuanians.
The flanks of the Suwalki Gap are still heavily forested and, coincidentally, are reserved as military training areas for the Russian and Belarusian armies. The sounds of firing are frequently heard from across the border, and residents complain of shattered windows.
More worrying bells rang a few months ago on the Polish side, as Poles living in the border town of Goldap reported strips of woodland being cut down on the Belarusian side, as if lanes were being prepared for tanks. The importance of Goldap is that it lies on one of the three major roads that pass through the Suwalki Gap. Capturing Goldap would open up a route to Elk, Augustaw and Suwalki itself, effectively cutting off northern Poland and all three Baltic States by land from the rest of NATO territory.
The role of Belarus in such a conflict is unknown, as president Lukashenko is used to sending very mixed signals towards Europe and Moscow. In fact, Minsk reacted furiously to the words of the Commanding General of the US Army in Europe, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, when he openly expressed his concern over the Suwalki Gap and pointed to the very limited forces available to him. Belarus called the US general’s statement “nonsense,” but Hodges had presumably chosen his words carefully. For a start, the hostility of Russian foreign policy and its use of military force in land-grabbing ventures is hard to deny. It is also true that large-scale, no-notice Russian exercises create a feeling of déjà vu. During the Cold War, both NATO and Moscow feared—often to the level of paranoia, as in the 1983 exercise “Able Archer”—that an adversary would use an exercise as cover for a first offensive strike.
During the Cold War, threat levels would have been increased each time the other side decided to conduct an exercise. However, in modern times, threat levels are more often increased because of terrorism, while Russia is often able to catch NATO off guard, as in the case of the Crimea. NATO has proved to be a slow learner, as the use of snap exercises has been the Kremlin’s modus operandi since at least 1968, when the Soviet and other Warsaw Pact armies conducted a series of large-scale, unannounced exercises near the Czechoslovakian border. One night, a civilian aircraft suffered a “malfunction” and had to land at Prague airport. A company of crack paratroopers dressed in civilian clothes quickly seized the airport and an endless airlift of troops followed, along with a ground invasion. NATO was taken by surprise.
The pattern was repeated on the night of 27 February 2014, when little green men appeared in Simferopol International Airport in the Crimea. For a couple of days, the world was puzzled, since not everyone could recognise the new Russian camouflage pattern, while low-flying Russian helicopters could not be detected by the jammed Ukrainian radars—a use of Russian electronic warfare that would later impress and worry American officers. Once again, NATO was surprised and faced with a fait accompli.
So it was only natural that Lithuania sounded the alarm in August 2014 and again in March 2015, when Russian trains transiting to Kaliningrad broke down while on Lithuanian territory; they were surrounded by armed security officers—the thought of an “accidentally broken-down train” with little green men pouring from it seemed all too real.
Despite the alarm signals US generals and the Baltic States are sending, many NATO members find it hard to believe that Russia would be foolhardy enough to attack a member of the Alliance. However, the talk about the need for capabilities to counter and, if need be, neutralise Russian forces is coming not from fiction writers but from real high-ranking NATO generals. There is a race against time to convince governments that, even without significant forces in Kaliningrad, the aggressive nature of recent Russian policies poses a real danger to the Baltic States.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.