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Russia allocates enormous resources to the war in Ukraine but still has the means to prepare itself for a protracted confrontation in the Baltic Sea region

Russia allocates enormous resources to the war in Ukraine but still has the means to prepare itself for a protracted confrontation in the Baltic Sea region

Russia’s war against Ukraine is gradually turning into a protracted conflict requiring increasing commitment of the Russian Armed Forces. To meet operational objectives and compensate for losses, Russia has sent troops and combat equipment en masse to Ukraine from units all over the country – even from the westernmost regions bordering NATO countries. Therefore, in the Baltic Sea region, Russia must increasingly use other components (air and naval) and nuclear capabilities to project its military potential and regional deterrence. In 2023, for example, Russia deployed Kalibr missile-capable ships on Lake Ladoga for combat duty for the first time, likely to signal its disapproval of Finnish NATO membership. In addition, Russian Tu-22M3 heavy bombers conducted five flights over the Baltic Sea in 2023, compared to none in 2022. In the summer of 2023, Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenka also declared that Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons had been deployed in Belarus.

The war in Ukraine affected even the previously untouched Russian A2/AD system in the Baltic Sea region. In late 2023, Russia moved part of its S-400 air defence system from Kaliningrad to Rostov-on-Don, likely to strengthen its air defence capability on the border with Ukraine.

With the vast majority of the Russian ground component deployed on the front line, the military training schedule in the Baltic Sea region had to be modified. The Zapad and Union Shield exercises did not take place. The latter was even publicly announced as having started at the end of September, but there were no signs of preparation or execution of the exercise on the ground. Russia therefore sought to compensate for the absence of these events by increasing the scale of the other two exercises dominated by air and naval components: the Baltic Fleet Operational Exercise and the Russian Navy’s Ocean Shield exercise. It is likely that the war will continue to complicate the annual training schedule in 2024. Russia has announced a large-scale strategic exercise, Okean, in which air and naval forces less involved in the war against Ukraine will play a major role.

A Tarantul-class small missile ship fires an anti-ship missile during an exercise AP / Scanpix

After more than two years of war against Ukraine, Russia shows no intention of de-escalating the situation. Even if it fails to achieve its operational objectives, the Kremlin is unlikely to abandon them. In the short term, Russia will continue to seek to extend its control to the administrative borders of the four occupied regions of Ukraine (Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya). In the long term, Russia’s goals likely will remain unchanged: to completely undermine the Ukrainian statehood, to ensure its neutral status, and to destroy its military potential.

In 2023, Russia was able not only to reconstitute its military grouping in Ukraine, which had suffered heavy losses in the previous year, but also to strengthen it. On the battlefield, the Russian Armed Forces prioritise quantity over quality, attempting to crush the Ukrainian resistance through superiority in terms of troops, combat equipment, and ammunition. Moscow is able to evaluate the lessons learned and improve its combat effectiveness.

Russia has sufficient financial, human, material, and technical resources to continue fighting at a similar intensity, at least in the near term. Its chosen strategy is a war of attrition, based on the expectation of growing war-weariness in Western societies and governments and the diminishing will to fight among Ukrainians.

Despite the continued priority to the war against Ukraine, Russia has already begun the large-scale reform of its Armed Forces, announced in late 2022, and started to increase its military potential, including in the Baltic Sea region. Restructuring is a long-term project that will require effort and resources from several years to a decade. Russia is engaged in two parallel processes. It is both compensating for its losses in Ukraine and creating new capabilities for a long-term confrontation with the West. Changes in structure and subordination have already begun, including in the Kaliningrad region and Western Russia. The Western Military District is being divided into the Moscow and Leningrad Military Districts, which were merged in 2010. A new army corps is being formed in Karelia, while some brigades are being upgraded to divisions. These new formations can be created in a relatively short time, but building the necessary infrastructure and equipping the units with the required personnel and weaponry will take at least several years. All in all, the speed and scope of this reform will depend directly on the progress, duration, and outcome of the war in Ukraine.

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