Russian Armed Forces in the Baltic Sea Region

In the past five years, Russian units have grown in quality as well as quantity.

Although Russia has always tried to maintain a considerable military “footprint” in the Baltic Sea region, the past five years have witnessed a significant strengthening of Russian military capability near the Baltic countries. It has not been a random process—it`s a consequence of political choices stemming from fleeting circumstances.

The long-term strategic aim of the current Russian elite has been—and still is—to create armed forces that can, firstly, guarantee the military superiority of Russia over the entire territory of the former Soviet Union and in the areas directly bordering it; and, secondly, project limited military force on a strategic, global level. Armed forces with this power add military weight to Moscow’s foreign policy “toolbox”. In 2008, Russia demonstrated the use of this instrument in Georgia and it is currently continuing the demonstration in Ukraine.

T-72B3 Russian Battle Tank

Hence, Russia’s military build-up in the Baltic Sea region is part of a broader systematic set of activities that, as such, is here to stay—in the next couple of years we will witness the growing strength of Russian armed forces in our neighbourhood. As a result, NATO will lose its conventional military superiority in the Baltic Sea region, something that the Alliance has possessed since the end of the Cold War in 1991. However, this loss of superiority has been brought about not only by the strengthening of Russia, but also by the cuts in personnel, arms and budgets that have hit the armed forces of NATO member states during the past decade.

Three main groups of factors have contributed to the growth of Russia’s regional military capability in the vicinity of the Baltic Sea. The first group is general factors—processes and circumstances that affect the Russian armed forces as a whole and are not specifically related to the Baltic region. This group is mostly composed of factors related to the wider reform and rearmament of the Russian Army (the so-called modernisation of armed forces).

The second group of factors consists of changes in the number of Russian Army and Navy units, in their armaments and in their specific location in the wider Baltic Sea region.

The third group of factors is related to the stationing of specific weapons systems, with an important effect on the military balance of power, in the vicinity of the Baltic countries.

General Features of the Military Reform

On 14 October 2008, then Russian Defence Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov announced comprehensive reforms for the Russian armed forces. Introduced at the board meeting of the Ministry of Defence, this reorganisation plan has often been referred to as “Serdyukov’s military reform”, both in Russian and Western media. Although it is imposing, simple and striking, the nickname does not completely correspond to the truth.

Serdyukov, who was promoted from being head of the Federal Tax Service to Defence Minister in February 2007, did indeed implement the military reform, but was neither the originator nor the intellectual author. As a civilian, Serdyukov had no previous contacts or connections in military circles and was appointed Defence Minister by Russia’s top political leadership with a specific task—to push through a radical reform plan.1

After announcing the plans, the highest Russian military-political leadership justified the need for changes by the backwardness of the Russian armed forces, which had been evident during the Russo–Georgian Five Day War in August 2008. In fact, the preliminary reform plans were drawn up between the General Staff and the Ministry of Defence, allegedly as early as December 2007, but they were neither submitted to the government or the president for ratification nor presented to the general public.2 Although the list of aims and planned changes in the 2008 military reform was long, the most important activities can be focused under three general courses of action—changes related to the structural, personnel and command organisation of the armed forces.

The main structural changes are the elimination of all reduced-strength units and transition to a brigade-based operational structure in the Army, as well as optimisation and reduction, i.e. a radical reduction in the number of units, military bases, garrisons, military training areas, military bases etc. in all branches of the armed forces. For example, the aim was to reduce the number of military units and formations in the Army from 1890 to 172. The majority of units (where the personnel only amounted to a small percentage of their prescribed strength) were simply cut.

However, the elimination of reduced-strength units can be considered as one of the key elements of the army reform—abandoning a mass army based on the extensive mobilisation of reservists and aiming towards a high-readiness standing army.


The initial aim of the reform was to reduce the total number of personnel in the armed forces. At first, the personnel cuts were mainly aimed at officers, Praporshchiks and Michmans (analogous to the institution of senior non-commissioned officers (NCOs)); for officers, the plan was to reduce the number from 350,000 in 2008 to 150,000 in 2012.

Proportionally, the most extensive reductions in officers were planned among the ranks of Polkovniks and Podpolkovniks (Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels), while large-scale cuts were also planned in the ranks of generals. The aim of these dismissals was to reorganise the previous top-heavy personnel structure of the armed forces. In 2011, Serdyukov announced the re-evaluation of the earlier reform plans—according to him, the new upper limit of the number of officers and their total number in the armed forces was to be 220,000.

The second important change took place between 2011 and 2012, when the senior leadership of the armed forces took a decisive turn and aimed to gradually reduce the number of conscripts to a minimum, e.g. to 10–20 per cent of the total. In addition, Vladimir Putin announced in a policy article published in March 2012, before the presidential elections, that the ultimate aim was to move completely to a professional army.3 Although the timetable for achieving this has not yet been made public, the preliminary goal is to increase the number of contract-based soldiers and sergeants (kontraktniki) to 425,000 by 2017 and to 499,000 by 2020. If one is to believe the published report of the Russian Ministry of Defence, the plan to enlist kontraktniki is going well. According to the report, the number of contract-based regular soldiers and regular NCOs in the armed forces amounted to 225,000 by the end of last year, 127 per cent of the annual recruitment plan.4 (Of course, Russian official statistics are to be considered somewhat cautiously, maybe even sceptically …) By the end of this year, the number of contract-based regular soldiers/NCOs will be at least 240,000.

The priority is to enlist regular soldiers to airborne forces, naval infantry and Special Forces (Spetsnaz) units: although the manning level of the armed forces as a whole was 82 per cent at the end of last year, these units will be the first to reach fully-manned status.

The factor that has probably contributed significantly to achieving enlistment goals is the considerable pay rise introduced two years ago: from the beginning of 2012, the pay of a serviceman in Russia grew on average by a factor of 2.5 to 3. Nevertheless, since the Russian presidential elections in 2012, the pay of junior officers has decreased due to bonus cuts.5

However, the “blood change” among the high command in November 2012—which saw the dismissal of Serdyukov (who was extremely unpopular with servicemen) and of his protégé Nikolay Makarov, General and Chief of the General Staff—has undoubtedly boosted morale among the personnel. Sergei Shoygu, one of the most popular Russian politicians, became Defence Minister; General-Polkovnik (Colonel General) Valery Gerasimov, an experienced combat officer respected in the officer corps, was appointed Chief of the General Staff.

In addition to stabilising the psychological climate, the duo of Shoygu and Gerasimov has significantly increased the intensity of training and the readiness of the armed forces. Unscheduled combat alerts and readiness training to test the reaction speed of the units, which began in the first half of 2013, soon after the appointment of Shoygu and Gerasimov, have now become the norm.

Shoygu and Gerasimov have annulled some of the marginal but nevertheless unpopular decisions made during the Serdyukov era. For example, they ordered the re-establishment of the legendary elite Tamansky and Kantemirovsky divisions, which had been broken down into brigades, and have restored some military education reforms. However, the central and fundamental decisions of the 2008 reforms have remained in force.

Command and Budget

One example of such changes that remained in force is the reorganised command of the armed forces. During the command reforms, the previous military districts were replaced with four joint strategic commands. From 1998 Russia had been divided into six military districts and the Kaliningrad Special Defence District. In December 2010, these were replaced by four joint strategic commands: West (headquartered in Saint Petersburg), South (in Rostov-on-Don), Central (Yekaterinburg) and East (Khabarovsk). What is important is that, in contrast to the abolished military districts, all conventional forces in the territory of one of the new strategic commands—Army, Navy, Air Force, Airborne Forces units and Spetsnaz brigades—are subordinate to it.

This is part of the concept of joint operations that has been implemented in Russia for years. The concept means that forces of different service branches and arms are subordinated to unitary planning and command. In the case of Russia, special services and civilian agencies that operate outside the armed forces are also involved in planning and executing joint operations—this can be described in Western terms as a comprehensive approach. One practical feature in the implementation of this approach on a strategic level is the National Centre for State Defence Management (in Russian: Национальный центр управления обороной), being built in the centre of Moscow. The building, which will be ready by the end of 2014, will be used to coordinate the handling of all important crises (some of which may be non-military) under the leadership of the Ministry of Defence.6

Naturally, one of the powerful general factors affecting the capabilities of the Russian armed forces as a whole and in our area is money. In the Russian military sphere, there are two categories of money: the defence budget and sums allocated as part of the State Armament Programme. Unlike Estonia and many other Western countries, the Russian defence budget is used to cover only the so-called running costs of the armed forces. The sums necessary for buying, repairing and developing equipment, weapons and materiel come from another, separate, armaments “budget line”.

For years, the growth of the Russian defence budget and armaments programme has been massive and meteoric. This year, the defence budget amounts to 2.49 trillion rubles (€55.5 billion), while in 2010, it was 2.17 trillion rubles (€30.2 billion).

For years, the growth of the Russian defence budget and armaments programme has been massive and meteoric. This year, the defence budget amounts to 2.49 trillion rubles (€55.5 billion), while in 2010, it was 2.17 trillion rubles (€30.2 billion). In total, 19 trillion rubles (€404 billion) are intended to be spent under the State Armament Programme between 2011 and 2020. Excluding research and development expenses and sums spent on repair, the procurement budget of the Russian Ministry of Defence for 2014 is about 1 trillion rubles (€21.3 billion).7

These sums have an effect on the security of our area, even if the new or modernised military equipment will be stationed thousands of kilometres from the Narva River. For example, the Air Force units stationed near Voronezh can be sent to a location near Saint Petersburg or Pskov in a few hours; the latest operating, communication and intelligence systems make the general command of the armed forces more effective, even if the centre itself is located near Moscow or another distant location.

Stationing, Personnel and Armament of Units

Since the beginning of military reform in 2000, two main trends have characterised the units of the Russian armed forces in the wider Baltic Sea region—the reinforcement of the units that were retained in the reform process, and the formation of new units and military bases.

During the optimisation and consolidation plan initiated by Serdyukov, a considerable number of rather small, marginal, and under-staffed units and bases near the Baltic countries were eliminated. In addition to these, several more important ones were closed—the Su-24 Bomber Aviation Regiment at the Smuravyevo air base on the Russian shore of Lake Peipus is an example of this.

However, as a rule, the personnel of most of the important manoeuvre units doubled—the units with a 50 per cent manning level became fully manned. It is worth noting that a unilateral decision to strengthen the units was made in 2009. During this period, the United States and NATO actively tried to “reset their relations with Russia, no “provocative” NATO units were stationed in the Baltic countries and drafting the Baltic defence plans had not yet been initiated.

Three of the new units created during the reform and stationed close to the Baltic countries are worth mentioning.

In 2009, the 25th Motorised Rifle Brigade was established as a completely new unit in the Vladimirsky Lager military base. Vladimirsky Lager is in Estonia’s immediate vicinity, on the eastern side of Lake Peipus, approximately halfway between Pskov and Luga.

In the summer of 2013, Ostrov Air Base was (re)opened in Pskov Oblast, next to the Latvian border. In a remarkably short time—by the spring of

Russian Mi-35 attack helicopters

2014—Ostrov housed a full-scale army aviation (helicopter) brigade.8 It is equipped with about 50 of the newest attack and transport helicopters, probably with three squadrons (30–36 aircraft) of Ka-52, Mi-28N and Mi-35 attack helicopters. These carry the latest weapons systems, with great combat power, which will considerably improve the efficiency of the Russian armed forces in our region.

Third, Russia opened an air base on the territory of Belarus. In the summer of 2013, the Russian Ministry of Defence announced that it had stationed planes at the Lida Air Base near the Belarus–Lithuania border. By the end of the year, four Russian Su-27M3 fighter aircraft (a considerably modernised and upgraded version of the basic fighter) had been deployed to the base. In March 2014, Lieutenant General Viktor Bondarev, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Air Force, announced that, by the end of this year, Baranovichi Air Base in Belarus would house a whole regiment (24 aircraft) of Su-27M3 fighters.9 This kind of development would double the number of Russian fighter aircraft stationed near Lithuania and Poland.

In addition, the materiel of the units is regularly replaced during the renewal and replacement of arms and equipment. As a result, the Naval Infantry Brigade of the Baltic Fleet will soon be completely rearmed with BTR-82A armoured personnel carriers (better firepower, improved armour, modern communication and information systems); the 138th Motorised Rifle Brigade near Saint Petersburg has been equipped with modernized T-72B3 tanks; the 76th Air Assault Division in Pskov has new combat vehicles with greater firepower as well as better communication and information systems etc. Considered separately, all these examples are marginal tactical changes. However, taken together, the result is a dramatic increase in military capability.

M importantly, the number and proportion of contract-based regular soldiers in most Russian units in the Baltic Sea region has notably increased and will increase further in the near future.

In addition, Russia has strengthened its Baltic Fleet. Since 2007, the fleet’s weaponry has been upgraded with four new Steregushchy-class corvettes (Project 20385). These are modern warships, whose missiles are capable of striking even land targets with great precision. This is something that the Baltic Fleet could not have previously achieved.

Important Missile Systems

Over the last four years, Russia has stationed missile systems that will seriously affect the military balance of power in the immediate vicinity of the Baltic countries. These are the Iskander-M ballistic missile system and the S-400 long-range anti-aircraft missile system.

Iskander missiles

Iskander-M is a high-precision ballistic missile system, capable of hitting targets within a range of 500 km (according to official data). However, unofficial estimates indicate that Iskander’s range is at least 700 km.10

Between 2010 and 2011, the 26th Missile Brigade in Luga was rearmed with Iskanders (12 launchers in all). It is very probable that, from 2012 to 2013, Iskanders were deployed to the 152nd Missile Brigade in Kaliningrad Oblast (also with 12 launchers).11

These missile systems provide the Russian armed forces with the capability to hit almost all strategically important targets—airports, ports, railway junctions, command centres etc.—from southern Poland to central Finland. Meanwhile, they remain under the protection of Russian air defence systems and provide a relatively short warning time. It is unthinkable that this kind of capability could be achieved by using, for example, the Air Force, as the approach of Russian planes would alert NATO air defence systems in good time and, in order to reach their target, the attacking Russian aircraft would first have to physically break through the Alliance’s air defence. That would be an impossible mission.

The Iskanders are, therefore, a deterrent factor that must be taken seriously.

The S-400 long-range anti-aircraft missile systems were first employed in anti-aircraft units in Kaliningrad. However, it is most likely that the units near Saint Petersburg will also be equipped with these systems this year.12 The S-400 is one of the most powerful anti-aircraft missile systems in the world, with a maximum defence range of 250–400 km, depending on the missile used. Although the 40N64 missile, with an engagement range of up to 400 km, is still in the production trial phase, it will probably be included in the weapons system in the next two or three years. It is intended to hit targets that are large, rather slow and with limited manoeuvrability, such as tanker aircraft, command and communications aircraft, and transport aircraft.

Together with missiles that have a wide defence range and are designed to strike various targets, including fast airborne targets with great manoeuvrability, these missile systems can create an effective “air defence dome” over the three Baltic countries without leaving Russian territory. While Iskanders are designed to destroy targets deep in an enemy’s territory, the aim of the S-400 is to prevent the activities of an enemy’s air force in the area of operations held by Russian armed forces. Metaphorically, Iskander is the sword and S-400 is the shield.

In summary, during the last four or five years the Russian Federation has purposefully and systematically built up its military capabilities in the Baltic Sea region to be able to: a) organise an assault operation by regular forces with a short or non-existent notification time in the operational space encompassing the Baltic countries, thereby achieving military dominance over the defence forces of the Baltics in the initial phase of the operation; b) block any unwanted air traffic in the airspace of the Baltic countries at the time—in particular the arrival of support units from NATO allies that use air transport; and c) hit the majority of land targets in the whole Baltic Sea region and Poland, in this way deterring the Alliance from intervening in the possible crisis.

In conclusion, there is only one simple question we must ask ourselves as a result of these issues: why?



1 Руслан Пухов, Предисловие. In collection: Новая армия России, Михаил Барабанов (edit.), Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, Moscow, January 2011, pp 5–10.

2 Алексей Гайдай, Реформирование Сухопутных войск Российской Федерации. In collection: Новая армия России, Михаил Барабанов (ed.), Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, Moskva, January 2011, pp 22–23.

3 Владимир Путин, Быть сильными: гарантии национальной безопасности для России – Российская Газета, 20.02.2012

4 План деятельности Минобороны России. Отчет за 2013 год. Министерство обороны Российской Федерации,

5 Hans H. Luige ja Priit Simsoni usutlus Riho Terrasega: Eesti riik sõdib viimase meheni – Eesti Ekspress, 07.11.2013.

6 В Москве начали возводить Национальный центр управления обороной,, 20.01.2014,

7 Karl Soper, “Rearming Russia” – Jane’s Defence Weekly, 28.05.2014.

8 В соединении армейской авиации ВВС и ПВО Западного военного округа завершился прием 12 вертолетов Ка-52, Министерство обороны Российской Федерации, 20.02.2014,[@]egNews.

9 Главком ВВС: Россия разместит в Белоруссии 24 истребителя Су-27СМ3 – Взгляд, 17.03.2014.

10 Stefan Forss, The Russian Operational-Tactical Iskander Missile System, National Defence University, Department of Strategic and Defence Studies, Working Papers No 42, Helsinki 2012. Pp 8-19.

11 Russia has stationed Iskander missiles in western region: reports, Reuters, 16.12.2013.

12 В Западный военный округ впервые поступят новейшие зенитные ракетные комплексы С-400 «Триумф», Министерство обороны Российской Федерации, 29.01.2014, .

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