Russian forces near the Baltic Sea are getting their act together. This month, the Kremlin is practicing rushing troops across Eastern Europe into the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad in the event of a crisis. The exercise has involved lots of warplanes.
So far in September, Moscow’s warplanes have carried out around 100 training sorties near Kaliningrad, a tiny Russian territory between Lithuania and Poland that is geographically separate from the rest of Russia.
The exercise involves both Su-24 Fencer and Su-27 Flanker fighter jets, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense. Mi-24 Hind and Ka-27 Helix helicopters—used for ground attack and anti-submarine warfare respectively—are also taking part.
The Ministry of Defense stated in a Sept. 15 notice that the warplanes fired or dropped around 250 missiles, 50 bombs and 1,500 30-millimeter shells.
The war game around Kaliningrad is just the latest in what adds up to the busiest summer for military activity in the Baltic since the Cold War. Starting in March, Russian planes carried out mock attacks on Sweden, snooped on Swedish islands, flew through Finnish air space and chased a U.S. RC-135 Rivet Joint spy plane into Swedish territory.
Su-34 Fullback fighters—Russia’s most advanced operational fighter—also took part in training in Kaliningrad in July.
But more than just aircraft, Russia is practicing moving ground reinforcements into the enclave. In July, the Russian military rushed 200 soldiers from the 76th Guards Air Assault Division battalion into Kaliningrad in heavylift transport planes, flying over Estonian territory during the return trip.
To be clear, military maneuvers aren’t evidence of Russian provocation in the works. But watching where Russia’s airborne assault battalions go is a good barometer for where the Kremlin expects a crisis. They also serve as a subtle warning to NATO as U.S. and allied troops gather this month for the Rapid Trident exercises on the Polish-Ukrainian border.
Most of the Russian army moves by rail—and normally stays at a much lower state of readiness than airborne troops do.
Another advantage to airborne forces is mobility. They have access to Russia’s admittedly limited number of serviceable Il-76 transport planes and can also fly into war zones in helicopters. Paratroopers are the Kremlin’s best forces for areas other ground troops can’t reach.
In the days preceding Russia’s invasion of Crimea, the Kremlin sent troops from the 76th Division in Pskov hundreds of miles to the south of their base. They staged from there for the rapid assault on Crimea.
The Baltic governments have reason to fear Russia might attempt to repeat the success of the Crimea and eastern Ukraine invasions in their own territory. The Baltic states have substantial Russian minorities—many of whom are stateless in the sense that they lack citizenship in any country.
One Russian strategy could be to intervene on behalf of these minorities, ostensibly to protect them from discrimination.
On Sept. 13, Russian Foreign Ministry representative Konstantin Dolgov gave a speech in Riga criticizing the Baltic states for “mass deprivation of citizenship” of Russian minorities. “It is necessary to clearly recognize that such actions, carried out by many political forces, can have far-reaching, unfortunate consequences,” Dolgov said.
Russian army troops and air force warplanes would likely act in a supporting role in the event of a Baltic conflict. In Ukraine, mercenaries and paramilitary groups do the bulk of the fighting. Some of these fighters are Russian-speaking natives of Baltic states, according to Latvian state media reports.
“Such reports are inflaming the situation,” Paul Goble, a former State Department adviser, told the magazine Baltic Course. “Because it is all too easy to imagine how Russians in Latvia to fight on the pro-Moscow side in Ukraine could be redirected to fight for a pro-Moscow side in Latvia itself, especially given Dolgov’s suggestions about the need to defend Russians and Russian speakers there.”