Kaliningrad’s geography offers advantages not just to Russia, but also to NATO.
In NATO’s 2014 Wales Summit declaration, the members of the North Atlantic Alliance acknowledged that ‘Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine have fundamentally challenged our vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace’.1 Signalling a renewed focus on Euro-Atlantic security, NATO decided to beef up its readiness and give collective defence greater emphasis in its longer-term strategy and defence posture. After a decade of out-of-area and crisis-response operations, demonstrating to allies and adversaries alike that NATO is willing and able to defend its members has become crucial for the credibility of the Alliance.
The Ukrainian crisis has highlighted new aspects of Russian warfare, usually described as ‘hybrid’, ‘non-linear’ or ‘ambiguous’, of which the invasion of Crimea was a successful example.2 NATO’s eastern members, in particular the Baltic states (which only gained independence from the Soviet Union a generation ago), feared they would be next. Encompassing a mixture of covert and overt military operations, large-scale disinformation and propaganda, and the use of proxy actors such as ‘nationalist’ militias and terrorist groups, Russia’s hybrid warfare increases the political difficulty of achieving a coherent and timely military response by the Alliance. Seeking to reassure its allies, NATO therefore agreed a Readiness Action Plan in Wales that includes increased exercises and a small rotational presence of ‘reassurance forces’ in the eastern member states, as well as adaptation of the NATO Response Force to create a brigade-sized Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), and new NATO Force Integration Units (NFIUs) headquarters elements that are to prepare for the reinforcement of the Alliance’s eastern members.
Nevertheless, despite the commitment made by US President Barack Obama that none of NATO’s eastern members would ‘stand alone’,3 defending these countries remains a challenging proposition. NATO’s strategy continues to be based on strategic warning and reinforcing allies under threat, and therefore requires assured access throughout the territory of member countries. In recent months, however – especially in the context of Russia’s intervention in Syria – it has become increasingly obvious that Russia’s military modernisation has given it significant new capabilities for high-intensity conventional operations. By emplacing highly capable and long-range anti-air, anti-shipping and surface-to-surface missiles in ‘bastions’ on the Kola Peninsula in Russia’s arctic, in the Kaliningrad enclave, in Crimea and, to some extent, in Syria, Russia can deny NATO forces the use of large areas of the sea and air surrounding, and even within, the Alliance’s territory. This emerging military threat in the Euro-Atlantic area has been called ‘anti-access and area denial’, or ‘A2/AD’, by, among others, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Philip Breedlove,4 the Commander of the US Air Forces in Europe, General Frank Gorenc,5 and Deputy NATO Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow.
Yet it is worth asking whether the A2/AD concept, which has risen to prominence as a way of describing China’s military modernisation and the resulting threat to the United States and its allies in the Western Pacific, is a useful lens through which to view the challenges that a belligerent Russia poses to NATO. Of the Russian A2/AD bastions, only Kaliningrad threatens NATO’s ability to reinforce its Baltic allies by air and sea, and via the adjacent, thin land corridor at Suwalki that connects Poland to Lithuania.7 Certainly, the fact that reinforcements by land, air and sea must pass by Kaliningrad represents a major predicament for NATO’s defence posture on the eastern flank, to which neither the Readiness Action Plan agreed in Wales, nor the increased reassurance forces that are currently being debated among the allies,8 are a sufficient answer. At the same time, however, making use of A2/AD capabilities in the Kaliningrad enclave, which is isolated from the Russian mainland itself and hence liable to be besieged by NATO, also represents a strategic gamble for Russia.
Therefore, while it is true that NATO forces must learn to operate despite Russian A2/AD capabilities, technical adaptations alone will be insufficient to maintain the credibility of NATO’s collective defence. Russia’s A2/AD capabilities are a threat to NATO first and foremost because of the geostrategic position of Kaliningrad. What NATO needs is a strategy that mitigates its own geostrategic vulnerabilities from Kaliningrad’s position as a Russian outpost, while exploiting the geostrategic advantage that makes Kaliningrad a hostage to the Alliance.