Last week an article was published in Izvestia looking at the Russian defense of Kaliningrad. The article was written by Dmitriy Boltenkov, and while providing an interesting view on Russia’s approach to the defense of the enclave, it also doubles as an almost caricatured example of a distorted world view that unfortunately typifies much defense journalism in Russia.
I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at the article, beginning with what it says about the Russian military in Kaliningrad. This also gives an opportunity to give an update on the Baltic Fleet. I recently published a long article in Danish about the Russian Baltic Fleet, and I have wanted to write something about it in English as well.
First it is highlighted that Kaliningrad has served as a valuable learning ground for joint operations. All the forces in Kaliningrad are under command of the Baltic Fleet. This means that the Baltic Fleet can better be understood as a joint command than as a naval organization. In addition to the joint forces in Kaliningrad, the Baltic Fleet also commands the Leningrad Naval Base, which has branches in different locations around Saint Petersburg. The experiences from Kaliningrad have informed the decision to create similar force compositions in Kamchatka and the Arctic, and it functioned as an early example of the unified command structure that would become the basis of the current system of military districts.
Kaliningrad was also – according to this article – the first place that Russia established an A2/AD zone. This is a noteworthy statement, because increasingly Western analysis has begun to reject the notion that Russia has an A2/AD strategy. Michael Kofman has pointed out that A2/AD is not a concept in Russian military thought, and personally I have called it a myth. If anything, I would say that the Bastion concept in the Arctic and the Far East is the original implementation of something akin to A2/AD, but Boltenkov seems convinced that it was first developed in the Baltic region. This, allegedly, gives Kaliningrad a strong defense against the preferred Western tactic of massive air bombardments to shape a battlefield.
Naval Assets and Missiles
Then the article moves on to describing the naval strength of the Baltic Fleet. There is nothing super surprising about it, but it gives a nice overview. The four Steregushchiy-class corvettes are mentioned, and it is highlighted that they are blue water capable vessels that regularly operate in the Atlantic and even have made it all the way to the Red Sea. It is also mentioned that in the near future one of them, either Retivy or Strogiy, will be upgraded with the new Zaslon radar system – a detail that I was not aware of.
Then Boltenkov turns to the larger warships and mentions that the frigate Yaroslav Mudry is on a long deployment and currently is to be found around the coasts of South Africa. They were supposed to visit Cape Town, but due to the fear of coronavirus the small group consisting of Yaroslav Mudry, the tanker Yelna, and the tugboat Viktor Konetskiy had to make do with throwing anchor outside the city. This sounds like a disappointment for the crews who had made it all the way to South Africa and probably were hoping for some nice days at shore. The group left Kaliningrad on October 1st, and around New Years they made world headlines for participating in a combined exercise with the Chinese and Iranian navies close to the Strait of Hormuz. Boltenkov also mentions the two other large warships from the Baltic Fleet, namely the destroyer Nastoichivy and the frigate Neustrashimy. He explains that both ships are set to rejoin the fleet in the coming years when their repairs are completed. This is a (not very) surprising timeline. Last winter it was boldly announced that both ships would reenter service quickly, but since then we haven’t heard more about it. It seemed clear that the projects had been struck by delays.
The trademark of the Baltic Fleet is small corvettes, and some of them are new and modern. They have two Buyan-M class and two Karakurt-class corvettes, and both of these types are equipped with Kalibr missiles. They also have a rather large collection of various Soviet era corvettes. The Baltic Fleet also sports amphibious capabilities, namely four rather large Ropucha-class ships and two Zubr-class hovercraft. The Zubr-class is an interesting vessel that looks spectacular on video when it sails around on the beaches. It also has minelaying capabilities. One point that I do want to make here is that the term “amphibious” often sounds more threatening than it actually is. It gives an image of Russian soldiers landing on beaches of Baltic islands. In reality the Ropuchas are mostly used for general transportation of supplies, and the Baltic Fleet has contributed to the so-called Syrian Express with these ships.
One noticeable shortage in the Baltic Fleet is submarines. They only have one old Kilo-class, and Boltenkov specifically mentions the much larger German and Swedish submarine fleets in the same area. He also notes that submarines from the Northern Fleet regularly make the trip to the Baltic Sea in order to assist with the sea trials when shipyards in Saint Petersburg and Kaliningrad produce new warships that need to test their ASW equipment.
Aside from the ships, Boltenkov also finds reason to mention the 152nd Guard Missile Brigade equipped with Iskander-M missiles and the 25th Coastal Missile Brigade with Bastion and Bal anti-ship missiles. These weapons provide a powerful ground-based missile threat on great distances. There are also strong artillery systems in Kaliningrad like the Uragan multiple rocket launcher system (MLRS), Msta and Pion howitzers, and Khrisantema anti-tank missiles.
The article mentions that all this adds up to a combined salvo size of 96 Uragan rockets, 32 Kalibr missiles, 24 Iskander-M missiles, and 20 Bastion missiles. Boltenkov describes this as the first salvo, but it seems unlikely that they could easily reload for a second one of the same size.
Air Power and Electronic Warfare
Kaliningrad is well equipped with air defense weapons. The 44th Air Defense Division has regiments with S-400 and S-300V4 respectively, and the 22nd Guards Air Defense Regiment has short-range Tor-M2 systems. Boltenkov claims that in addition to this there is another 8-10 air defense divisions with S-400, S-300, or S-300V4. I have been unable to verify these numbers, but that is a lot. This means that the air defense of Kaliningrad is comparable to that of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
There is also a quite strong presence of aircraft. It is technically called naval aviation because it is part of the Baltic Fleet, but in practice it is hard to distinguish from what the Air Force would deliver. The 132nd Air Division consists of a fighter regiment, a bomber regiment, and a helicopter regiment. Kaliningrad is also well-equipped with electronic warfare equipment. For example they have giant the Murmansk-BN jammer, which can interrupt short wave radiocommunications on ranges large enough to cover all of Europe.
The location of Kaliningrad also means that it is valuable for strategic air surveillance. There is located a Voronezh-DM missile early warning radar in the enclave, and soon there will also be positioned a 29B6 Container over-the-horizon radar which will be able to see the take-off of aircraft or the launch of missiles as far away as the United Kingdom or the Mediterranean.
What is so annoying about this article?
Boltenkov provides a nice roundup of the Baltic Fleet and the defense composition in Kaliningrad. But what does all this have to do with the British Royal Navy, you might ask? Or maybe you did not ask that question, because actually there isn’t any obvious connection, and it doesn’t make sense to connect these two things.
But Boltenkov just can’t resist doing it anyways, and this is where this article becomes a caricature of politicized Russian defense journalism. In late March, a group of Russian ships – including five ships from the Baltic Fleet – lingered around in the English Channel for some days, and this was mentioned in the British press. I sometimes think the British over-dramatize these events, but in this case the Royal Navy actually made a fairly calm statement about it. But in Boltenkov’s article this is described as borderline panic on the part of the British, who were scared by a group of three corvettes and two amphibious vessels. Conveniently his article does not mention the two Admiral Grigorovich class frigates from the Black Sea Fleet, because that would have ruined the story that the British are afraid of small corvettes from the Baltic.
After ridiculing the British for being terrified by small Russian warships, Boltenkov moves on to explaining how the West is super-aggressive. He states that exercises like Cold Response and Defender Europe 2020 call for a response1, so nobody should be surprised that the Russians would send a group of warships to monitor. Boltenkov also notes the vulnerable position of Kaliningrad “surrounded by governments with anti-Russian policies”, and whose politicians “frequently express the desire to annex the territory of Russia’s westernmost oblast”. NATO builds military infrastructure in the Baltic States and Poland, who renew their arsenals and buy new artillery and missile systems. Soldiers from Western countries rotate through the region, and one NATO exercise takes place after the other. Also, intelligence aircraft from NATO countries and Sweden are practically stuck on the borders of Kaliningrad.
According to Boltenkov, it is self-evident that the Russian government has to do something to protect Kaliningrad. So this tirade functions as the introduction to an otherwise useful and interesting article about the Russian military forces in Kaliningrad.
As a Western observer, it is easy to be confused: At once, we are portrayed as weak and scared, but also as strong and aggressive. In a Russian context these two narratives can work together by applying the always convenient explanation of Russophobia. According to this theory, everyone is both afraid of and opposed to Russia at the same time, so it makes sense that the British would be scared of a few corvettes while also plotting to attack Kaliningrad. But for a Western audience it just sounds like a ludicrous conspiracy theory.
- Boltenkov’s article is a good reminder not to underestimate the importance of large exercises as deterring mechanisms. He is obviously impressed. ↩