Why Russia’s Kaliningrad Naval Base Poses a Deadly Dilemma for NATO
The region is quickly becoming an armed fortress full of more and better equipped military forces.
In March 2020, the Russian military activated a new infantry division to serve in the garrison of Kaliningrad oblast. This is expected to double the number of mechanized infantry and tank battalions defending the small exclave on the Baltic coast, which is bordered by Poland to the south and Lithuania to the east and north.
Editor's note: this is the second article of a two-part series and you can find part one here.
Why is Russia is concentrating so much military power in such a small area? Because missile and naval units in Kaliningrad, Russia’s westernmost territory, play a vital role in projecting Russian military power in the Baltic and central Europe, and pose major operational dilemmas for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the event of a conflict.
While a companion article details the buildup of ground forces in Kaliningrad, this pieces look at the valuable assets in Kaliningrad the ground forces are there to defend—drawing particularly n an in-depth report released by Sweden’s Defense Research Agency in February.
The Baltic Fleet
Kaliningrad is Russia’s only warm-water port on the Baltic Sea, meaning its harbor doesn’t freeze during winter. Accordingly, Kaliningrad’s Baltiysk seaport serves as the primary base for Russia’s Baltic Fleet, though there remains a secondary base at Kronstadt, Saint Petersburg primarily used for training, testing and ship-building purposes.
The fleet’s few larger warships are not much to write home about: its lone flagship destroyer and one of its two anti-submarine frigates are currently out of service undergoing repairs. The fleet also counts just one Kilo-class diesel-electric submarine based at St. Petersburg which may be primarily useful for training. That said, a few improved Kilo or newer Lada-class submarines are eventually expected to join the fleet.
The fleet’s primary strength instead comes from its many smaller vessels: nineteen missile-armed corvettes, backed up by three Parchim-class anti-submarine corvettes. Though these small vessels are short-legged and can’t take much punishment, their missiles have long reach and hit hard enough to pose a deadly threat even to large warships.
The missile corvette force includes five Karakurt and Buyan-M corvettes that each can mount eight vertically-launched Kalibr cruise missiles that can strike land targets over 1,500 miles away.
There are also four larger Steregushchiy-class corvettes with multi-role capability (though one is forward deployed to the Mediterranean). The 2,000-ton corvettes can battle submarines with bow-mounted and towed sonar arrays and two Paket-NK quad-torpedo launchers that double as anti-torpedo interceptors. For air defenses, they mount a twelve-shot medium-range Redut surface-to-air missiles system as well as close-defense autocannons; and finally they can engage others ships from dozens of miles away with Kh-35 cruise missiles.
Other valuable maritime assets include ten minesweepers, four signals intelligence ships, and naval electronic warfare and intelligence units that can spy on signals traffic on the Baltic, and even jam signals (including satellite navigation links) thousands of miles away using a powerful Murmansk-BN jamming system with a range of 3,100 miles or greater.
Baltysk also hosts the elite 336th Alexander Nevskii Naval Infantry Brigade, composed of two mechanized battalions mounted in BTR-82 amphibious APCs, one helicopter-borne battalion and light fire armored artillery elements.
Four Ropucha-class landing ships and a dozen smaller landing craft can provide amphibious lift for roughly one battalion’s worth of troops and armored vehicles at a time. A local naval Spetzaz special forces unit and the 69th Naval Engineer Regiment would likely support any landing operations.
Long Range Missiles
Three ground-based formations give the exclave its long-distance claws.
To start with, Kaliningrad hosts the 152nd Guard Missile Brigade, which musters a dozen two-shot Iskander-M ballistic missiles systems (having phased out older Tochka-U missiles). Counting reloads, the brigade can unleash two volleys of 24 hypersonic ballistic missiles that will land on average within six meters of a designated target up to 310 miles away—such as northern Berlin.
Russian tactical nuclear weapons stored in Kaliningrad are likely meant for use with Iskander missiles, which can carry up to a fifty-kiloton nuclear warhead as well as a conventional warhead.
Meanwhile, the Navy’s 25th Coastal Defense Missile Brigade, based in Donskoe, is equipped with at least a dozen self-propelled Bal-E and Bastion-P anti-ship missile systems, the latter of which can threaten ships hundreds of miles away with supersonic missiles.
To protect this arsenal from NATO’s formidable air power, the 44th Air Defense Division blankets the little oblast with an extremely dense air defense network: eight battalions of long-range S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries, as well as shorter-range Pantsir systems to protect the long-range missiles from attack.
The S-400 can launch 40N6E missiles with a maximum range of 250 miles, meaning the Russian SAMs could theoretically threaten aircraft over two-thirds of Polish airspace, though effective range is much shorter against agile targets like jet fighters.
Leveraging the extreme range of weapons like the Bastion-P and S-400 requires powerful sensors—a task aided by a newly constructed 29B6 Konteyner over-the-horizon radar said to be able to track aerial activity as far away as the UK and the Mediterranean.
However, forming the kill-chain between sensor and shooter is a challenging task, and the consensus lately is that planners must be careful not to over-hype the effectiveness of the ostensible anti-access/area-denial bubble (A2/AD) created by the long-range missiles in the Baltic.
Lastly, it’s worth considering what the fifty mostly dated warplanes of the 132nd Aviation Division bring to the fold. The 4th Naval Attack Regiment mixes older Su-24M supersonic bombers with modern Su-30SM multi-role fighters. Both are armed with anti-ship missiles, and the latter can also perform air-to-air missions.
Meanwhile, the 689th Fighter Regiment primarily consists of agile but aging Su-27P fighters, though these are to be replaced with Su-27SM and Su-35S multi-role fighters.
There’s also the 396th Composite Helicopter Regiments based at Donskoe, which fields a squadron each of Mi-24 gunships, Ka-27M anti-submarine and search-and-rescue helicopters, and Mi-8 and Ka-29 transport choppers.
The aviation contingent, however, notably lacks maritime surveillance aviation besides some Forpost drones derived from the Israeli IAI Searcher drone.
The NATO Dilemma
In the dreadful event of a Russia-NATO conflict over the Baltic states, long-range fires issuing from missiles in Kaliningrad would represent a painful thorn in NATO’s side impeding the movement of air, sea and land forces across Poland and the Baltic.
Closer to the exclave, NATO land forces attempting to transit into the Baltic via the precariously narrow Suwalki Gap would be harried by lethal artillery systems in Kaliningrad. And radars, signals intelligence and electronic warfare units in the oblast would also be well-situated to gather compromising intelligence on NATO activities and disrupt communications.
The breadth of these threats means NATO would be compelled to devote substantial assets to neutralizing them—either by containing Kaliningrad’s garrison and suppressing the mobile missile launchers, artillery, aircraft, sensors and electronic warfare systems inside the exclave; or alternately committing troops to besieging and physically occupying it.
That explains why Russia is expanding Kaliningrad’s land-based defenses simultaneous with modernizing its far-reaching missiles missile batteries. Reinforcing the former increases the risks and costs should NATO attempt to defang the many threats posed by the latter.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.