Last September’s massive strategic-level Zapad 2017 exercise provided analysts and observers with a number of important conclusions about the state of Russia’s military readiness, capabilities and Russian military thought (see EDM, September 14, 20, October 3, 6); though the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is reportedly still parsing through the lessons learned (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 26). Yet, relatively little attention has focused specifically on the role, place and perception of Kaliningrad Oblast in Russian military strategy, which has undergone at least three important changes between Zapad 2013 and Zapad 2017.
The first change involves a new emphasis on “first strike” and a reevaluation of “future warfare” as they relate to Kaliningrad. Russian understanding of the shape of future war is based on a combination of recent and more distant military conflicts. Zapad 2017 specifically underscored the return of the concept of an “initial period” of warfare, traceable to the 1920s (Diplomaatia.ee, Number 170, October 2017). Due to its exposed geographic location, the role played by the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad is expected to be pivotal in the initial stage of a conflict with the West. In this regard, it is instructive to recall the words of the chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, Valery Gerasimov, who argued that Russian armed forces “must be prepared for both conventional and hybrid warfare… [W]e need to remember the experience of guerrilla warfare during the Great Patriotic War and the experience of war in Afghanistan” (Vpk-news.ru, March 7, 2016). In fact, this is exactly what was trained in Kaliningrad during Zapad 2017, when “territorial defense units” were introduced and used in conjunction with other branches of service (see EDM, September 18). This point is inseparable from the next one.
The second noticeable difference between the Zapad exercises in 2013 versus 2017 involve the formulation of Kaliningrad this year as a “new” (rather than “classical”) type of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) bubble. Russia’s current A2/AD strategy is based on a combination of information/cyber security (which sometimes includes Electronic Warfare), strategic air operations, an integrated air defense system, as well as modern precision-strike capabilities (and apparently naval capabilities). Within this approach, Kaliningrad, as a Russian A2/AD zone, does not need to be filled with large numbers of military personnel, as used to be the case during the Soviet period. A “classical” A2/AD bubble implies its defensive nature and a reliance on asymmetric capabilities by a weaker party against a stronger opponent. This type of posture, however, is not apparent in the case of Russia’s westernmost oblast.
Indeed, the portions of the Zapad 2017 exercise carried out in Kaliningrad demonstrated the presence of all the abovementioned key elements of a “new” type of A2/AD bubble:
– The integrated and highly coordinated use of the “branches of the Armed Forces,” “separate troop branches” (Tvzvezda.ru, September 11; Tvzvezda.ru, September 15), and “territorial defense units” (securing the rear of the regular Armed Forces);
– A high level of EW capabilities. Russian sources boast that “Russia’s EW troops occupy leading positions in the world” (Vpk-news.ru, September 25);
– And finally, the increasing potential of Kaliningrad in terms of “strategic air operations,” which is to be further boosted by the end of 2017 with a newly operational air base (capable of accepting virtually all types of aircraft) (RIA Novosti, October 7).
At this juncture, it is worth recalling the words of retired United States General Philip Breedlove, who considers “all Russian A2/AD zones to be inherently offensive in nature” (National Interest, June 29, 2016). This statement draws on to the fact (frequently ignored in Western scholarship) that, from Moscow’s perspective, Kaliningrad’s functions must not be reduced to a defensive role. In fact, it bears underscoring that during Zapad 2017 counter-offensive capabilities were put to a serious test, shifting the perception from either purely “defensive” or “offensive” tasks.
The recently released Russian New Generation Warfare Handbook (written by the US Army Asymmetric Warfare Group) points to a number of deficiencies in Russia’s A2/AD strategy (Publicintelligence.net, September 18). But the example of Zapad 2017 exercises in Kaliningrad actually demonstrates that Russia has made serious progress in overcoming these limitations. Today, Russian forces in Kaliningrad are capable of jeopardizing NATO’s current strategy (based mainly on air forces and aviation assets) concerned with dealing with “classical” A2/AD bubbles.
Finally, compared to 2013, the September 2017 Zapad maneuvers in Kaliningrad put significantly greater focus on reflexive control, demonstrations of force and military psychology. Reflexive control is defined as “a means of conveying to a partner or an opponent specially prepared information to incline him to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action” (Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 2004). Since 2014, Russia’s use of “informational-psychological” operations has reached a qualitatively new level, dramatically gaining in sophistication. For instance, during Zapad 2013 (as well as in 1999 and 2009), the Russian side actively employed sabre rattling and crude intimidation of its simulated opponents; whereas, Zapad 2017 manifested a dramatic departure from this course (see below).
Through the use of sophisticated “informational-psychological” operations, Moscow secured victory in an information battle with the West long before Zapad 2017 even commenced (RIA Novosti, September 14; Tvzvezda.ru, October 15). Notably, through disinformation and cleverly planted stories, Russia was able to fan a great deal of speculation and rumors about the actual number of troops that would be involved (see EDM, September 5, October 10), the nature of the exercises (Novostiua.org, September 25), the issue of Russian troops in Belarus, and the role Kaliningrad might play in a hypothetical Russian attack on the “Suwałki Gap.” The confusion this sowed highlighted a lack of cohesion, solidarity and even mutual trust within the camp of Western Allies, giving Moscow the upper hand in the ongoing “information confrontation” (carried out on a permanent basis) with the West. Sensing this, the Kremlin attempted to deepen the fissure between the two main parts of the Alliance (the European Union and the United States) by trying to separately appeal to Brussels (TASS, August 3).
Reportedly, Kaliningrad (specifically, Baltiysk) is to become one of the main centers in Russia where military psychologists will be trained in the use of the most advanced techniques. According to the defense ministry, the curriculum will take into account experience from the Syrian compaign and Zapad 2017 (Mil.ru, October 14).
In conclusion, Zapad 2017 demonstrated Russia’s perception of Kaliningrad as an entity tasked with hindering NATO’s air and naval operations during the “initial period” of war and with disrupting further activities via active defense and limited-scale counter-attacks. Indeed, in comparison with 2013, Russia’s current strategy regarding Kaliningrad is much more coherent and comprehensive.