A May 3 article in the Russian tabloid Izvestia describes a series of military exercises—or rather, what it claims to have been one extended exercise—in Kaliningrad Oblast that took place during the last ten days in April (Izvestia, May 3). According to the piece, the activities involved all branches of the Russian Armed Forces. The Izvestia reporting gives the clear impression that what took place was a joint drill, almost a Zapad exercise in miniature. Yet, such assertions deserve closer scrutiny. A definitive classification of these recent maneuvers is particularly relevant for trying to track and evaluate the buildup of forces in Kaliningrad Oblast over the last several years and for better understanding the military significance Russia accords its western exclave.
Other than the aforementioned Izvestia article, Russian media outlets were conspicuously sparse with details when it came to reporting on the late-April drills in Kaliningrad Oblast. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify some of the units involved: among them, the 224th Artillery Brigade, based on Izvestia’s reference to the employment of “the heavy artillery system 2S7 Pion” during the maneuvers (Izvestia, May 3).
The Baltic Fleet also took part, with 25 surface vessels belonging to the following units: the 36th Missile Ship Brigade, the 71st Landing Ship Brigade, the 323rd Minesweeping Squadron and the 105th Naval Region Protection Brigade (Mil.ru, April 30). Of the participating vessels, 15 are possible to identify—including the corvettes Sovetsk and Mytishchi, handed over to the Baltic Fleet in October 2019 and December 2018, respectively (Mil.ru, April 22, 2020; TV Zvezda, October 18 2019 and December 17 2018). The remaining ten ships can be assumed to be auxiliary vessels; none are mentioned by name or number in any of the available sources.
When it comes to the Aerospace Forces, it is unclear which units were active in late April. That said, the participation of the 32nd Mixed Aviation Division can be confirmed, and it reportedly employed all types of aircraft and helicopters under its command: Su-24s, Su-27s, Su-30SMs, Mi-8s, Mi-24s, Ka-27s and Ka-29s (Mil.ru, April 21). According to Izvestia, the Kaliningrad maneuvers in late April allegedly represented the most comprehensive exercise for the newly formed air division to date (Izvestia, May 3).
Izvestia was also, notably, one the few sources mentioning the presence of an A-50 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, belonging to the 144th Airborne Early-Warning Aviation Regiment (Izvestia, May 3). In fact, an aircraft of this type flew along the Estonian coast on April 25 and was intercepted by Belgian fighters (Twitter.com/BeAirForce, April 27), which in turn were then intercepted by Russian Su-27s (Militarynews.ru), April 25). What might have been the A-50 in question was also spotted on the ground in the oblast, in late April (Mil-avia.livejournal.com, April 27). Additionally, two T-160 strategic bombers reportedly carried out a lengthy flight over the Baltic Sea on April 29 (Mil.ru, April 29). That flight was intercepted by both North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Swedish fighters.
According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Kaliningrad exercise activity began on April 20, with the 336th Naval Infantry Brigade loading ground vehicles on landing ships, followed by a landing at the Chemelka range the following day (Mil.ru, April 21). The amphibious training was seemingly the main event in connection with the late April drills: it was carried out by a reduced naval infantry brigade supported by landing ships and aerial assets. At the same time, the activated Baltic Fleet vessels carried out anti-submarine and anti-aircraft exercises. Those same maneuvers reportedly continued on April 22, at which point Russian forces also began a mine-clearing exercise (Mil.ru, April 22).
The landing drills at the Chemelka range did not appear to exhibit any odd features, at least based on the Russian defense ministry’s description, and was evidently accomplished in a routine manner. The defense ministry website notably reported on a similar landing exercise on April 23; but it is not entirely clear if this was, indeed, a separate exercise or simply the April 21 drills being highlighted again (Mil.ru, April 23).
Either way, on April 24, Kaliningrad forces carried out an anti-aircraft exercise in which Su-24s and Su-30SMs from the 32nd Mixed Aviation Division along with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), acted as targets for the naval vessels (Inmytishchi.ru, April 24). Then, on April 25, the corvettes Liven and Passat executed a simulated missile attack, while the Sovetsk and Mytishchi acted as simulated enemy ships (Klops.ru, April 25).
April 26 seems to have been less intense and only comprised artillery firing against towed targets from the minesweepers Leonid Sobolev and Aleksandr Obuchov (Mil.ru, April 26). Two days later, the 32nd Mixed Aviation Division was once more in the fray: its Su-24s and Su-30SMs carried out an attack against a group of enemy vessels (Radio Sputnik, April 28). April 28 also saw the large landing ships Korolev, Minsk and Kaliningrad engaged in mine-laying drills in the Gulf of Finland (Mil.ru, April 28).
Based on a comprehensive analysis of the available snippets of reporting, it is possible to conclude that the series of late-April military exercises in Kaliningrad Oblast clearly did not approach the massive (Zapad-level) scale that the breathless May 3 article in Izvestia sought to suggest. Rather, each of these—it appears, separate—exercises was probably executed according to a timetable or a fixed training schedule, presumably the last of their kind at the end of the 2019/2020 winter training cycle. It is not readily apparent, judging from the details found in open-source media and defense ministry reports, that these drills were, in fact, part of any coherent framework or adhered to a common scenario—although it is also not possible to exclude this entirely. Of particular interest were the—apparently—two landings, on April 21 and April 23. Assuming these were, in fact, two distinct events, rather than follow-up reporting on a single (April 21) exercise, the Russian military’s decision to carry out a second landing exercise so soon after a first is quite unusual and novel. Either this represents the introduction of a new training pattern, or the first landing failed in some aspects and had to be repeated. Even if last month’s exercise activity in Russia’s western exclave was arguably not as impressive as some media outlets made it out to be, it nevertheless contributed to enhancing the capabilities of the Baltic Fleet (particularly the newly deployed corvettes Sovetsk and Mytishchi) as well as the 32nd Mixed Aviation Division. Further such activity should be expected.