When the troops of the 1st Baltic Front under the command of General Ivan Bagramyan captured the city of Koenigsberg from the Wehrmacht, they probably had no idea that less than half a century later the city and region of Kaliningrad would be Russia’s westernmost outpost, cut off from Russia’s mainland and bordering with two member states of a hostile military alliance, NATO.
This peculiar position means that Kaliningrad plays an important role in the relationship between Russia and the West. Should the relations between the two deteriorate to the point of military confrontation, Kaliningrad Region would play a pivotal role. Indeed, following the outbreak of the war in Ukraine and the reunification of Crimea with Russia, Polish media ran several stories discussing a possible campaign by the Polish army against Russian forces based in Kaliningrad. Media coverage in other Western countries has sought to portray Russia’s naval and air operations on and over the Baltic Sea as somehow illegitimate, which also suggests that the public opinion is being prepared for potential NATO military action against the enclave. The strengthening of NATO’s military presence in the Baltic states, ostensibly to defend these countries against “Russian aggression”, has the actual effect of threatening a military isolation of Kaliningrad and reducing Russia’s ability to defend that part of its territory. Further complicating the situation is the fact that the only overland route between Russia’s mainland and Kaliningrad Region that does not lead through a NATO country is through Belarus, whose government could also become the target of a Western-inspired “color revolution.” It is also not difficult to imagine the West adopting a packet of unilateral economic sanctions targeting Kaliningrad, following the example of sanctions leveled against Crimea.
For that reason, should the Russia-West confrontation continue, we can expect the forces assigned to the Kaliningrad Defensive Region to increase. While no Iskander-M units are based there permanently, only a missile brigade equipped with Tochka-U short-range missiles, Russia did conduct a temporary deployment of Iskanders to Kaliningrad in May 2015 as part of a military exercise. While there are no Kalibr-equipped ships currently assigned to the Baltic Fleet, there are now plans to construct a series of light frigates armed with such missiles. And when Defense Minister Shoygu announced the formation of three new Ground Forces divisions in the Western Military District, sources close to the ministry stated one of them would be stationed in Kaliningrad. Currently, only a single motorized rifle brigade is stationed there, and a Naval Infantry Brigade that is at approximately 25% strength, supported by a fighter aviation regiment, an S-300 air defense regiment, and helicopter units.
Will we see the transformation of Kaliningrad into a major militarized outpost similar to Crimea, bristling with missile batteries and defended by a powerful land force? A lot depends on the future of Russia-West relations. It appears that the prospect of reinforcing Crimea is being used as a bargaining chip, to induce NATO and the US to enter into negotiations with Russia on a new security framework for Central Europe, to replace the one that was shattered due to NATO’s expansion eastward and the attempts to bring Ukraine into NATO. For that reason, the state of Kaliningrad’s defenses is the barometer of the Russia-West relations as much as Crimea is.
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*All posts on behalf of South Front are made by Gordon Duff