Russian Naval Infantry Stretches Its Muscles in the Baltic
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 138
On September 14, the Russian Ministry of Defense reported on a landing exercise in Kaliningrad Oblast—Russia’s Baltic exclave, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania (Mil.ru, September 14). The exercise apparently involved up to 25 surface ships, boats and supply vessels of the Baltic Fleet, over 30 planes and drones, more than 30 BTR-82A armored personnel carriers and some 1,500 troops. These drills were evidently an important part of a comprehensive naval exercise that might have started already on September 4 (Mil.ru, September 4, 13). The participating Naval Infantry personnel were deposited on the shore from large landing ships the Alexander Shabalin, Korolyov and Minsk as well as a number of amphibious landing craft, including the Michman Lermontov, Lieutenant Rimsky-Korsakov and Denis Davydov. Corvettes, missile boats, attack aircraft and attack helicopters supported the practiced landing form the sea and air. Prior to this, a similar exercise, but on a smaller scale—possibly a rehearsal for the forthcoming maneuvers—was reported on September 9 (Mil.ru, September 9).
An exercise of the size mentioned above raises the question whether it is an exception or something more routine when it comes to landing drills carried out by Russia’s Baltic Fleet. Notably, during the last four years, Russian military exercises of similar scope in the Baltic region only occurred twice before: in September 2015 and in August 2017 (Mil.ru, September 4, 2015; August 10, 2017). The 2017 exercise, which included more than 2,000 troops, was even more comprehensive than the one carried out last September (Mil.ru, August 10, 18, 2017).
Each of the aforementioned three exercises apparently consisted of a simulated landing of a reinforced naval battalion—in contrast to the more normal pattern of exercising company-sized landings. Exactly when any of these drills actually took place is difficult to establish based on the open-ended defense ministry reports. However, last month’s Baltic Fleet exercise almost certainly occurred at the same time that Russia held its operational-strategic exercise Vostok 2018 in the Central and Eastern Military Districts (lasting from September 11 to 17) (Vpk.name, September 19). It is thus quite probably that the Baltic naval exercise and landing was, in one way or another, connected to the common strategic scenario in Vostok 2018. On the other hand, such an obvious connection is much more difficult to discern in the fall of 2014. That year’s Vostok operational-strategic war games were held in September 19–25, whereas the Baltic Fleet landing exercise occurred weeks earlier, on September 3 (Redstar.ru, September 3, 2014; Mil.ru, September 8, 2014).
The continuous landing scenarios rehearsed by the Baltic Fleet imply the capability to carry out such operations, at least by company-sized units. But the capability to easily execute battalion-sized landings seems much less likely, particularly since evidence of just three exercises between 2015 and 2018 would probably be insufficient to maintain such a competence over time. In addition, it is unclear how long the Baltic Fleet’s larger landing ships will remain in service. Russia’s naval force in the Baltic possesses four larger landing ships (the Minsk, Kaliningrad, Alexander Shabalin and Korolev), all built at Polish shipyards in the 1970s–1980s, and which entered the Soviet/Russian navy between 1983 and 1991 (Russianships.info, September 25, 2018). Of these vessels, only the Kaliningrad had recently undergone repairs. Moreover, the fact that they are of Polish origin causes problems when Russian parts are used for replacement (Flotprom.ru, June 1, August 23). So far, the Russian navy has only received one new landing ship, the Ivan Gren, which went to the Northern Fleet. The second ship of the same class, the Pyotr Morgonov, will possibly be handed over later this year, but where it will be sent remains unknown at the moment (Vpk.name, January 11; Tsargrad.tv, June 24). What will come after these two ships is presently unclear. Plans do exist for building eight new air cushion landing craft (Vpk.name, September 21). But even if a decision about beginning construction new landing vessels or amphibious assault ships is taken in the near future, it will still take some time before they materialize (Topwar.ru, August 31).
Despite the questionable status of the Baltic Fleet’s landing ships, the development of the Russian Naval Infantry continues (Vpk.name, November 6, 2013):
– In 2014, the 61st Naval Infantry Regiment (based out of Sputnik, Murmansk Oblast) was upgraded to a full brigade with the addition of a supplementary battalion, sniper company and logistics units (Vesti.ru, November 28, 2014).
– The 336th Naval Infantry Brigade in Baltisk has been completely reequipped with the newest BTR-82A armored personnel carriers (Ekho Moskvy, 25 November 2017).
– And an armored battalion equipped with T-72B3 or T-80BV main battle tanks is to be set up in each Naval Infantry Brigade (Izvestia, March 21).
Unlike the Airborne Troops, which received new vehicles developed specifically for that service—notably, BMD-4M infantry fighting vehicles and BTR-D armored personnel carriers—the same has not yet been the case in the Naval Infantry. However, a new combat vehicle suited to its needs is reportedly now under development—the BMPP, a project initiated in 2013 (Flotprom.ru, April 25, 2017; Topwar.ru, May 11, 2018). It remains to be seen whether the eventual introduction of these new armaments as well as tank battalions into Naval Infantry brigades will be sufficient to overcome expected potential losses in capabilities stemming from Russia’s landing ships aging out of service.