The Kaliningrad Oblast is a federal subject of Russia. Situated on the Baltic Coast, it is surrounded by Poland and Lithuania, two NATO members.
Formerly known as Könisberg, Kaliningrad was annexed by the Soviet Union on April 7, 1946. With more than 963,000 people, Kaliningrad is one of Russia’s best-performing regional economies.
Its geographical location is ideal for an early warning system to monitor NATO movements.
Kaliningrad’s Geopolitical Situation
Surrounded by Poland and Lithuania, the Kaliningrad Oblast has no direct ground links back to Russia’s mainland. Kaliningrad is also the only Russian Baltic Sea Port that enables the Baltic Fleet to operate in the region on a year-round basis.
Due to the proximity of almost every European NATO member, Kaliningrad is ideal to have an early warning system: the Voronezh radar.
However, Kaliningrad is not ideal to mobilize troops for offensive operations due to its geographical position. The logistical issues would be far too great for Russia to even consider deploying an offensive force to the region.
The Baltic Fleet’s Marines are able to launch seaborne operations, but it would be very unlikely due to its small size.
Nevertheless, the adjacency of NATO members makes it ideal for defensive purposes and provide Russia with a strong foothold in the Baltic Sea.
The presence of the Baltic Fleet is also one of the main reasons behind the strategic importance of Kaliningrad. According to the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation: “The main tasks of the Baltic Fleet are as follows:
• to protect economic zone and production regions, suppression of illegal production activities;
• to ensure safety of navigation;
• to fulfil foreign policy acts of the Government in economically important regions of the World Ocean (visits, ships business visits, joint exercises, peacekeeping missions, etc.)”
Kaliningrad remains one of the most vital regions for Russia’s defence against NATO. The military installations in Kaliningrad would most likely be NATO’s first targets if there was a total war against Russia.
The destruction of the Voronezh radar station would greatly weakened Russia’s ability to counter NATO attacks thus making it a target of choice.
Voronezh Radar In Kaliningrad
Based at the former Dnuyavka air base, the Pionersky Radar Station operates a Voronezh radar system. The radar was built in Kaliningrad to counter NATO’s missile defence systems and enable Russia to keep their nuclear weapons operational.
NATO is putting a lot of emphasis on this missile system to deter the launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles by Russia’s Strategic Nuclear Forces against their members.
The radar was deemed operational in 2014 and can cover more than 6,000 km, enough to keep Europe and part of the Atlantic Ocean under permanent surveillance. The Voronezh-DM can also simultaneously track more than 500 objects.
Due to its vulnerability, the radar site is most likely guarded by anti-aircraft systems such as the S-300 and the S-400 Triumf.
Anti-Aircraft In Kaliningrad
Surrounded by NATO countries, the Kaliningrad military installations need a solid anti-aircraft capability.
With NATO aircraft able to quickly reach the Kaliningrad military installations and ports, Russia has no choice but to deploy many anti-aircraft surface-to-air (SAM) missiles.
Russian S-300 and S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile systems are the weapons of choice to counter enemy aircraft. Capable of reaching 400 km with a 40N6 missile, both missile systems can be quickly deployed—under 5 minutes—and engage incoming enemy aircraft.
It is vital for Russia to keep the S-300 and S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile systems operational to protect the Voronezh radar installation in Pionersky. Due to its mobility, both systems can also be deployed anywhere in the Kaliningrad Oblast to counter enemy aircraft.
Russian Armed Forces In Kaliningrad
The Russian Armed Forces have different types of units deployed all over the Kaliningrad Oblast. Due to its strategic importance, Russia keeps a strong permanent military presence in the Oblast to give them a capable defensive force.
Troops stationed in Kaliningrad are under the command of the Western Military District. According to Wikipedia, the Ground and Coastal Forces of the Baltic Fleet is mainly comprised of:
- HQ: Kaliningrad
- 7th Independent Guards Motorized Rifle Regiment (Kaliningrad) (formerly known as the 1st Guards Motor Rifle Division)
- 336th Independent Guards Marine Brigade (Baltiysk)
- 79th Independent Guards Motor Rifle Brigade (Gusev) (formerly known as the 18th Guards Motor Rifle Division)
- 152nd Guards Missile Brigade – Chernyakhovsk (Kornevo), Kaliningrad Oblast
- 244th Artillery Brigade
- 25th Coastal Missile Brigade
- 22nd Independent Air Defence Regiment. Not clear which missiles this regiment is equipped with. However it was announced in 2011 that two divisions (batteries) of new S-400 Ground-to-Air Missile systems will join the Baltic Fleet.
- 73rd Independent Bridge Battalion.
- 254th Independent Radio Battalion (electronic intelligence gathering)
- Other small units
The ground troops are mainly conducting defensive operations. However, the 336th Independent Guards Marine Brigade can be deployed to conduct seaborne operations. The 71st Order of the Red Star Landing Ship Brigade provide the Marines with landing ships and two air-cushioned landing crafts.
In fact, the 336th could launch offensive operations against Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital. However, this is very unlikely and would start a total war between NATO and Russia.
The Russian Baltic Fleet is permanently headquartered in Kaliningrad. In 2015, 3 submarines and 55 warships are under the Baltic Fleet’s command. The main naval port is Baltiysk and a second port is also in Kronstadt, located in the Gulf of Finland.
The Baltic Fleet’s Kilo-class submarines are known to lurk around Latvia’s territorial waters. However, the Russian submarines stay in the international waters, which is perfectly legal.
The 128th Surface ship Brigade is the largest formation of the Baltic Fleet. Composed of anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare warships, the 128th is the first line of defence of the Russian Navy against NATO warships.
The Future Of Kaliningrad
Russia is slowly deploying new Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad. The Iskander missile is a tactical weapon and can be launched up to 500 km. It could be employed as a preemptive strike weapon to disrupt enemy forces on the borders of Kaliningrad.
The Baltic Fleet will most likely receive new ships in the near future, especially to conduct littoral operations. Having said that, the Baltic Fleet is one of the most important fleets of the Russian Navy due to its geographical location.
As for ground troops, I think an additional motorized rifle brigade could be deployed to Kaliningrad to provide a quick reaction force in case of a NATO attack.
Tensions between Russia and NATO are quickly escalating and we’re on the verge of a new Cold War. Nevertheless, a total war between Russia and NATO is highly unlikely. Russia will continue to mass troops on their borders and launch aerial reconnaissance mission around NATO airspaces.
Although more large-scale drills will be conducted to test the Russian Armed Forces readiness, Russia will also focus on keeping its fleets fully operational. The Russian Navy, especially the Baltic Fleet, is vital for them to gain more influence on the world stage and having a strong presence in their waterways.
As for Kaliningrad, I believe Russia will fortify the region while pouring money to further stimulate the thriving regional economy.
Jonathan Wade served in the Canadian Forces for 14 years and is a combat veteran of Afghanistan. He owns The Sentinel, a blog on Canada, Russia and the Arctic. Specialized in military and foreign affairs, his military experience brought him valuable insight on the realities of conflicts and war, and has a fondness for technical details. Join Jonathan’s community on Twitter@JonathanWadeCD.