Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast is currently hosting several of the games of the World Cup soccer championship, but this Baltic exclave has recently attracted widespread attention for an entirely different reason. On June 18, Western media reported on Russia apparently undertaking ambitious renovation works on a military bunker located in the oblast, which is to be used to store nuclear weapons. This was corroborated by satellite images. The director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, Hans M. Kristensen, has claimed that “during the past two years, the Russian military has carried out a major renovation of what appears to be an active nuclear weapons storage site in the Kaliningrad region, about 50 kilometers from the Polish border” (Kyiv Post, June 18; Poland Radio, June 19). The Swiss paper Tages-Anzeiger additionally argued that, thanks to the renewed infrastructure, should a major crisis break out, the Russian side would be able to rapidly deploy to the exclave non-strategic nuclear weaponry currently stored in the central part of the Russian Federation. This would expose all of Poland to a potential strike (Inopressa.ru, June 20).
On the basis of the available images, Russian sources have been able to identify the location of the reported bunker: between the villages Kulikovo and Zviagintsevo (Rosbalt, June 18). Although, data presented last year strongly suggested that a greater number of such sites in Kaliningrad could be used in a similar capacity (Bmpd.livejournal.com, March 27, 2017). The majority of Russian outlets have only partially agreed with the recent information reported in the Western media. Domestic sources have stated, in particular, that the available visual materials do not, in and of themselves, corroborate the current presence of nuclear weapons in the oblast. Some have argued that the satellite imagery proves nothing other than the fact that “some active repairs and buildup is currently taking place over there.” Most conservative Russian media outlets even went so far as to accuse “American scientists of deliberately exposing this information to wider public now” for the purpose of “destabilizing the WC-2018 [World Cup 2018] atmosphere” and depicting Russia as a party actively preparing for a military confrontation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (Riafan.ru, June 18).
Nevertheless, given prior developments related to the completion of vital infrastructure connected to (see EDM, February 23) and subsequent demonstration (see EDM, May 23) of Iskander-M mobile ballistic missile systems (NATO classification SS-26 Stone) in this strategic exclave, suggestions of the presence of nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad may in fact be valid—and not simply an exaggeration or “anti-Russian” propaganda. The atmosphere of secrecy related to nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad was corroborated last month by an unnamed local military source who stated that, currently, the Baltic Sea Fleet (based at Baltiysk, Kaliningrad) has at its disposal a brigade unit of nuclear-capable Iskanders. However, the source added that the Russian side avoids actively employing these ballistic missile batteries during locally held military exercises to “prevent shock in Poland and Lithuania” (Rugrad.eu, May 4) and, more likely, to keep from disclosing their location and actual number.
The above-mentioned developments in Kaliningrad have once again raised the issue of Moscow’s attitude toward nuclear forces as a tool of counter-containment. As stated by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in early 2017, “[T]he development of strategic nuclear forces is an undisputed priority of Russian national interests.” Yet, the minister further noted that “the role of nuclear weapon as a means of containment against a potential aggressor will inevitably decrease due to the growing role of high-precision strike capabilities”: the key role will be allocated to 3M-54 Kalibr cruise missiles as well as other types of weaponry tested in Syria (Graniru.org, February 21, 2017).
Russia’s decision to potentially embark on a buildup of nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad Oblast might linked to another, broader goal. Indeed, the combination of Russia’s emphasis on precision-strike capabilities and the deployment of such up-to-date weaponry as the S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft weapons system (NATO terminology: SA-21 Growler), the K-300P Bastion-P (SS-C-5 Stooge) and the 3K60 Bal (SSC-6 Sennight) coastal defense missile systems, as well as the Pantsir-S1 (SA-22 Greyhound) short- to medium-range surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery weapons system, have effectively turned Kaliningrad into a multi-layered Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) “bubble” (see EDM, January 30, 2018). But this impressive military buildup might still not be perceived by Moscow as being fully able to withstand the “initial period of war” in a conflict with NATO forces.
Such thinking tacitly stems from the Syrian experience and related comments/assessments by senior Russian military officials and specialists. For example, the ultra-conservative Colonel General (ret.) Leonid Ivashov, who currently serves as the president of the Academy for Geopolitical Problems, has openly criticized the actual military performance of Russian forces in Syria. Namely, he states that during the second part of the conflict (that is, after the official withdrawal of Russian forces), the Russian side actually started to suffer heavier military losses, primarily due to the United States’ greater willingness to engage forces allied with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. The expert claims that “Russia is not an adversary equal to the United States, even on the battlefield.” He points to the fact that while Russian forces have done well “in a local conflict against weak and poorly trained/equipped terrorist [sic] forces,” in comparison with the US, Russia has nothing to “show aside from strategic nuclear forces that are not present in Syria” (Izborsk-club.ru, March 8). This assessment is crucial to understanding what may be guiding Russian thinking behind the apparent strengthening of nuclear bunkers in Kaliningrad. In other words, despite some tactical successes demonstrated by the Russian side between 2014 and 2018, the nuclear bunker buildup in its Baltic exclave clearly points to Moscow’s belief in the relative weakness and vulnerability of Russian armed forces in any potential conventional conflict with the West. As a result, nuclear forces will continue to serve as the primary means of counter-containment available to the Russian side.