Putin’s Big Military Buildup Is Behind NATO Lines

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Last week I visited Naples and spent time with Jamie Foggo, the four-star admiral in command of NATO’s powerful Joint Forces Command located there. Foggo has responsibility for much of NATO’s European operations and defensive posture from the Balkans to the Black Sea to the Baltics.  At the moment, he is preparing for a major exercise, Trident Juncture, focused on countering Russia’s recent increase in the combat posture of its small enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. 

Russia is continuing to add real combat capability in Kaliningrad by the day. What is Moscow's endgame, and how will its actions change the correlation of combat forces in Europe?

The Kaliningrad Oblast (one of the federal entities in the Russian Federation, roughly like a state in the U.S.) has a population of about one million, and one of the strongest-performing economies in Russia.  Part of Prussia for centuries, it was conquered by Russia and at the end of World War II. Sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland on the shore of the Baltic, it functions as a sort of forward operating base behind NATO’s front lines.

As such, it has an extremely high strategic value to Russia, and has been heavily militarized through the Cold War and since. In addition to hosting thousands of troops, much of the Soviet heavy weaponry previously held in Eastern European nations during Warsaw Pact days ended up there after the Soviet Union collapsed. There are significant military bases for air and ground operations and for surface-to-surface cruise missiles. Kaliningrad is also important from a naval perspective, as it is Russia's only year-round ice-free port on the Baltic.

The level of new military construction activity in Kaliningrad was recently exposed at the unclassified level, with reporting that included significant analysis of commercially available overhead imagery. Russia is increasing its overall storage capability at the major depot for tactical nuclear weapons. At Primorsk, the key naval base, it has constructed 40 new weapons bunkers. And at Chkalovsk, the main air base, major aviation and weapons-storage improvements have been made, including to the storage sites of Russia's highly sophisticated (and highly controversial) Iskander short-range missiles, operated by the 152nd Missile Brigade. 

All of this has NATO jumpy, with Foggo commenting in the run-up to Trident Juncture, "If they will challenge us, we will challenge them." The U.S. ambassador to the alliance, Kay Bailey Hutchison, talked about “taking out” the missiles if necessary. It all has a distinctly Cold War feel to it, and because of events in Asia and the Middle East, it is being largely underreported and underprioritized. We need to understand the strategic moves afoot here.

Vladimir Putin values Kaliningrad highly, and so do his generals. It is perhaps the most strategic piece of real estate in Europe. While the odds of Putin taking the risk of overtly attacking a NATO nation are low, he is able to use Kaliningrad create real and deep concern in the alliance. When I was NATO's supreme allied commander, I spent a great deal of time working with the military leaderships of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, who have a deep-seated, and historically grounded, fear of a Russian attack. By increasing the military capability of  Kaliningrad, he increases that heightened sense of threat directed against the Baltics and Poland.

He also puts pressure on the new NATO-U.S. missile-defense system, significant parts of which are located in Eastern Europe. These installations -- ground-based versions of the Navy's Aegis defense technology -- in Poland and Romania are designed to defend Europe from Iranian ballistic missiles. But Russia insists they are capable of countering Russian long-range ballistic missiles – thus upsetting mutual nuclear deterrence at the strategic level. 

This has been a longstanding, serious disagreement between Russia and NATO. It seems that part of Putin’s strategy in increasing the number of land-based cruise missiles in Kaliningrad is to create a bargaining chip he can use to perhaps negotiate a removal of the European missile-defense system. President Trump's new national security adviser, John Bolton, is visiting Moscow next week, and will no doubt raise U.S. objections to new Russian missiles that violate the decades-old Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Media reports indicate he may advise the president to pull out of the treaty altogether.  

Finally, for Putin, all politics are local. As his popularity ratings (and those of his key cabinet leaders) continue to fall in the face of deeply unpopular changes to the Russian retirement system, he is looking for ways to recover. One traditional method is to stoke Russian nationalism. Western sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, interference in Western elections, and the murder of a former Russian agent in the U.K. are biting the economy. By building up the bases in Kaliningrad, Putin signals Russian resolve and military capability. He also sends a signal to Eastern Europe (where he is assiduously increasing his influence through gas deals); creates discord in the NATO Alliance; and provokes Washington.

All of this may work tactically, depending on how NATO and the U.S. respond. We will need to show both strategic patience and tactical resolve. Trident Juncture will send a signal of its own to Putin, as will the messages carried by Bolton. NATO’s new levels of military responsiveness (the so-called Four 30’s plan) will also be part of this.

Putin, as usual, is embarked on a risky course, and the alliance will need to analyze and understand his intent in order to fashion the right counterstrategies without overreacting or playing into the hands of the Russian despot.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.