On Monday, May 31, Russia’s long-serving defense minister, Army General Sergei Shoigu, delivered remarks at a meeting of the so-called Ministry of Defense Collegium (a top brass ministry panel). Among the topics he discussed, Shoigu focused on the alleged growing threat of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) military activities along Russia’s western borders. Russian military parlance designates this area as the Western Strategic Direction (Zapdnoye Strategicheskoye Napravlenye). Shoigu specifically mentioned this year’s major NATO exercise, Defender Europe 2021 as a destabilizing factor. Defender Europe is reminiscent of NATO’s Cold War–era annual “Reforger” (from REturn of FORces to GERmany) exercises, undertaken to test the ability to ship troops to West Germany from the continental United States in an event of an armed conflict with the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. Reforger also involved troops from other NATO countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom. Defender Europe was initially planned for 2020 and would have comprised some 40,000 North Atlantic Alliance troops from different member states along with an entire armored division shipped from the US to Poland and the Baltic region. It was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic but has been rescheduled for this year. Russia is enacting its own strategic Zapad (“West”) 2021 exercises in September 2021, together with Belarus. As an “additional” countermeasure, Shoigu announced the deployment of “some 20 major military units in the Western Military District [Zapadny Voyenny Okrug—ZVO] before the end of 2021” (Mil.ru, May 31).
The Russian defense minister did not elaborate further, only announcing that the ZVO will receive enough modern weaponry for this expansion. Months earlier, the Baltic Fleet (BF) command announced a major force expansion in Kaliningrad Oblast—Russia’s Baltic Sea exclave, between Poland and Lithuania. Kaliningrad Oblast’s port city of Baltiysk (prior to 1946, known as Pillau) is the main naval base of the BF. All Russian military units in Kaliningrad fall under the auspices of the BF, which, in turn, is subordinated to the ZVO. Army units in Kaliningrad Oblast are designated “shore troops” (Beregovye Voyska). After the and end of the Cold War, the newly exposed and disconnected oblast received electronic warfare (EW) units, anti-aircraft units, the 152nd Guards Missile Brigade (armed with nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles in 2018), the 244th Artillery Brigade, and two armored Land Forces units—the 79th Motor-Rifle Brigade and the 7th Separate Guards Motor-Rifle Regiment. This deployment implied an essentially defensive posture for the territory. The situation began to change in 2016, when the 11th Army Corps was created to unite all land units (with the exception of the BF’s 336th Guards Marine Brigade) in Kaliningrad Oblast. In December 2020, the 11th Army Corps (still designated as BF Beregovye Voyska) was given real teeth: the 79th brigade was transformed into the 18th Guards Motor-Rifle Division comprised of the 79th, 275th and 280th motor-rifle regiments and the 11th Tank Regiment. The newly formed 18th division as well as the 7th separate regiment are receiving new BMP-3 armored vehicles and newly modernized T-72B3M tanks with an enhanced 125-millimeter gun, improved armor, modern night-vision systems, an advanced fire-control system, and a modern datalink. Reportedly, the 18th division will be operational by fall of 2021, apparently to be enacted during the Zapad 2021 exercises (Militarynews.ru, May 13).
Shoigu’s announced “20 ZVO unit plan” seems to include the previously declared expansion of the land-offensive capabilities of the Russian forces in Kaliningrad. But the expansion of the potential conventional ground offensive capabilities of the 11th corps from two major units to five changes the strategic outlay in a particularly sensitive region. An armored four-regimental 18th division, gathered into one fist, would likely be capable of a battlefield breakthrough if directed outward, scattering the small Lithuanian army. Likewise, it would probably overwhelm the two NATO joint enhanced tactical battalion battle groups in Poland and Lithuania, including the US-led “battle group” in the so-called Suwałki Corridor—the land strip connecting the Baltic States to the rest of Europe while separating Kaliningrad Oblast from Belarus and the rest of Russia (Militarynews.ru, April 28).
The 18th Guards Motor-Rifle Division could also successfully take on NATO forces in the Suwałki Corridor and in southern Lithuania while other Russian armor units advance from the east to link up and establish a land corridor to Kaliningrad. Or if the mainland Russian forces managed to create the corridor and take the Suwałki Corridor essentially on their own, Moscow might use the 11th corps as the tip of the spear in an advance on the Vistula (Wisła) River to meet the trickling in NATO reinforcement along a good defensive position. The fact that all this could be done conventionally would allow Moscow to lessen the nuclear threshold prohibition on use of military force in Europe. Of course, for such a hypothetical plan to triumph, the US armored division being deployed during Defender Europe 2021 would first need to return home, to the United States.
The Russian defense industry continues to focus on producing modernized military hardware. While the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic has decimated many well-paid jobs, particularly in the Russian provinces, thus increasing the number of volunteers ready to be recruited into the Armed Forces. Russia’s military expansion is real, and President Vladimir Putin routinely insists the country is a nuclear and conventional military superpower with the most modern and biggest strategic arsenal in the world (Militarynews.ru, May 20; see EDM, April 22, May 13). But the Kremlin is frustrated the West is essentially ignoring Russia’s success in military power expansion. In a recent interview, former Russian president and prime minister and today the chair of the ruling United Russia party and deputy chair of the Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, lamented, “The West is overwhelmed with its greatness and has the nerve to treat Russia worse than during Cold War, heaping sanctions, including individual sanctions. During the Cold War, there was respect, and now the situation is much worse” (Kommersant, June 1). As Russian rulers grow increasingly frustrated, the urge may grow to take a chance and actually demonstrate increased military capabilities to teach the insolent West a lesson. In a recent interview presenting the newly approved, rewritten version of the National Security Strategy, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev complained about the West’s unfriendly actions. While Patrushev called for more diplomatic efforts and predictability with the US and its allies, he openly acknowledged that the text of the rewritten Strategy permits the use of military force to counter unfriendly actions that may threaten the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, May 31).