Return to Cold War – or not?

Markku Viitasaari,
Lieutenant Colonel,
Chief of Division, Army Command,

It is argued, that the security situation in the Baltic Rim fluctuates in repetitive cycles. A typical argument is that the increased military activity around the Mare Balticum is a return to the Cold War situation. However, to label the development (or deterioration) of the situation within the Baltic as a part of an in-built oscillation, is a simplistic interpretation of the current state of affairs.

During the Cold War era, over one-third of the Baltic coastline was under Warsaw Pact (WP) control. The rest, nearly two-thirds were inside the territorial waters of two non-aligned nations – Finland and Sweden. Only a tiny percentage was controlled by Nato’s member-states (Denmark and West Germany). Although adamant in safeguarding the territorial integrity of their waters, Finland and Sweden did not pose a threat to the freedom of maneuver of the combined WP fleet. Soviet Union’s land and air forces around the Baltic consisted of troops from two military districts (Leningrad and Baltic), two groups of forces (Poland, East Germany) and WP allies’ troops, massing a staggering 150 divisions (1983) and nearly 3000 combat aircraft.

Today the Baltic is almost entirely an inland sea of the European Union. Russia controls only about 7% of the Baltic coastline of which the majority (approx. 800 km) is located in the eastern extremes of the Gulf of Finland. The Kaliningrad exclave remains a logistical headache for Russia. Nato’s members make up nearly half of the Baltic coastline and Russia’s military footprint within the Baltic Rim is fundamentally different than that of the cold war era.

Ever since 2014 Russia has bolstered its military capabilities in all geographical directions – not the least in the western direction. Kaliningrad, in views of western analysts and possibly some Russians’ as well, serves as a strategic bridgehead of the Russian military might. In this thinking Russia would be able to launch surprise operations against the members of Nato and the EU from Kaliningrad -deep inside Nato and EU controlled area. The restoration of the Russian Baltic Fleet has resulted in an impressive capability in the form of one destroyer, two larger and four lighter frigates plus a number of corvettes. In addition to these repaired or refitted vessels, the fleet has received two new Buyan-M corvettes armed with cruise missiles. The fleet’s two Kilo-class submarines are also reported to be cruise missile-capable. In the air-defence side, Russia’s deployment of new S-400 anti-aircraft systems in Kaliningrad increases the theoretical range of her missiles well inside the airspaces of its neighbors (range 400 km). The most famous addition to Russia’s arsenal in Kaliningrad is the recent deployment of nuclear capable SS-26 Iskander-M ground launched ballistic missiles with an officially reported range of 500 km. The deployment was publicized in Russia as a response to Nato’s military build-up in the Baltic states. However, Russia has been systematically replacing her old SS-21 brigades with the SS-26 and the move can also be seen merely as a logistical necessity to standardize all artillery-missile brigades’ equipment.

So what is missing? Isn’t Russia’s aggressive push to develop long-range strike capability and massive air-defence coverage a proof of the return of the Cold War situation in the Baltic.  Without a doubt, all aforementioned bolster Russia’s military power in the Baltic Rim. Combined and even individually, the new Russian capabilities cause sleepless nights to military planners. To compare the current situation to the Cold War, however, would be too simple. In essence the Soviet military build-up around the Baltic Sea was aimed to act as the first echelon and staging area of a strategic offensive towards the west. The land component was designed and equipped as an invading force, supplemented by airborne and amphibious elements, supported by tactical and strategic air forces. The second echelon, the follow-on forces, was on hand and trained accordingly in the military districts close by. The most distinct dissimilarity between the current Russian force posture and that of the Soviet times is the lack of strategic offensive power in the core Baltic area. The troops and systems in Kaliningrad are capable of causing substantial harm to any adversary within the Baltic area but without major reinforcements they lack the offensive invading capability omnipresent in the Cold War times. Instead of gearing up for a massive invasion, Russia seems to develop capabilities which enable it to control or limit adversaries’ freedom of action within the Baltic area.

Concerning? – Maybe. Cold War? – Not with these numbers.

Expert article 2628

All information in the article is derived from publicly available sources. Views, opinions or conclusions present only the views of the author and are not endorsed or sanctioned by the Finnish Defence Forces.

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