Yesterday Sunday 20 January Israel again struck targets close to Damascus International Airport. Much is still unconfirmed about the raid, but it is clear that it included significant numbers of Syrian missiles fired in response, at least one of which led to two Iron Dome-missiles being fired from an Israeli battery close to Mt Hermon as it was on track to enter Israeli airspace (the missiles are usually fired in pairs to ensure intercept). It is not confirmed whether the missile was intercepted or not.
The Israeli Defense Forces has released a new video showing SAM-sites being targeted. The most interesting part of the clip shows a Pantsir-S1 (likely the S1E-version) being intercepted by what looks like a Delilah cruise missile. Keen Syria-watchers will recognise that this isn’t the first encounter between the Pantsir-S1 and the Delilah. For details how to recognise the Pantsir-S1 and Delilah footage, see the post from last time. While the Israeli modus operandi hasn’t seemingly changed, neither has the incompetence of the Syrian air defence crews. The radar is raised, but not rotating and pointing in the wrong direction, while the missiles are in the transport-position and not ready to be fired. Despite the vehicle being an obvious high-value target, it is left sitting out in the open with no attempt at camouflage or anyone trying to move it into cover.
The bottom line is that we still lack any proof of the Pantsir-S1 being of much use. It is possible that the missiles were used (successfully?) to intercept decoys launched before the strike itself, there are rumours of the Israelis using this tactic dating back to Operation Mole Cricket 19, though as with many aspects of these raids confirmed information is scarce.
From the perspective of the Kremlin, Syria has been a great success. Following the surprisingly successful organisation of a transatlantic response to the Russian invasions of Crimea and the Donbas, the Russian intervention in Syria not only managed to prop up the Assad regime and reverse the course of the civil war, it also made sure that the Russian Navy would get a naval base in the Mediterranean. And most importantly: it forced the West to again talk directly with the Kremlin.
This was not only a case of Russia playing a rather mediocre hand very well, but also of several events outside of Putin’s control lining up favourably. These include both Iran and Hezbollah intervening, as well as the Turkish turn-around following the failed coup of 2016. The introduction of Russian long-range air-defence system, including the S-400, into Syria caused further alarm amongst western observers, with some going as far as stating that no assets in theatre beyond the F-22 Raptor “has any ability to operate and survive” inside the 400 km range of the system’s 40N6 missile.
I have earlier on the blog cautioned against drawing rings on maps and stating that they are any kind of steel domes inside which anything and everything will be shot down, and this is very much the case for the SAM’s at Khmeimim Air Base as well. The latest strikes on targets in western Syria, including those well-within 100 km of Khmeimim AB, showed that coalition aircraft can strike presumably protected targets without issue. And not only that, if one looks closely at the map, the 400 km range extends well beyond Cyprus. The very same Cyprus which was the base of the RAF aircraft participating in the strikes. In other words, British aircraft took off and landed inside the stated range of the system, and all cruise missiles, both ship- and air-launched, penetrated the bubble without seemingly any of them having been intercepted.
The short answer is that Russia, according to Washington, didn’t try. There is said to have be no indication that the S-400 was fired against anything, and most likely this was a political decision. However, it does tell you something.
4. Russia blinked, they know they blinked, we know they blinked, but we will pretend they didn’t.
If Russia had the magical steel dome that some lay out A2/AD to be, why didn’t they at least swat down some of the cruise missiles, even if they decided to leave the aircrafts themselves (or rather, their pilots) alone? At the crucial moment, Russia decided not to try to protect the assets of their ally. Whatever the reason, the result is a razed block in the Syrian capital.
However, while there without doubt are intelligence services around the world plotting the decision as yet another data point, the immediate outcome isn’t necessarily too dramatic. As TD noted, the West will continue to act like Russia didn’t blink, and Russia will continue to claim that they control the skies over (western) Syria.
The problem is that while Russia might be the great power on location in Syria, the other actors, including Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah, all have their own agendas as well. More importantly, it is highly doubtful that any of them would hesitate to jump the Russian ship if they saw more benefits to be gained elsewhere.
Enter Israel, which is likely the western state that has been cooperating most effortlessly with Russia. In part this stems from a pragmatism that is a strong part of Israeli foreign policy, but it should also be noted that current defence minister Lieberman (and a sizeable Israeli minority) is in fact born in the Soviet Union. By most accounts the Israeli-Russian deconfliction agreement is working nicely, with Russia more or less accepting Israeli strikes on targets in Syria.
Israel has on the whole tried to stay out of the Syrian conflict, in no small part likely based on the experiences from the Lebanese civil war. However, a red line has always been drawn at the “transfer of advanced weaponry” from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. What exactly constitutes “advanced weapons” is left open, but it is usually taken to include long-range rockets and ballistic missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and anti-ship missiles. The Israeli answer to transfers has been air strikes, often carried out with stand-off weaponry from Lebanese or Israeli airspace.
As the war has been dragging on, the Israeli involvement has deepened at the same time as the Iranian impact on the ground has increased. While Assad constitutes a know quantity, Israel has been extremely wary of the long-term impact of allowing Iran a foothold in the region. And while brig. gen. (res.) Shafir of the Israeli Air Force a decade ago confidently could say that Iran is isolated in the Muslim world, recent developments have opened up avenues of approach for Teheran on a broader scale than has been seen before. The recent downing of an Iranian drone that entered Israeli airspace and the following air raids (including the first downing of an Israeli fast jet in a very long time) has increased the temperature further.
Israeli official told me PM Netanyahu's conclusion from his phone call with Putin last week was that Russia has no real ability to contain Iran in Syria
A very worrying detail was the fact that Israeli media claims that the aftermath of the raid left Israeli prime minister Netanyahu with the impression that Russia has no real ability to contain Iran in Syria. The problem here then is that the logical conclusion is that Israel will have to deal with the Iranian presence in Syria alone, and while I doubt that anyone inside the IDF is dusting off the plans for a drive to Damascus just yet, a more comprehensive air campaign aimed at severely crippling the Iranian forces in Syria might be in the cards.
While this kind of Israeli-Iranian showdown is bad enough in and by itself, the big kicker is how that would reflect upon Russia. Having two gangs fight it out on what should ostensibly be your backyard does not leave the onlookers with the feeling that you are in control, no matter how often you say so. In addition, if Russia goes through with the idea to supply the S-300PMU-2 to Assad, this opens up further risks of losing face. While the S-300 is one notch below the S-400, the system is vastly superior to anything currently in operation by the Syrians themselves. As such, it would likely be a prime target in any Israeli air campaign, and echoing the aerial battles of 1982, it would likely be destroyed sooner rather than later.
This all would leave Russia in a bad light, and erase much of the gains in prestige and diplomacy that the Syrian intervention has so far given Russia (in certain places, one should add, as others are less impressed by people regularly bombing hospitals and supporting dictators who use chemical weapons). While attempts at predicting Putin’s next moves are notoriously hard, it is safe to say that he has not shown an inclination to count his losses and leave the table. Instead, when the rest of the players believe him to have overplayed his hand, what usually happens seems to be that Putin will press on regardless. And there’s no telling whether his next move would come in Syria, or somewhere else.
The location is next to a walkbridge just northwest of the central station, looking west-southwest. The bridge is the major hint, but you can also make out the apothecary with its green roof, the lower market buildings in front of it, and the low trees on the other side of the track.
This means that the train is heading east at the time of the filming. However, the railways around Orsha has several interesting features, and nothing certain can be said about the destination. However, the likely target is Vitebsk in northeastern Belarus, where the Losvido training range has been linked to Zapad 2017.
The train holds 12 2S19 Msta-S heavy self-propelled guns. The number is interesting, as a mechanized or armoured brigade would field 18 of these modern artillery pieces. Looking at the rest of the vehicles, the most prominent are the nine different vehicles based on the MT-LBu chassis, most of which seem to be of the 1V12-family of observer vehicles, either the older 1V12-3 “Mashina-M” or the newer 1V12M “Faltset”. A single BMP-based command vehicle is also seen, likely the command vehicle of the whole artillery unit. Suspiciously absent are not only the last third of the artillery pieces, but also the large number of different trucks which accompany artillery units, only four of which are aboard the train.
In conclusion, this leads me to believe that:
The last six artillery pieces and most of the trucks are being transported on a second train,
The complete heavy artillery of an armoured or mechanised brigade is being transferred to the area of Vitebsk for Zapad.
The vehicles in question are 9K33 Osa (NATO designation SA-8 GECKO) surface-to-air missile TELARs, meaning that a single vehicle transports the missiles in their launch containers and is equipped with a radar allowing it to acquire and fire upon any targets without outside assistance. At least six of the vehicles in the convoy are Osas, the lead vehicle is too blurry for an accurate identification, and could be a command vehicle.
The video is indeed shot in Vladivostok, at the western end of Russkaya Ulitsa, at a relatively recent date. The geolocation is based on the building to the left, visible at the very beginning of the clip, which holds a V-Laser store, as well as the small kiosk in front of it.
The Google Street-view image above is from 2013, and it seems some changes has been made to the area between the road lanes.
To the right, a large building with a slightly smaller one behind it is briefly visible. This is not found on Google Street-view, but Yandex somewhat newer imagery shows it under construction. The building in question houses the Mall Druzba Center.
All in all, the location seems quite certain, and while it is hard to say for certain how old the clip is, the inclusion of Mall Druzba Center means that really old footage can be ruled out.
The location is intriguing. As mentioned, this is at the very end of Russkaya, and there does not seem to be any logical place from where the vehicles would have come, unless they have been transported to Vladivostok by rail or sea, and are now choosing this somewhat low-key road to get out from the city.
As for the presence of Osas in Vladivostok, that in itself is no reason to worry. The movement of a handful of medium-ranged SAMs is well within normal routines. However, this does constitute a small piece of a pattern of current events and troop movements on and around the Korean peninsula which on the whole do give reason for concern.
Edit 15 April 09:40 (GMT +2):
Zvezda state that three motorized infantry brigades in the Far East has moved out. The Osas could very well be related to this.
A second video clip shows the forward part of the convoy, and together the clips seem to indicate that a total 13 vehicles are included in the convoy. Eight of these are 9K33 Osa TELARs, with a further two being the 9T217 missile transporter and loader, which carries reloads for the TELARs. The last three are then some kind of unidentified BTR armored vehicles, likely being PU-12M command vehicles. This setup does make sense, as it would mean that the convoy is made up of two batteries with four TELARs and command vehicles each, though the number of 9T217 does seem a bit on the low side.
One of last week’s major stories was the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) presenting their ‘interim results’, again confirming what has been seen as the most likely explanation since the immediate aftermath of the 2014 tragedy: that MH17 was brought down by a Russian-supplied Buk-M1 surface-to-air missile. I won’t discuss the details here, as they have been given in a number of different forums, including by Bellingcat as well the earlier investigative report and now the JIT. Suffice to say, the amount of evidence found in both open and non-open source has reached such levels that the question of whether a Russian supplied Buk shot down MH17 can now be considered a litmus test for whether you are under the influence of Russian propaganda or not.
For Finland, the interesting part came when Dutch newspaper Telegraaf broke the story that Finland had provided data and performed secret tests on our Buk-missiles, which are of the same M1-version as the TELAR used for downing MH17. To begin with, this ‘important contribution’ by the Finnish authorities was cheered by Finnish media (#Suomimainittu), but the party was cut short by the announcement that JIT had in fact not been allowed by Finnish authorities to see the evidence. This in turn caused a minor uproar that was rapidly shaping into a political storm when the Finnish President called a press conference on the issue.
But first, let’s rewind to how the by now infamous SAM-system ended up in Finland. By the end of the Cold War, the Soviet economy was in a very poor shape. This was also seen on the clearing accounts which formed the basis for Finnish-Soviet trade. Under this system, anything exported by Finland was ‘cleared’ from the account when items to a corresponding value were imported by Finland from the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the Soviet balance sheet was squarely in the red, i.e. the Soviets owed Finland goods. During the years since, this has gradually been paid off as goods, services, and cash payments, until the last payment was made three years ago.
One of the early payments was the Buk-system, which arrived in Finland in the mid-90’s and replaced the earlier (and outdated) Soviet-made S-125 ‘Neva’ (SA-3 GOA), local designation ItO 79. The Buk-M1 was introduced under the ItO 96-designation (now ITO 96), and served for roughly a decade until concerns over its vulnerability to countermeasures caused its gradual withdrawal in favour of the medium-ranged NASAMS II (ITO 12). The last batch of conscripts trained on the system in 2005, but the system was scheduled to remain in service at least for a further ten years.
Fast forward to 2014, when the Dutch prosecutor’s office contacted Finnish authorities and asked for technical assistance as part of the criminal investigation into the fate of the MH17. Exactly which Finnish authority received the request is unclear, but eventually a small circle of top politicians were the ones who made the decision on whether to answer the call or not. The decision was made to collaborate with the Dutch prosecutor’s office in full, and to keep the cooperation secret from the general public. The last part was due to the Dutch authorities requesting that this would be the case, and was not seen as anything unusual given the circumstances. Evidence gathering is a tricky matter even in a ‘normal’ case, and as such it was understood that the cooperation would not be disclosed until during the eventual trial, at the earliest.
All this was revealed during the press conference, where the President stressed that the decision was not taken lightly. The acquisition document of the Buk, which isn’t public, forbids the disclosure of information concerning the system to third parties. This was then weighted against the UN Security Council Resolution calling upon all parties to provide any requested assistance to the investigation(s). During the investigation a number of requests have been made, with the most ‘special’ one probably being the request to detonate a warhead and collect part of the shrapnel (contrary to some reports, no missile firings seems to have taken place). This was done in an undisclosed location in Finland by the Finnish Defence Forces in the presence of Dutch officials, and the requested shrapnel was handed over to the Dutch authorities.
Key to the story is that throughout it was the Dutch prosecutor’s office that was in contact with the Finnish authorities. According to president Niinistö, Finland has handed over all information requested by the Dutch authorities, and at no single point have the investigators expressed any kind of disappointment that the data wouldn’t have been thorough enough. The current issue came about as a result of the Dutch prosecutor asking permission that the evidence be handed over to JIT. The letter which requested this did not include any time frame for when the answer was needed, and as such it was decided to send a small committee over to the Netherlands to discuss how this change had come about, and exactly which part of the evidence was needed (the president confirmed that it was preferred and legally more straightforward to cooperate with the prosecutor’s office rather than the JIT). Before the Finnish administration had had time to put their plan into action, the JIT published their interim report and the fact that Finland was involved was leaked.
The President was clearly not happy with how the Finnish actions had been portrayed in the media, or with the fact that the Dutch had leaked the info after being the ones who originally requested secrecy.
Enter the follow-up discussion on what the press conference meant, and how Finland’s reactions should be seen (especially in the light of our relations vis-a-vis Russia).
Some have been quick to argue that there are traces of Finlandisation all over the handling of the issue. The simple fact that the decision to supply the evidence was taken by the political leadership and not by the officials normally handling these kinds of requests point in this direction, as do the continued emphasise on how hard the decision was due to the acquisition document forbidding this kind of information sharing. The critics also point to the fact that Finland did inform the Russian authorities of the request for evidence and that we were going to collaborate with the Dutch investigation. ‘We told no-one, except the Kremlin’, does indeed have a somewhat bad ring to it.
On the other hand, there are also a number of issues here that point directly in the opposite direction, perhaps the main point being that Finland decided to inform Russia that we were going to disclose technical details of their SAM system to an investigation that quite likely was going to result in Russian citizens being charged. The key word here is ‘informed’, the government never asked for permission, something the president clearly stated had been decided against when asked about the issue. The investigation has also spanned over the latest set of parliamentary elections, showing that there is broad support for it to continue.
(A third point of view was the pro-Russian trolls who now argued that this shows that the JIT isn’t trustworthy and that the ‘true source’ of the bow tie-shaped fragments now has been revealed. As noted, the disinformation campaign on the MH17 has long since lost all its credibility.)
I am personally a bit torn over the issue, and felt the beginning of the presser emphasised how hard the decision was a bit too much considering the nature of the issue. On the other hand, I find it hard to be too shocked over the fact that the request for assistance wasn’t dealt with as a run-of-the-mill case. It should be noted that as the original acquisition deal for the Buk-missiles was handled through the government-to-government discussions on the clearing account, the ban on publishing the information is not a buyer-supplier NDA, but most likely part of a government-to-government agreement. Pointing to this is also the fact that it indeed was the president and the Foreign Minister who hosted the press conference, showing that this was dealt with as a matter of foreign policy and not one of a strictly legislative nature.
There has also been discussions regarding if the information handed over to the Dutch actually included such data that was covered by the ban in the first place. This is all pure speculation, as no-one in the public has seen neither the acquisition document nor the details on what information has been requested. However, my personal opinion is that if the information was indeed of such a nature that the Dutch prosecutor needed to get it from an operator of the system, it is also likely to be covered by the secrecy clauses.
UMI #Soini: Suomen ja Alankomaiden ulkoministerit keskustelivat puhelimitse perjantaina. UMI Koenders pahoitteli tapahtunutta.
In the end, while the exact pattern of decision making might or might not have followed the letter of the law to the point, the whole issue was probably best described by FIIA’s Mika Aaltola who noted that the whole issue is a “storm in a teacup”. This has been further confirmed by the Dutch Foreign Minister Koenders apologising to FM Soini for the leaks, as well as by the chair of the JIT, Gerrit Thiry, who clarified that it certainly wasn’t his intention to criticise the Finnish authorities, but that it was an unfortunate misunderstanding between the Finnish journalist and the Dutch police making the statement. Thiry is extremely satisfied with the assistance provided by the Finnish authorities, and as such everything is back to normal.
The discussion regarding the potential of an armed conflict, or even regional war, between NATO and Russia over the Baltics have become a staple of the post-Crimean world. Most of the focus has been placed on the difficulty in reinforcing the Baltic states in the face of a Russian anti-access/area denial ‘bubble’ (A2/AD) created with Kaliningrad as the centre of the bubble, and the potential of strengthening this bubble by rapidly occupying the Swedish island of Gotland. If this was to happen, the only way of reinforcing the Baltic states would be over the Polish-Lithuanian border, a strip of land which rapidly has become known as the Suwałki gap (named after the Polish town at one end of the gap). The Suwałki gap in turn is claimed to be extremely vulnerable, as it is wedged in between the Kaliningrad enclave and the Belarusian border.
I will argue that this is, in certain aspects, an oversimplification, but that contrary to what one might expect, this does not lessen the risk of a confrontation.
The A2/AD Bubble
With regards to the A2/AD bubble set up in Kaliningrad, it is usually seen as blocking maritime and airborne forces. By using a combination of long-range high quality surface-to-air missiles and anti-shipping weapons (land based missiles as well as surface and subsurface units), Russia would be able to deny NATO forces entry into the southern parts of the Baltic Sea, and any units operating there would be under constant threat. These two features are a key part of the definition of A2/AD challenges, see e.g. . As NATO is lacking both numbers and key capabilities (such as mechanized and armoured units) in the Baltic states, any NATO response to an incursion would have to include a rapid transfer of reinforcements from other NATO countries and into the Baltic states. The ability to hinder or disrupt these reinforcements would ensure that Russia can maintain superiority on the battlefield in terms of both numbers and lethality of the weapon systems employed.
This description is usually accompanied by maps featuring rings at 400 km, the stated maximum range for the longest ranged surface-to-air missile in current Russian inventory (the 40N6 missile of the S-400 Triumf system) , as well as at 300 km, the approximate maximum range of the K-300P Bastion-P coastal defence system’s P-800 ‘Yakhont’/’Oniks’ missiles .
However, this fails to account for a number of facts. To begin with, at maximum range missiles lacks the energy to be able to chase down and hit maneuvering targets such as fighters. The very long range nature of the 40N6 also by necessity dictates that the missile is extremely large, further degrading the performance against maneuvering targets. As such the main use of the 40N6 is likely against large high-value targets such as AWACS, tankers, stand-off jammers, and transport aircraft. A more fitting maximum range when discussing fighter-sized targets would be that of the somewhat smaller and shorter-ranged 48N6E missile, which in its latest version feature ranges over 200 km . This is still a highly potent weapon, but the area covered is roughly a quarter of that of the 40N6.
For anti-ship missiles, the need to maneuver isn’t as crucial, but going out to maximum range means that a measure of tactical flexibility is lost. This includes routing the missiles to attack from unexpected vectors, or simultaneous impact by missiles approaching from different directions, see e.g. video clip from Ruptly .
The main problem operating out at very long ranges is target acquisition. The range of radars are usually limited by the horizon, which is the reason that aircraft mounted radars are so popular. This is a problem for Kaliningrad, as the whole area is easily covered by NATO air defence networks (more on which later), and as such Russia has installed over the horizon (OTH) radar arrays in the area. In the case of Kaliningrad, it was recently disclosed that the Sunflower-E (Ru. Подсолнух-Э / Podsolnukh-E) long-range air- and surface radar will be installed in Kaliningrad . Note that the picture in the source is of the anti-missile radar Voronezh-M, also found in Kaliningrad , and not of the Sunflower-E. The exact range of this array is unclear, but the manufacturer claims it can be used to cover the 200-mile (320 km) economic zone of coastal countries , while the earlier quoted Russia Today article cited ranges ‘up to 450 km’. This latter figure is likely against large airborne targets at altitude, which is also in accordance with a widely circulated but unsourced graphic . The radar array is made up of a ‘forest’ of individual antennas, which means that it is likely very resistant to shock waves from bomb blasts. However, the largely immobile nature and size of the installation means that its exact location is well-known, and while the antennas might be hard to destroy and do feature a certain degree of redundancy if damaged, the system likely has other key components (power supply, transmitters, receivers, and operator centrals) which are more vulnerable.
Radars are also inherently active, which means that they can be located once they start transmitting. To avoid this both anti-ship missiles and the S-400 has the ability to be fed targeting data from passive sources such as emitter locators, which work by locating an emitting radar of the adversary. This is particularly effective if the enemy forces have used active jamming to make the use of own radars impossible, as the active jammer is a very strong source of emission, and hence easily targeted. As a general rule, these systems are however less accurate than active systems, and the difference is emphasised when operating at very long ranges. The fact that all missiles discussed here have their own active radars does remedy this to a certain extent.
The A2/AD bubble in Kaliningrad is made up of some of the world’s most modern anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles
To achieve accurate targeting data at extreme ranges, it relies on potentially vulnerable sensor systems
Secondary sensors are available, but offer a somewhat degraded picture
The bubble does not start at an absolute range (e.g. 400 km), but instead gradually increases in capability and lethality the closer one gets to Kaliningrad
Logistics and Kaliningrad as an enclave
Often overlooked in the discussion is the logistics of the A2/AD bubble and the vulnerability of Kaliningrad itself. The long range missiles of the S-400 and K-300P systems are large and bulky, with e.g. the 48N6E being 7,5 m long. The TEL firing units as well as transport units for reloads are all based on either 6×6 all-terrain trucks pulling semi-trailers or self-propelled 8×8 heavy all-terrain vehicles. The pure size means that the battery won’t have too many missiles with it in the field. Notable for Kaliningrad, if reinforcements are needed fast, only large transports are able to airlift the loaded vehicles, and only a limited number at a time.
Out in the field, the battery moves as a large convoy of bulky vehicles. The firing battery comprises an engagement radar and up to twelve TEL’s, each with four missiles. These are then backed up by the supporting vehicles, including missile transports (roughly similar to the TEL’s in outward appearance) and the reload vehicle with a heavy-duty crane. The firing batteries are then linked to a centralised command vehicle and a long-range acquisition radar. This means that any S-400 battery on the move will include ten to twenty oversized trucks. For the K-300P, the composition is roughly similar.
This mobility is one of the great benefits of the S-400 and K-300P systems. The whole battery can be moved around quickly, and deployed in a spread out fashion to hide from enemy units, see e.g. example of K-300P firing P-800 Yakhont from a concealed position . However, as soon as the radar starts emitting, the rough position of the battery can be found out. This means that for the the systems to heighten its chance of survival, the battery will frequently need to change positions. This in turn means that there needs to be several batteries moving around in a coordinated fashion, so that at any given time there will be a firing ready battery somewhere. For the anti-ship batteries the need to operate with the battery’s radar on is smaller, and by extension they can more easily stay hidden.
Kaliningrad is roughly 200 km long (east-west) and 100 km wide (north-south). This rather small area would have to host a number of S-400 batteries, one or two of which at any given time are shifting from one firing position to another. It is clear that during the movement phase the large trucks would be vulnerable to detection, and by extension suppression and destruction. The same would be true for the large resupply vehicles bringing new missiles from warehouses out to the firing units deployed in the field.
The logistics for the missile batteries is but a small piece of the larger logistical headache concerning the Kaliningrad enclave as a whole. As mentioned, it is wedged in between NATO countries, and while it can disrupt air and seaborne reinforcements into the Baltic countries, it is in fact even more tightly besieged itself.
If we for a moment turn the table, and start drawing range rings based upon NATO weapons systems, it soon becomes clear that current medium/long range systems such as the Patriot PAC-3 or the SAMP/T could seal of the airspace of Kaliningrad. Similarly, the narrow width in the north-south direction means that large areas of Kaliningrad are covered by current Polish and Lithuanian artillery systems deployed inside their own borders. This means that the suppression of enemy air defences mission (SEAD) could in part be undertaken by artillery units equipped with modern munitions instead of risking aircrafts and pilots as would usually be the case. If long-range surface-to-surface systems such as the US ATACMS missile system are used, the whole enclave can be covered by ground based systems.
The small size of the Kaliningrad is problematic with regards to keeping the location of the SAM batteries concealed when shifting position
The whole enclave would be under siege from the onset of hostilities, as the whole airspace can be covered by a small number of units operating current surface-to-air missiles
The size of the enclave means that NATO ground based systems would have a large impact, including performing missions usually reserved for airborne systems (such as SEAD)
The Suwałki gap
As a consequence, the importance of the Suwałki gap to both sides becomes clear. The gap, roughly the area coloured yellow in the map below, constitute the sole land route between the Baltic countries and the core of the NATO countries found in the European mainland. Similarly, the area marks the shortest distance from the Kaliningrad enclave to Belarusian territory, and as such is the most likely place for a Russian attempt to relieve the surrounded enclave.
The gap is often described as ‘vulnerable’ from a NATO point of view, mainly due to it being only 65 km wide at its narrowest point. This means that the entire width of the gap is within range of Russian artillery, and ground units could cover the distance in a matter of days (or less if unopposed).
However, this fails to account for a number of factors. While disrupting the movement of troops on the two main roads (Suwałki-Kaunas and Augustów-Alytus-Vilnius) and single railway that passes though the gap is possible not only with artillery as well as with e.g. special forces on foot, cutting it off completely and opening a corridor to Kaliningrad is another thing completely. The main transport arteries of the gap, as mentioned, traverse the region in the northeast-southwest direction, i.e. between Poland and Lithuania. There are a number of smaller roads going in the opposite direction, but in general it is easier to move troops and materiel between Poland and Lithuania than between Kaliningrad and Belarus. The main road going east from Kaliningrad goes north of the gap, and passes through the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, before continuing on to Minsk. The terrain is also very varied, with especially the area bordering Belarus being heavily forested. As such, the terrain is well-suited for the kind of light infantry that makes up the majority of the Lithuanian army. Below is an example of the terrain found in this area, featuring the road from Belarus to Druskininkai, Lithuania.
Perhaps the most often overlooked factor is the Polish army. At the same time many NATO countries have shifted to lighter and smaller units, Poland has maintained a core of heavy units, lead by the formidable 11th “Lubuska” Armoured Cavalry Division . The unit is a full-fledged armoured division, featuring two armoured brigades equipped with Leopard 2A4 tanks, to be upgraded to the Leopard 2PL standard . Backed up by two mechanised divisions equipped with PT-91 Twardy, a locally modernised MBT based on the T-72, it could provide the core of a complete armoured corps, one of very few left in NATO.
The big difference between the Polish army and others large armoured units in NATO is that it is based close to the Baltic countries, and, crucially, that the political leadership in Poland and the Baltic states largely shares the same view of Russia and the need to counter an increasingly aggressive Kremlin. As has been noted in other scenarios, the key to countering a Russian aggression in the Baltic states would be to get qualified units on the ground as soon as possible, to boost deterrence and provide an answer to the heavily mechanised Russian ground units that otherwise would be hard to counter for the light infantry units that make up the core of the Baltic armies . Importantly, if a crises were to start to unfold, the Polish units might be the only ones where there would be both the political will and a short enough transfer time that they might pass through the Suwałki gap and take up position before the gap would be under serious threat. The distance from Suwałki to e.g. Tartu is just over 600 km by road, a far cry from the logistics involved in getting a US or British armoured division deployed to Estonia.
It is obviously not without problems to deploy these units to the Baltic states. To begin with, the eastern Polish border can hardly be left undefended. Also, there is a gauge break between the Polish and Lithuanian railway systems, meaning that, until Rail Baltica is ready, what would otherwise be the most efficient way of rapidly moving tracked vehicles from Poland to the Baltic states feature a severe bottleneck. Also, the 11th “Lubuska” division is deployed in the southwestern parts of Poland, more or less as far from Lithuania as possible. The 16th “Pomeranian” Mechanised Division is however deployed opposite Kaliningrad, and while its PT-91’s are inferior to the Leopard 2PL, they are superior to anything currently deployed in the Kaliningrad enclave.
The main logistical arteries of the Suwałki gap, constituting two major roads and a railway, all go in parallel from Poland to Lithuania, with only smaller roads in the gap connecting Kaliningrad and Belarus
While part of the Suwałki gap is open ‘tank country’, other parts are heavily forested and/or broken up by water. A mechanised force would be vulnerable to ambushes and being funneled into bottlenecks
The Polish army fields a considerable striking force in the form of heavy armoured and mechanised units, as well as what is likely a lower threshold to deploy these in the Baltic states in the face of a crises compared to NATO countries located further from Russia
All in all, the Kaliningrad enclave does constitute a strategic problem for NATO in times of crises, due to its location at the entrance to the Baltic states and with the long ranged systems based there interfering with any NATO operations in the southern Baltic Sea. However, it is not an absolute hinder to NATO operations in the area, and in a prolonged conflict it would effectively be under siege. Similarly, the Suwałki gap is not necessarily as vulnerable as it is sometimes portrayed. Also, while the draw down amongst the traditional major NATO countries have left gaps in the ability of NATO to rapidly project military power with heavy units, Poland still upholds a sizeable mechanised force within striking distance of the Baltic states, coupled with a more assertive political leadership compared to what is often seen in the traditional NATO countries.
However, while all this might seem to be good news for NATO in the face of increased Russian aggression and the reckless behavior displayed by the Kremlin in relation to several of their neighboring countries, I will argue that the opposite is in fact the case.
The ability of NATO to respond to a Russian aggression aimed at the Baltic states, as well as the possibility to move Polish units into the Baltic states at short notice, create a scenario where, in an unfolding crises, time would not be on Russia’s side. In fact, if Russia would conclude that a confrontation was inevitable, it would make sense to strike sooner rather than later. Through this, the capabilities of NATO and the relatively weak position of Kaliningrad might actually become catalysts for instead of deterring an open conflict.
While a regional conflict over part of the Baltic states would be bad enough, this is far from the worst scenario. St Petersburg is within 150 km from the Estonian border. If the Kremlin actually start believing their own narrative of an aggressive and expansionist NATO, even the possibility of NATO moving a mechanised division into Estonia might be the spark that ignites a larger confrontation. And a conflict in which Russia feels that its very heartland is threatened by NATO tanks is one from which it won’t back down. I am strongly of the opinion that appeasement is not the best way forward when it comes to Russian aggression. But if Putin makes a move towards the Baltic, NATO just might be out of good options.
An interesting picture came to my attention yesterday, showing Rybinsk Shipyard’s BK-16 fast assault craft in an undisclosed small naval marina. Extremely little footage of the BK-16 in service have appeared, so finding one at what looks like a makeshift base warrants a closer study.
A number of vessels, including possibly another BK-16 and a midget submarine, are also present under covers. After some time of looking at satellite maps of Russian and Crimean shores, a picture search, and some discussions with my wife regarding the vegetation around the Black Sea, Baltic Sea, and Russian inland, we managed to locate the likely spot. It seems to be situated in Sevastopol, on the Crimean peninsula. What is interesting is that an earlier picture of the area shows it seemingly being a civilian boat workshop. Now it is clearly in military use, as evident not only by the increased number of vessels, but also by the hoisted naval ensign and the dark green trucks parked between the two buildings.
That Russia has taken to using former civilian facilities in Sevastopol, long the main base of the Black Sea Fleet and by extension the main logistical hub for the operations in the Mediterranean and Syria, is perhaps the most interesting fact here. The equipment seems to point towards a smaller unit of marine infantry, possibly a reconnaissance and/or special forces unit. Either there has been such a rapid expansion of units stationed in Crimea since the Russian occupation started that units with a smaller logistical footprint has had to move out of the main facilities, or then this is an attempt to keep the operations of this unit outside of the spotlight. Note that even the rusty fence in the foreground has not been mended since the first picture, meaning that the facilities seems to have been taken over ‘as is’. This might indicate the navy’s stay being only temporary, or it is another sign of the navy trying to keep a low profile (if so, not hoisting the St Andrew’s flag might have been a good idea). Another really interesting question is obviously if there really is a midget submarine under the tarpaulin, and if so, has it been used operationally in the Black Sea?