The 1st Guards Tank Army was formed in the Soviet Union, during the Second World War, in 1943. It was disbanded in 1999, but re-established in 2015. As more details about this reborn heavy military unit come to light, worries increase about the threat it may specifically pose to the Baltic region.
This past May, the military-focused news outlet Zvezda, established by the Russian Ministry of Defense, reported that the 1st Guards Tank Army is to include the famous Kantemirovskaya and Tamanskaya Divisions. The article did not mince words, openly declaring: “The new Army is able to neutralize the threat from the Baltic countries [sic].” And the headline was no less remarkable, alluding to the Tank Army’s offensive orientation: “New Russian Divisions Are the Hammer That Will Break Any Defense” (Zvezda, May 11).
According to the newspaper Izvestia, the 1st Guards Tank Army will be composed of “not less than 500–600 tanks, 600–800 infantry fighting vehicles, 300–400 field artillery units and 35 thousand–50 thousand soldiers” (Izvestia, February 23). The press service of the Western Military District provided further details: “This unit will be armed with T-72B3 and T-80 main battle tanks, BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles, and over 130 items of military equipment of other types and modifications” (Mil.ru, February 1). Yet, these older machines will soon be upgraded. Moskovsky Komsomolets noted that the Russian defense ministry will begin purchasing the latest T-14 “Armata” tanks for the West-facing Tank Army. “One hundred machines will soon appear with the troops. The 1st Guards Tank Army should get these machines first,” the paper reports. Though no specific time frame was cited, Moskovsky Komsomolets did say that the T-14, a “fifth-generation tank,” was already undergoing in-depth testing by the military (Moskovsky Komsomolets, April 20).
Depending on its audience, Moscow has continued to make contradictory statements on whether or not the 1st Guards Tank Army is offensively orientated toward the West and whether it represents a direct threat to the nearby Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. For instance, General Eugene Buzhinsky, the head of the Russian Center for Policy Studies (PIR Center) wrote that, “If earlier, [Russia] had very moderate groups [military formations] oriented toward the Western direction, now they will be significantly strengthened” (Izvestia, April 7). However, another Russian military expert, Victor Murakhovsky, later tried to reassure the residents of Estonia: “We have no tanks on Estonian borders. The 1st Guards Tank Army is located mainly in the Moscow region. You can take the odometer or ruler and measure the distance to the Estonian border to understand that it [the Tank Army] is not directed against Estonia” (Postimees.ee, May 12).
Nevertheless, such assurances were repeatedly undermined by more aggressive reports such as a May 4 article in the Russian magazine Expert, which was published with the telling title “The Western Front Is Once Again Becoming a Reality.” Notwithstanding Murakhovsky’s argument that the new Tank Army will be positioned far from the Baltics, in the Moscow region, the article in Expert points out that the buildings and facilities of the Tank Army are being built in a modular fashion in just three to four weeks. And “if necessary,” these military facilities can be “quickly relocated” (Expert, May 4).
Russia’s military buildup on its western frontier is not limited to the 1st Guards Tank Army. Notably, a new Army Corps was deployed to the Kaliningrad region, in May. Its commander—Major-General Yuri Yarovitsky—was previously chief of staff of the 1st Guards Tank Army right after its reestablishment, and he was awarded the Order of St. George, IV degree, for participation in operations in Syria (Lenta.ru, May 12).
Moscow has also revived so-called “assault companies,” and the first of these will be stationed in Western Military District. According to the chief of the Russian Engineering Troops, General Yuri Stavitsky, “Assault units are intended to ensure the smooth operation of general-purpose forces in urban areas, allowing for increased effectiveness of action in the storming of buildings” (Moskovsky Komsomolets, February 23). But if Russian troops are preparing to storm cities, which cities exactly? Yuri Fedorov, a military expert for Radio Liberty’s Russian service believes that Russia is preparing to target not only Ukrainian urban centers such as Kharkiv and Kyiv, but also Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius (Svoboda.org, March 3).
So considering the stream of above-cited information on military build-ups in the Western Military District, is Russia really preparing for a war with the Baltic countries? The overwhelming opinion in the West is that this is unlikely; but it should be noted that just three years ago, the forcible annexation of Crimea and the presence of Russian tanks in eastern Ukraine also would have sounded like nonsense. Still, in contrast to Ukraine, the Baltic States are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and President Vladimir Putin presumably understands that following a direct military invasion of these countries, Russia would face resistance from the entire Alliance. Modern armed conflict does not necessarily involve a clear attack by columns of tanks, however. For several years now, experts have been speaking about a “hybrid war” being waged against the West by the Kremlin. Such a war takes place primarily in the information space, and its purpose is the psychological suppression of the opponent combined with the goal to make him act in the interest of the aggressor. In such a scenario, massive tank armies serve mainly to intimidate—as a threat ever present in the background.
The upcoming presidential elections in Estonia, scheduled for August 29, will almost certainly stimulate ever-increasing assaults from Russian propaganda. The current president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who is completing his second term and cannot legally run again this year, has been, from the Kremlin’s point of view, much too “pro-Western” and thus, a “threat” to Russia. Clearly Moscow would like to see an Estonian presidential candidate who would be more amenable to the Kremlin’s policies. Thus, the ongoing military build-ups in western Russia are, at least in part, likely aimed at influencing Estonian politics by intimidating the Baltic country’s politicians into seeking “lasting peace and friendship” with its eastern neighbor.
In some ways, this situation is reminiscent of the infamous historical events of 1939–1940, when the adoption of Soviet ultimatums by the Baltic States’ interwar governments led, eventually, to these countries’ annexation by the Soviet Union. Unless Estonian society and the political elite fully understand and act to counter this threat, history might be in danger of repeating itself.