Zapad 2021 suggests, in event of war, Moscow could seize Baltics but lose Kaliningrad

Russian airborne forces participate in Zapad 2021 exercise in Kaliningrad (Source: Joint Forces)

Russian airborne forces participate in Zapad 2021 exercise in Kaliningrad (Source: Joint Forces) 

International, Russian Aggression

Article by: Paul Goble, The Jamestown Foundation
Edited by: A. N.

Military exercises not only make known what a government believes could happen but become an occasion for its analysts and those in other countries to speculate as to what the outcomes of a real military conflict would be if the scenarios were to be applied in actual combat. And such speculation may, in some cases, be the real purpose of the exercises because it provides the government with outside analysis that might prompt a strategic course correction. That is exactly what seems to have happened in the wake of Russia’s Zapad (West) 2021 exercises this September, a massive set of maneuvers that capped off this year’s training calendar. Namely, according to some analysts, the exercise raised questions about Russia’s ability to hold all of its own territory, including most prominently the non-contiguous Kaliningrad Oblast (Fishki, September 14).
Location Map of Kaliningrad and the surrounding area (Source: CIA World Factbook via Wikimedia)

Location Map of Kaliningrad and the surrounding area (Source: CIA World Factbook via Wikimedia)

From an informational warfare standpoint, Zapad 2021 was, at least in part, intended to frighten the West and raise questions about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) ability to defend its three Baltic members—Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. However, the exercise also exposed doubts about Russia’s ability to defend Kaliningrad. This vulnerability was clearly not something anyone in the Russian leadership wanted to advertise, given that such concerns would represent a limiting factor on Moscow’s freedom of action. But according to Moscow-based commentator Dmitry Rodionov, the exercises showed that “Russia, without difficulty, could seize the countries of the Baltic but that it could not do this except at the risk of losing Kaliningrad if the Western allies of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were to join the battle” (Svobodnaya Pressa, October 9).

The territory of Kaliningrad is particularly important and sensitive to the Kremlin given that at the end of World War II the formerly German territory became a Soviet trophy. Rodionov raises this issue by drawing on arguments put forward in a May 12 video produced by the Croatian military-interest YouTube channel, Binkov’s Battlegrounds. Then, he subjects these points to a discussion by Russian experts who, despite insisting that the material is simply a propagandistic effort by the West to stir up anti-Russian feelings, more or less explicitly acknowledge that at least some in the Russian capital are thinking along similar lines and are reconsidering their approach (InoSMI, October 2; YouTube, May 12).

According to Rodionov, the cited Croatian analysis argues that while Russian forces move into the Baltic States, Poland would seek to absorb Kaliningrad—something especially likely because Ukraine would take that opportunity to become involved in any European conflict with Russia. The risk of losing Kaliningrad, the Binkov’s Battlegrounds video continues, is, thus, exercising a “restraining influence” on Russian strategists as far as the Baltic countries are concerned. Absorbing them would not be sufficient compensation for the potential loss of Kaliningrad. But three Russian analysts with whom the Svobodnaya Pressa correspondent spoke were largely but not completely dismissive of the Croatian analysis.

Source: Russian Ministry of Defence

Gevorg Mirzyan, a political scientist at the Russian government’s Finance University, said that content like Blinkov’s Battlegrounds is “exclusively for internal use” in the Baltics and NATO, intended by their authors and funders to promote anti-Russian attitudes by drawing the worst possible picture of Russia’s intentions—even if that picture has no connection to reality. Mirzyan insisted it is complete nonsense to think that Moscow intends to go to war with the risk that such a conflict would go nuclear or that “if we seized the Baltics,” Russia would lose Kaliningrad. That said, he assured that Russia’s ability to supply the non-contiguous oblast would be strengthened and its defense made easier with the capture of the Baltic States. Finally, in the event of war, he suggested that the West would restrain players like Poland lest their actions make it more difficult to back away from a potential nuclear conflagration.

Aleksandr Perendzhiyev, a military affairs specialist at the Plekhanov Economics University, in Moscow, agreed, saying that the Croatian video was only made to frighten the Balts and should not be taken as serious analysis of a situation that would actually emerge in the event of a Russian thrust into the Baltic countries. He added that Kaliningrad is well defended on its own and will be more protected as the military integration of Russia and Belarus proceeds. Consequently, in any state of war, there might be attacks on the Russian exclave, but Russia has the capability of rebuffing them without the risk of any loss. Kaliningrad may be a battlefield, but it will be a battlefield on which Russia will win, according to Perendzhiyev.

In turn, Vadim Trukhachev, a specialist on foreign policy at the Russian State Humanities University, contended that the loss of Kaliningrad might, in fact, be possible. “Such a risk undoubtedly exists.” However, he continued, “While having lost Kaliningrad, Russia could acquire Riga and Tallinn, and also some cities on the Black Sea or alongside it.” That would more than compensate for such a loss. Consequently, Trukhachev argued that raising the fear of losing Kaliningrad is a tactic designed to frighten Moscow into inaction when there is more to be gained.

None of these three analysts are close to the top leadership in the Kremlin. Yet their words suggest that the defense of Kaliningrad is a central issue among foreign policy and security analysts in the Russian capital. Moreover, the recent Zapad 2021 exercise has highlighted this risk—one that may in fact give some in Moscow pause about pursuing a more aggressive policy in the Baltic countries if circumstances require or permit. That Rodionov chose to discuss these themes by referencing a recently translated transcript of an otherwise (relatively) obscure Croatian YouTube video from several month ago certainly leads to that conclusion.

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Edited by: A. N.

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