Recent commercial satellite image provided exclusively to CNN indicate that Russia has greatly expanded and modernized at least four military outposts in its enclave of Kaliningrad, which is nestled in the Baltics and which borders Poland.
The strategically important enclave has been a constant source of tension between Russia and NATO, making any upgrades to the region noteworthy.
Earlier, satellite imagery showed that Moscow had substantially upgraded a nuclear weapons storage facility in Kaliningrad.
“Now, satellite imagery and analysis from ImageSat International, a commercial satellite firm, appear to confirm that a major modernization is underway in at least four locations throughout the region,” CNN reported.
GEOSAT analysts have determined that the upgrades include new work at the nuclear weapons storage site in images that were captured between 19 July and 1 October. Also, work on a bunker that is exposed and under renovation also appears to hide activity beneath it.
Another set of images show the construction of 40 new bunkers near Primorsk, Russia’s second-largest port on the Baltic Sea.
Just a bit north of Kaliningrad, upgrades are also being made to the Chkalovsk air base, which includes a new railway and the addition of an instrument landing system which will allow planes to land in bad weather.
Upgrades have also occurred at Chernyakhovsk, a base housing the 152nd Missile Brigade of the Russian military. CNN notes that in February the brigade received nuclear-capable Iskander-M short-range (500 km) missiles.
You can see the images here.
Analysis: Adm. James G. Foggo III, the commander of US Naval Forces Europe-Africa and commander of the Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, Italy, noted that Kaliningrad is strategically important to Russia because it includes Moscow’s only Baltic Sea port.
“If they want to challenge us, we will challenge them,” he said. “We’re not going to be intimidated by those systems that are out there.”
The Iskander-M has reportedly been tested against ships, tests that were reported in Russian media in July and August. A Russian Ministry of Defense statement claimed the launches were “electronic” in nature, however, meaning that Russian ground forces set up to fire a live missile but did not actually launch one. It’s also not known which notional ships the simulated launches were aimed at.
The missile (NATO designation SS-26 “Stone”) is believed to be capable of in-flight maneuvering so that it can strike moving targets, including ships. According to one analysis:
The deployment of the Iskander-M as a possible anti-ship system comes just months after Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile. The Kinzhal uses a modified Iskander-M missile and has also been advertised as an anti-ship weapon and “carrier killer.”
The Kinzhal has a much longer range, making the Iskander-M less of a threat to NATO carrier and battle groups that could operate outside of its range. However, by stationing the missiles at Kaliningrad, they provide Russia with a potent anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability into the Russian navy’s four fleet areas.
Then, of course, there is the issue of upgrading and adding ordnance bunkers, including those believed to contain nuclear warheads. What signal is Russia sending?
The newly upgraded depots would become a vital logistics hub in any future conflict with NATO, or for operations in the Baltics. An added A2/AD capability makes it more difficult for NATO to strike facilities in Kaliningrad, which Moscow obviously intends to defend with its most modern capabilities.
Upgrading facilities in and of itself isn’t necessarily problematic. Militaries make improvements to bases all the time. But generally, resources are allocated to the most important bases.
And in this case, what makes Russia’s Kaliningrad upgrades different — and concerning — is that Moscow not only improved but greatly expanded the enclave’s storage and logistical capabilities, then added new defensive systems to boot.
NATO is correct to be concerned.