Print Save as PDF +A A -A
16 March 2016

Art of Fortification

How the Kremlin uses military bases on its western flank to take the Russian population hostage

Deployment and modernization of large military bases near the Ukraine-Russia border, in the Kaliningrad Oblast (which continues to function as a huge Central and Eastern European fort) and the militarization of occupied Crimea are all part of Moscow’s logic of confrontation with the West. The aggressive war against a neighboring country is perceived by the Kremlin as a bloody, but not final, episode. However, it is abundantly clear that the Russian political regime is doomed to failure in the case of a conventional armed conflict with NATO countries. This is precisely why these military constructions, coupled with the nurtured threat of unpredictability, are intended to put pressure on the West without prompting all-out war. But these steps serve an additional goal: to take Russian citizens, whose loyalty to the political authorities will be guaranteed by something akin to Stockholm Syndrome, hostage.

Old fortresses – a new lease of life

For many decades, Russia’s Western (the European part of Russia) and Southern (the Black Sea and North Caucasus) military districts have been the rear echelons providing might in case of warfare in Continental Europe, and were also used to pacify the USSR republics, and Warsaw Pact countries. The Black Sea and Baltic Fleets have primarily been tasked with providing military support to ground troops in the European combat theater as part of this system. Accordingly, the Crimean peninsula and Kaliningrad Oblast have been turned into vast military bases - fortresses in fact - equipped with everything, including nuclear weapons. In the European part of Russia, troops have mostly been stationed around Moscow.

It seemed that Kaliningrad and Crimea would undergo demilitarization following the end of the Cold War. Areas surrounding the capital could be cleared of excessive military presence. Instead, however, Russia chose to adopt a sort of compromise between civilian and military authorities.

“Fortress Kaliningrad”

The Kaliningrad Defensive Area was created in the Kaliningrad Oblast in 1998 and although the number of deployed troops has dramatically fallen compared to the Soviet period, the Baltic Fleet, aviation, ground troops including rocket artillery units, internal troops units, and tactical nuclear weapons remain there. The “Voronezh-DM” radar station was launched in 2011. It monitors the airspace over Europe. Against the backdrop of the confrontation with the West which ensued due to Russia’s war against Ukraine, Moscow decided to strengthen the Kaliningrad Defensive Area with a mechanized infantry brigade in 2015. 

The main goal of all of these arrangements, in terms of foreign policy, is to exert pressure on Central and Eastern European countries, to create a classic “security dilemma,” and to get in their hair. All of this is intended to make these countries take Russia seriously. Specific domestic policy ploys are also identifiable here: to prevent Kaliningrad from becoming a “free city” – a locomotive for the Europeanization of the rest of Russia. This is precisely why the number of the military personnel alone has not dropped below 1000 people per 100,000 residents (nearly 1 million reside in the Kaliningrad Oblast) – almost twice as many as the Russian average.

“Fortress Crimea”

Moscow fought tooth and nail to hang on to the Black Sea Fleet base in Crimea in 1992-2013. Back then, the base lost its military significance – its combat readiness was low, new ships replenished the fleets in other waters. However, its political significance gained momentum and became powerful leverage in relations with Ukraine, whose independence smarted Moscow.

Everything changed since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in February-March 2014. The militarization of the peninsula has started anew. Today, a mighty armada comprising new patrol ships, missile cutters, diesel-electric submarines equipped with cruise missiles, coastal anti-ship missiles, aviation, counter-air defense systems etc. is deployed and is being expanded. In fact, militarization has become the only purpose for Russian activity on the captured peninsula. And one may conclude that it is not so much about applying military pressure on Ukraine (exerted in the Donbas), as it is about the fear the Kremlin has of following in the footsteps of Saddam Hussein in Kuwait in 1991.

The military campaign in Syria and the deterioration of relations with Turkey have become additional stimuli for the military renaissance in Crimea. We must not forget that the troops of the Southern Military District, also encompassing the forces deployed in Crimea, may be used to guarantee Russian influence in the South Caucasus region.

The main stronghold

A redeployment of troops is also under way in the European part of Russia in connection with Russia’s war against Ukraine. The 1st Guards Tank Army has been formed near Moscow from the Tamanskaya Motor Rifle Division, Kantemirovskaya Tank Division, and a number of other units which withdrew from the 20th Guards Combined Army. And all this is occurring against the backdrop of a large number of military units located in Moscow and in the Moscow Oblast anyway. The headquarters of the 20th Guards Combined Army itself, which is undergoing a round-out, is located in the Voronezh Oblast, close to the Ukrainian border.

Political tasks, with the backing of these massive military formations are defined by the geography of their deployment, including the provision of protection of the Russian authorities against their own citizens in Moscow – recall that tanks of the Kantemirovskaya Division rolled in to the city in 1991 and 1993. Urgent tasks also include: military pressure on Ukraine and Belarus, as well as preparation for a possible escalation of the conflict with the West. Apparently, the Kremlin is again haunted by the fate which Saddam Hussein suffered in 2003.

War temptation

Despite this military mobilization, the Kremlin will only be prepared to fight under two conditions: 1) should it become a certainty that the adversary is relatively weak and that no one is going to come to its aid; and 2) should it believe that the political regime in Russia is under threat. Still, the Kremlin’s military resources are limited – it is not capable of occupying any state. Its threats, and even its military actions, are necessary to demoralize the adversary and impose the conditions of the Russian authorities. This approach can be observed in the context of the war against Ukraine and in the part Russia plays in the Syrian campaign.

The problem with this approach is that Russia is decreasingly able to adapt to the conditions of a changing world. This implies a serious risk that the Kremlin will continue its military excesses.

In this regard, Russia’s “fortresses” along the Russian western border differ from the conventional system of military bases to the extent that the escalation of a potential conflict will not be stepwise: almost all types of Russian armed forces will engage in it. In the case that  military groups like those near Kaliningrad, Moscow, Voronezh or annexed Crimea face defeat, the use of nuclear weapons may not be out of the question.

In other words, the Russian authorities have deliberately created a situation of no retreat. And this situation is designed to deter the West from taking tough actions against Russia, even if the latter engages in further military junkets inside or outside the country.

Stockholm Syndrome

The paradox whereby the Kremlin does not want to fight directly with the West, but does not intend to play by the rules and have its hands tied, can easily be explained: this is an attempt  to demoralize the Western elites, thereby destroying their unity and determination to stand up for their principles.

Moreover, the new Cold War is something of a blessing in disguise for the Russian authorities as it allows the continuous testing of the Western community which is not prepared to fight back. And since it cannot force Russia to abide by the rules as it did in the cases of Hussein and Gaddafi since it is not prepared to deal with Russian “fortresses”, it will ultimately end up adjacent to Moscow at the negotiation table. Therefore, large clusters of troops near Kaliningrad, Moscow, Voronezh and Crimea ensure that neighbors and their partners remain on their toes and force them into making compromises.

Still, an escalation of the existing conflict between Russia and the West is possible since the Russian system of checks and balances is in a state of ruin while state institutions have eroded. This could mean that the Kremlin might lose control over the casus belli and totter into a major war.

Employing a kind of Stockholm Syndrome strategy has both a foreign and domestic policy dimension. The abovementioned large military clusters, especially those around Moscow, provide citizens with a sense of how it feels to live on the front line. “Heroic” consolidation around the authorities is observable and is accompanied by the communication of political claims to the outside world. Hence, the militarist spirit ebbs from the borderline territories to the mainland regions, and the self-isolation policy obtains necessary legitimacy.

This historically-entrenched military-political mechanism will remain in place as long as the world is prepared to bargain with the Kremlin which has confined itself within a fortress. 

© Intersection - for republishing rights, please contact the editorial team at