Kaliningrad – Russia’s military outpost in the Baltic region

Kalev Stoicescu
Research Fellow
International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS)
Tallinn, Estonia

The Kaliningrad Oblast is one of the smallest federal subjects of Russia, having a third of Estonia’s territory and a population of about one million people. The population includes most likely tens of thousands of permanently deployed professional military personnel and their families, as well as conscripts. It is difficult to assess adequately the number of personnel due to Russia’s obscurity in military matters.

The oblast is probably Europe’s most militarised region. Russia’s westernmost bastion is sandwiched between NATO and EU member states Poland and Lithuania, and lies 1300 kilometres from Moscow and almost 400 kilometres (as the crow flies) from the nearest point in Russia’s mainland. It is accessible from Russia (Saint Petersburg) through about 1050 kilometres long international air and maritime routes over/in the Baltic Sea. However, the oblast is less than 100 kilometres away from Belarus, the Kremlin’s ally that is now effectively occupied by Russian forces.

The so-called Suwalki gap (the Polish-Lithuanian border between the Kaliningrad Oblast and Belarus) is of particular importance to the security and defence of the Baltic states and Poland.

Brief historic background

The Kaliningrad Oblast makes roughly the northern half of the historic region of East Prussia that existed -as a province of the Kingdom of Prussia and later of the German Empire/Reich- from 1773 to 1945, but was controlled by Germans since the 13th century.

East Prussia was split between the Soviet Union and Poland in 1945, at Joseph Stalin’s insistence. The territory under Soviet control was transferred to the Russian SFSR, and became after the dissolution of the USSR a constituent part of the Russian Federation.

The entire German population that inhabited the region for more than seven centuries was expelled or deported in 1945, and the capital city of Königsberg was renamed into Kaliningrad in 1946. The oblast hosted during the Cold War more than 200 thousand military personnel.

Neither Germany nor the oblast’s neighbours lay any territorial claims, but this background is nevertheless of interest due to Russia’s own policy. Russia occupied and annexed Crimea in 2014 namely appealing to “historic rights”, although the peninsula was part of Ukraine for 60 years. Moscow had no relation (and therefore no “historic rights”) whatsoever to East Prussia prior to 1945.

Kaliningrad’s militarisation

One may imagine Fortress Russia and its outward bastions, from the Kuril Islands trough the Arctic archipelagos to the Kaliningrad Oblast, Transnistria, Crimea, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. Kaliningrad has undoubtedly very high strategic importance for Russia due to its geography.

The oblast is an important leverage for exerting pressure on Europe/NATO, particularly in its vicinity. The military forces deployed to Kaliningrad -including the Baltic Fleet, aviation, missile and coastal missile, ground, air defence, artillery, electronic warfare and other units- obviously exceed by far normal/adequate defence needs.

In fact, Russia’s aim is not just to protect its bastion, but to project power in the entire region by means of a A2/AD (anti-access and area denial) “bubble”. Medium range air defence systems (S-400 and S-300), coastal defence missile systems (Bal and Bastion), short range ballistic missile systems (Iskander) and corvette-based Kalibr missiles (range up to 200 kilometres) are Russia’s first line of defence in the Baltic region. It must be reminded that Iskander and Kalibr missiles are dual-capable (conventional or nuclear use), whereas the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to the Kaliningrad Oblast cannot be excluded.

The Suwalki gap in the present context

Russia’s brutal war of aggression and conquest against Ukraine raises certain concerns regarding the Kaliningrad Oblast. First, the oblast has become in recent years increasingly militarised, a process that would likely continue. Secondly, Russia rehearsed numerous times -e.g. in the strategic exercises Zapad 2017 and 2021, as well as in combat control “snap” exercises- offensive operations aimed at cutting the Baltic states from the rest of NATO’s territory (through the Suwalki gap) and blockading them in the Baltic Sea.

Thirdly, Russia has effectively invaded the territory of Belarus, and would probably maintain troops in the nominally independent country. Therefore, Russian troops have advanced hundreds of kilometres right to the Suwalki gap. Fourthly, Russia connected Crimea to the mainland by building a bridge after 2014, but in the course of the new invasion of Ukraine it also secured a land bridge.

Therefore, depending on Russia’s success or failure (or stalemate) in Ukraine, the Kremlin may be tempted to either extend its aggression towards the West, to secure a land bridge from Belarus to the Kaliningrad Oblast, or to set up provocations aimed at demanding certain concessions/guarantees (e.g. road/rail transit).

NATO is well prepared to defend the Suwalki gap (first response against Kalinigrad units from forces stationed in Orzyzs, Poland, and in Rukla, Lithuania), and to act in the Baltic Sea (against Russia’s Baltic Fleet), but the Alliance needs to strengthen further its posture and readiness due to Russia’s massive military deployment to Belarus.

Finally, Finland and Sweden are over the sea from the Kaliningrad Oblast, but their membership in NATO would significantly improve the Alliance’s ability to counter any contingences in the region, particularly at sea.

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