The geostrategic context of the Kaliningrad region

Marek Żyła
Dr hab.
War Studies Academy

The geopolitical transformations following the collapse of the Soviet Union shifted the core territory of the Russian Federation deep into Asia and contributed to NATO’s eastward expansion. The Kaliningrad region became the westernmost part of Russia, one which neighbours a completely different economic and political system right the way around its territory. In addition, the countries closest to it have joined the military-political bloc with which Russia is in competition. This seemingly small area, which accounts for about 0.09% of the country’s total area, is, along with the addition of Belarus and Ukraine, one of the markers of Russia’s Europeanness and power. By enabling it to have an active presence in the European environment, it is an essential part of the Russian security system. By reshaping relations around it, the Russian Federation continues to play a prominent political role in the Europe. It leverages it in its relations with the EU, NATO and neighbouring countries. Whenever decisions or actions unfavourable to it are sought, Moscow returns to the issue of further militarisation of the exclave. This was evident during successive Euro-Atlantic expansions. There are maritime ports in the Oblast, providing the potential to control the Baltic Sea, and the extensive military infrastructure is suitable for stationing significant military forces. The exclave has been, and continues to be, an instrument of pressure to halt, or at least delay, the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of the states in the sub-region of Central and Eastern Europe. In the economic sphere, Kaliningrad’s potential safeguards Russian shipping, the economic zone and guarantees access to Baltic resources. In the geopolitical context, the Kremlin’s policy with respect to the Russian diaspora and the Russian-speaking diaspora active in the neighbouring states of the post-Soviet area is also important. In successive editions of its doctrinal documents, Russia attributes to itself the right to use armed force to ensure its rights and freedoms. In the Russian perception, the West seeks to strategically surround the Russian Federation and thus minimise its superpower status. In response, Moscow is strengthening the military component of its deterrence, which encourages a possible repetition of the Ukrainian scenario and the subsequent destabilisation of its immediate neighbourhood. After Vladimir Putin assumed power, together with the process of disintegration of the Yalta-Potsdam agreement, the importance of the exclave increased, and the propagandistic militarisation of the area became part of the canon of Russian security policy tools.

The Kaliningrad region occupies an integral place in the military system of the Russian Federation. Due to its location and geophysical prerequisites for the stationing of all types of armed forces, it is an important element of the Russian war concept. The equipment and coastal infrastructure of the existing ports enables the reception, combat support and refit of all classes of ships operating in the Baltic Sea. The extensive network of military airfields plus internal road and rail links are of significant importance. They enable the effective movement of troops and essential materiel. According to Russian thinking, the Baltic Fleet guarantees the continuation of regional supremacy. Its main task is to block NATO reinforcement forces by preventing them from entering the Baltic. The military potential positioned in the exclave, which is part of the Western Military District, is in direct contact with the countries of the Alliance’s eastern flank. The oblast acts as an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ inside the NATO area. The Russian units stationed in the neighbourhood of militarily weak states are systematically subject to unannounced combat readiness inspections. A sense of permanent threat is fostered by drills involving airborne forces and strike aircraft. They are definitely aggressive in character and posture The Russians have made no secret of the fact that they are used to prepare the military component for operating in the western area of operations. One of the aims of this type of demonstration of force is to show technological superiority and the ability to undertake immediate action. This raises legitimate concerns about a potential conventional strike, supported by elements of hybrid action. The oblast is considered an ideal deployment area for intelligence, electronic reconnaissance, special and diversionary forces and offensive missile units. It should be expected that this potential will be strengthened in the near future. These elements serve to build an A2/AD counter-access strategy to restrict access to the area of future operations by enemy reinforcement forces. Since the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis through the annexation of Crimea and the full-scale Russo-Ukrainian war, the military importance of the exclave has steadily increased. The grouping stationed there is more than just a part of the Russian army. Thanks to its composition, it is able to conduct a combined operation on land and at sea. However, the potential of the District should not be judged only by what is there, but by what can be redeployed there in a short period of time. The forces stationed there are not in a position to independently conduct operations beyond the area of northern Poland and the Baltic republics. In military terms, the Kaliningrad region is primarily an advanced frontier. The passive version of the military scenario assigned to it in the event of an outbreak of armed conflict is to paralyse the enemy’s actions in the Baltic Sea basin. Należy jednak brać także pod uwagę wersję aktywną. It boils down to actions aimed at cutting off the Baltic republics, through complete air and sea isolation and land interaction with forces operating from Belarus. Such scenarios, which are constantly being refined, have been regularly rehearsed as part of large, cyclical military exercises codenamed ‘Zapad’.

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