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Kaliningrad oblast – Russia`s formidable A2/AD bubble

Kaliningrad Oblast – Russia`s westernmost region physically separated from the mainland – has reappeared in the forefront of international security-related discourse. Liberated from virtually complete isolation with the fall of the Soviet Union, this territory was hoped to soon turn into a prosperous “bridge of co-operation” between Russia and the West.

August 2, 2017 - Sergey Sukhankin - AnalysisArticles and CommentaryHot Topics

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The aura of optimism was boosted by such progressive initiatives as “Euro regions” and the Northern Dimension, that were to have facilitated Kaliningrad`s transition from a planned economy towards a free market one and encourage its integration into the Baltic Sea Rim. Alas, this was not meant to happen. Instead of becoming the “Baltic Hong Kong”, the oblast has turned into a heavily militarised “fortress” and a centre-dependent entity, reminiscent of its pre-1991 predecessor. The most recent events have unequivocally shown that Kaliningrad turning into Russia`s most advanced A2/AD “bubble” might be on its way to regaining the title of the most heavily militarised spot in Europe, which creates numerous challenges to the entire region.

What is the A2/AD bubble?   

Throughout the history of human warfare, conflicting parties have aspired to diminish offensive potential of an adversary employing a broad range of tools and measures, that included intelligence and information gathering, denial of access to the battlefield, and reducing operative potential once within it. Irrespectively of relative novelty of the term, some of its key elements have been used in the course of warfare from times immemorial.

Ultimately, technological and scientific advancements coupled with military-strategic analysis have forged so-called “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA) that occurred in the early 1990s. Namely, the Gulf War (1990-1991) demonstrated two essential aspects: first, almost total superiority of the US armed forces over any potential adversary; secondly, it triggered an intensive intellectual debate (mainly among the Chinese military strategists) on how this domination can be reduced or levelled down.

It took however some time and a great deal of intellectual effort before the A2/AD “bubble” concept was ultimately coined in 2012. Yet, the notion received a mixed reception attracting much criticism. Some notable figures (including US Admiral John Richardson) tend to dismiss the term as a buzzword and dated phenomenon that enjoys too much attention and should cease to be employed. However, the mainstream of scholars and practitioners do recognise relevancy of the notion that is frequently met in special academic, general and policy-oriented literature. 

Speaking of the concept two integral aspects ought to be ascertained: the first part (Anti-Access) aims to prevent an opponent from entering into theatre, whereas the second (Area-Denial) affects movement within it. Combination of these two particles within a single framework leads toward emergence of a new type of warfare that allies both classical and nonlinear methods under the same umbrella. 

On the other front, uniqueness of the phenomenon is stipulated by most recent developments that have altered its initial meaning. First, geographic boundaries the term was primarily applied to have shifted from Asia (first China and later Iran), to other regions including Europe, which is inseparable from vigorous militarisation carried out in Kaliningrad oblast and annexed Crimea. Together these pivots are forming a formidable arch of counter-containment stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea and confronting NATO`s weakest flanks. Secondly, breathtaking pace of technological achievements has added new facets complicating the way A2/AD zone is understood.

Current sources outline five main layers that comprise the A2/AD “bubble” in its most up-to-date form: air, sea, land, space, cyberspace (the importance of this element has grown exponentially within past several years). The lethal capabilities of the “bubble”are secured with: cruise and ballistic missiles; weapons of mass destruction; guided rockets; mortars and heavy artillery; means of Electronic Warfare (EW); air defence and anti-armour systems; submarines.  

A party wielding the above-mentioned elements and being able to concentrate/deploy those within a certain area is likely to be able to deny other party entrance to the zone and effectively disrupt its activities therein should penetration occur. Given its natural conditions the Kaliningrad oblast presents an ideal spot for developing an A2/AD “bubble”, which cannot be overrun without a viable risk for the potential attacker to suffer huge losses both in manpower and military equipment as well as losing valuable time. Aside from this, current US strategy of dealing with A2/AD “bubbles” rests on power of its air forces, which might not work when it comes to Kaliningrad.    

The milestones of militarisation

In 1994 Estonian President Lennart Meri, speaking in Hamburg predicted the inevitability of Russian neo-imperial expansionism pointing to the Baltic Sea region as one of the main centres of Russian strategic interests. Regretfully, these words were not given proper attention. It seemed at a time that it would take years for Russia to recuperate its military potential, which was clearly seen from the impotence of Russian armed forces during the first Chechen campaign. Furthermore, the example of Kaliningrad oblast bolstered these reflections.    

In the 1990s the formerly formidable military bastion of the USSR on the Baltic, the oblast presented a pathetic shadow of itself. The “ailing man” of the Baltic Sea suffered from plummeting living conditions, endemic corruption, smuggling and epidemic of HIV/AIDS bearing virtually no resemblance with what it used to be less than a decade ago. Moreover, provisions of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) seemed to have dealt a final blow to the oblast`s military potential. The idea of Kaliningrad becoming a Russian liability, not an advantage in terms of military security, started to dominate the hearts and minds of many prominent domestic and western intellectuals. In spite of this joy and growing hope for the final de-militarisation of the region some genuinely serious developments went unnoticed. In 1994 the Kaliningrad Special Region was created. In 1999 the oblast co-hosted strategic war games under the code name “Zapad”. The year 2001 was marked by a huge international scandal over alleged deployment of nuclear weapons in the oblast. But those incidents were lulled by “pilot region” sentiments and reconciliatory rhetoric emanating from both sides.

Soon, the situation started to spin out of control. In 2005, during the 750th Anniversary of Kaliningrad/Königsberg, Moscow for the first time attempted to use the oblast as a venue for spreading anti-Baltic, anti-Polish and anti-NATO sentiments. The plan suffered an embarrassing defeat, which infuriated the Kremlin and showed that Europe was not as fragmented as the Russian side had hoped. Encouraged by ignorance of the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances (1994) and expanding economic ties, Moscow started to speak with European countries using the language of threat and blackmail. Namely, from 2008 on, “Iskander diplomacy” – threating to deploy Iskander-M mobile ballistic missile system (with killing range of no less than 400 km) in Kaliningrad – became Russia`s lingua franca in communication with European countries. Causing a great deal of uneasiness and alarm among EU member states, Moscow construed this as a sign of fear and indecisiveness. Incidentally, during the “Crimean affair” and the outbreak of hostilities on the Ukrainian southeast the Russian side capitalised on doubt spreading among western countries about the possibility of using its nuclear potential. Thus, informational-psychological and disinformation operations acquired a pivotal role in the Kremlin`s strategy in the interim from 2008/9 to 2013, where Kaliningrad oblast was ascribed a paramount role. Within this period the actual military capabilities of the oblast remained largely unknown due to traditional informational parsimony of the Russian side.

Initially, the official rhetoric contended that the de-militarisation process was on its way, yet Russia`s actual deeds went counter to it. In 2007 Russian froze its participation in talks and consultations pertaining to the CFE that (signed in 1990) symbolised initiation of disarmament in Europe. Secondly, both qualitative and quantitative compounds of strategic and snap exercises either held in Kaliningrad alone or co-hosted was growing. Simple comparison between “Zapad-2009” and “Zapad-2013” makes further discussions on the matter largely superfluous. At the same time, Moscow refrained from comments about using these games as a simulation of an attacks against Poland with Kaliningrad Oblast seen as a springboard. Still, the international reaction to these developments did not correspond to the actual level of threat posed to the whole region. Mainly the three Baltic States and Poland (with some delay) and later Germany along with the Scandinavian states started to draw international attention to the fact that the Baltic Sea region came to the brink of the new lap of militarisation. It was merely a matter of time and good pretext that was to enable Moscow to act with even greater determination in this direction.   

The post-Crimea world order and Kaliningrad

Events that occurred in and after 2014 have become the final accord in the process of transformation of the Kaliningrad oblast into the world`s most advanced A2/AD zone.

Intensification of military build-up

Russia deployed “Iskander-M” complexes, the S-400 Triumf (SA-21 “Growler”) surface-to-air missile system, Bal (SSC-6 “Sennight”) and K-300P Bastion-P (SS-C-5 “Stooge”) costal missile complexes. Equipped with P-800 “Oniks” (SS-N-26 “Strobile”) missiles the Bastion system can deal with targets at a 600-km distance. Potentially, Moscow could also deploy the S-500 Prometey (55R6M “Triumfator-M”) surface-to-air missile system that are said to be capable of destroying stealth warplanes like the F-22, F-35 and the B-2. Also, following successful test of hypersonic missile the “Zircon” (3M22 Tsirkon) in April 2017, Moscow could attempt to beef-up local military capabilities with this invention as well.    

Prioritisation of Electronic Warfare (EW) capabilities

Following the oblivion that lasted from the late 1970s, the electronic warfare branch started to enjoy significant attention in 2009, when Russian EW troops were created. The breakthrough ensued after 2014. Both the Ukrainian armed conflict and the Syrian civil war witnessed Russia testing various pieces of EW, some of which are unique and do not have analogues anywhere in the world. So far Russia has been particularly active in the Black Sea theater, which however does not mean that the Baltic Sea cannot become the next area where Moscow could (if it has not yet done so) deploy some of its most advanced means of EW. Incidentally, both domestic and external sources have repeatedly claimed that the “Sunflower-E” long-range air- and surface radar and the anti-missile early-warning radar “Voronezh-M”are already on the ground.

Restoring naval potential and increasing efficiency of command and control  

During the Cold War, the Soviet navy and especially the submarines formed the backbone of the Soviet military might. Following the collapse of the USSR, the Baltic Fleet suffered disastrous losses: the number of submarines decreased from 42 to two, whereas naval forces were reduced to a status of the coastal fleet. The number of personnel was downsized dramatically, yet those who kept their positions were drowning in corruption and smuggling. With the laps of time, however, growing assertiveness of Moscow coupled with worsening relations with Western partners created a necessary pretext for implementing measures aimed to upgrade military capabilities of Russian navy in general, and on the Baltic Sea in particular. 

The change of the strategy found its reflection in the Russian “Maritime Doctrine-2015” that replaced the previous document that was expected to last until 2020. Among other key objectives it mentioned security of the Arctic and the “prevention of NATO eastward enlargement” as a cornerstone of Russia`s new maritime policies. The Baltic Sea Fleet (with headquarters in Baltiysk located in Kaliningrad Oblast) is to play instrumental role in pursing of both tasks. Aside from accretion of locally stationed manpower, the Kremlin has embarked on intensification of re-equipment of the Fleet. Given the fact that the document emphasises essentiality of submarines, Moscow could deploy some of its most advanced pieces to the Baltic theatre, which would have drastic effect on local A2/AD capabilities. After all, “in the Russian naval structure, submarines are the crown jewels for naval combat power”. Moreover, the Swedish side has repeatedly accused Russian submarines to have approached to Swedish coastal line without any permission. The most recent data available suggest that such instances have taken place.

Another line that is frequently obfuscated is concerned with improvement of command and control capabilities on the Baltic. The drastic “decapitation” of the Baltic Sea Fleet that had gained disgraceful reputation of “a nest of crime” was undertaken on June 29th 2016 when the Baltic Fleet commander, Rear Admiral Viktor Kravchuk, and 50 more top-ranking military officials were purged for “distortion of reality and serious shortcomings in the domain of military training, daily routine, living conditions and the lack of care for military personnel”.

Aside from the above-mentioned points, Moscow continues to emphasise a combination of snap and strategic military exercises. Within 2014–2016 the cumulative number of the former exceeded 20 instances (both on land and sea), whereas strategic war games under the code name “Zapad” with increasing geographic scope and number of troops involved must be recognised as a stern warning signifying seriousness of Russian interests in the area stretching from the Arctic to the Black Sea.

During 1990s and early 2000s it was fashionable to speak about Kaliningrad as a puzzle. Now it seems that the puzzle has outgrown into a serious headache. Right after the dissolution of the Soviet Union a chance to achieve full demilitarisation of the Baltic Sea region did exist. This prospect seems to be gone at least for now. With the remilitarisation of Kaliningrad and Russia walking out of the CEF (in March 2015) Moscow has relived itself from any obligations and/or accountability in terms militarisation. Even today Russia wields full military superiority on the North-Western flank over NATO forces and Kaliningrad is one of the key factors that has made this possible. Formerly known as Russia`s “backwater region”, the “Baltic capital of smuggling” and a “former Königsberg”, the current Kaliningrad is nothing more but a pistol pointed at the temple of Europe. There is, however, a huge difference between 2009/2013 and the post-2014 period. Today, the Kremlin has demonstrated its ability to match words with deeds acting promptly, decisively and irrespectively of international reaction.

Russian activities on the Baltic have frightened traditionally peaceful Finland and Sweden, at the same time making Poland and the Baltic states to increasingly look to NATO in search for support and protection. This clash of interests is making the region look like the new powder keg on the map of Europe. Similarly, emergence of new potential tinder boxes such as the Suwałki Corridor (a strip of Polish land between Kaliningrad and Belarus) underscores the essentiality of Kaliningrad in terms of Russian strategic plans and ambitions pinned to the Baltic region. Aside from this, Russia might now be moving in the direction of creating a link between its western and southern military districts using rail connections (primarily, Zhuravka–Millerovo) aimed to bypass Ukraine. This means that the process of militarisation of the Kaliningrad oblast is unlikely to be halted.

Sergey Sukhankin is a historian from Kaliningrad and an associate expert at the International Center for Policy Studies in Kyiv.

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