The Kaliningrad region remains the biggest threat in Lithuania’s neighbourhood
The Kaliningrad Region is particularly important to the Russian political leadership mostly as a military bridgehead in the Baltic sea Region, and at the same time as an isolated, economically vulnerable exclave surrounded by NATO countries.
The reaction of Kaliningrad population to the war has revealed that despite the region’s relatively more active contacts with the West, in this regard Kaliningrad is no different from the rest of the Russian Federation. Protests against the war and mobilisation were negligible and subsided without any effort from the government or law enforcement. Kaliningrad’s regional authorities organise mobilisation, gather supplies for the Armed Forces, and support the Kremlin’s efforts to tighten its control on the occupied regions in Ukraine. This way, regional authorities demonstrate their loyalty to the Kremlin and its policies.
Before starting its aggression against Ukraine, Russia began preparations to secure Kaliningrad’s provision with necessary supplies and ensure that the region’s infrastructure was operational in isolation mode. It provided additional ferries and cargo ships for transportation of goods to the region by sea, strengthened Kaliningrad’s capability to secure the supply of energy resources without relying on transit via Lithuania. It is highly likely that the decision to start the operation of Marshal Vasilevskiy, the Floating storage Regasification unit (FSRU), which reached the region in early February 2022, but whose liquefied natural gas cargo was not used until November, was made to strengthen the energy independence of the Kaliningrad Region.
As Kaliningrad’s isolation from Western countries increases, the region’s economy faces serious logistical challenges and a decline in industry production. Regional authorities try to adapt to the situation with short-term solutions such as searching for alternative logistic routes, subsidising industry, and trying to mitigate social impact of the economic problems. According to our assessment, the Kremlin is trying to prepare the Kaliningrad Region for complete isolation and ensure that its energy system is capable of functioning independently. Regional authorities and businesses are concerned about economic problems and are keen on maintaining transit of goods and energy resources via the EU territory. Currently, there are no signs that situation in the region might challenge the regime’s control. In the future, when addressing challenges to the Kaliningrad Region, the Kremlin will likely seek to demonstrate that relations with European states can be maintained only on Russia’s terms. if transit conditions are deemed unsatisfactory or if economic problems worsen in the exclave, the Kremlin will likely increase tension in the Baltic sea Region to get at least some concessions.
Russian military capabilities in the Kaliningrad Region were weakened due to their involvement and losses in the war against Ukraine, but Russian military threat in the Baltic sea Region diminished only to a certain extent. Deployment to occupied Ukrainian territories mostly affected the ground component, while air and naval forces remained practically untouched. Back in January 2022, three landing ships with personnel and combat equipment left the Kaliningrad Region for the Black sea. In addition, four multirole fighters Su-30SM/FLANKER-H were deployed to Crimea. However, other capabilities have been left in the exclave and are still performing their routine functions. What is more, the air component capabilities were additionally strengthened by deploying at least four modern Su-30SM2 fighters to the Kaliningrad Region. These new platforms compensated the losses incurred in Crimea.
Kaliningrad Military Grouping capabilities are sufficient to provide its critical function – the Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) effect: to obstruct deployment of necessary defence capabilities to the Baltic sea Region and disrupt the freedom of manoeuvre for opposing forces, thus attempting to gain an advantage in the initial phase of the conflict. Military units that were not deployed to Ukraine – short- and long-range missile units, air and coastal defence, and electronic warfare units – are essential for this task and Kaliningrad Military Grouping will continue to create an A2/AD environment.
11th Army Corps from the Kaliningrad Region incurred heavy losses during the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv Region. In September 2022, according to various estimates, 11th Army Corps combat units lost up to 50 percent personnel and 30 percent combat equipment during the Russian retreat. Casualties were replenished by recruiting reservists, volunteers, and mobilised personnel. However, this has resulted in decreased capability of personnel since most professional soldiers sent to the frontline have been replaced by conscripts or inexperienced reservists.
According to intelligence estimates, the decrease in Russian military threat in the Baltic sea Region will only be temporary. Russia will attempt to replenish ground component losses incurred in Ukraine as quickly as possible. After that, the Russian Armed Forces will continue to prioritise the growth of the Kaliningrad Region Grouping by creating and staffing additional military units, and modernising their combat equipment. Nevertheless, these developments will highly depend on the duration and outcome of the war in Ukraine – the longer and more costly the war, the more time this modernisation will take.