Russia hardens its Western borders
© 2017 FrontLine Defence (Vol 14, No 3)

Amid the ever-growing military presence of NATO in Eastern Europe, Russia is strengthening its military capabilities at Western borders, according to recent statements from the country’s General Staff.

The Russian Ministry of Defence has recently begun formation of a new division along the border with Belarus. In accordance with the plans recently announced by Russia’s Defence Minister, Sergey Shoigu, at least two divisions will deploy on the Western borders of the country by the end of 2017.

The new divisions will be deployed in the Western Military District of Russia, which borders with Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States and Finland. The latter has recently announced plans to join NATO, which sparked concern from the Russian government and may have sped up planned implementation for strengthening its Western borders.

According to Colonel-General Oleg Salyukov, Chief of Russian Land Forces, the formation of new divisions is one measure being taken by the Ministry of Defence in response to the increased intensity of military exercises by NATO states close to Russian borders. Numerous exercises have been observed close to the Russian border in recent years.

According to Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies, history, and politics at New York University and Princeton University, such a large concentration of troops at the Russian border has not been observed since the time of the invasion to the USSR of Nazi Germany in 1941.

The situation is aggravated by the deployment of the NATO strategic bombers, capable of carrying B61 nuclear bombs, at the military airbases Zokniai and Emery near the Lithuanian Siauliai and the Estonian Tallinn respectively.

Russia, of course, is concerned over operation of the U.S. Aegis missile defense system, which is equipped with the SM-3 counter missiles. Aegis missiles were deployed in the Romanian town of Deviselu. This defence system is capable of launching "Tomahawk" long-range cruise missiles, including those with nuclear warheads.

The same system is expected to be deployed in Poland soon.

Sukhoi Su-34 fighter/bomber

At the heart of a planned strengthening of Russia’s Western military grouping is the revival of the 1st Tank Army. This Soviet armoured formation fought as part of the Red Army on the Eastern Front during World War II, and will receive the most combat effective units of the region – the Kantemirovskaya and Taman Divisions in particular.

During the Soviet times, tank armies were part of military grouping of the Soviet military Forces in Germany, and were mostly designed to combat possible NATO aggression. The reunification of Germany and the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in the withdrawal of Soviet military units out of Germany. In fact, tank armies were almost discontinued in 1998, which makes this re-establishment of the tank army such a remarkable change.

In the meantime, according to some analysts of the Russian Ministry of Defence, the formation of this new tank army on the Russian Western borders will be contrary to the ongoing Russian military reform, which involves the transition of the country’s military forces to a three-tier command structure: a military district / operational command / brigade. In its original version, the reform also involved a reduction in the number of tanks and some types of combat equipment, however, with the departure of former Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and deteriorating relations between Russia and NATO, these plans were reversed.

According to Victor Murakhovsky, a retired colonel of the Soviet army and one of the leading Russian experts in the field of defence, the establishment of three new divisions along Russia’s Western borders is quite understandable in response to the recent deployment of American and Canadian troops in Poland and the Baltic States. During the second stage, according to Murakhovsky, Russia will probably focus on strengthening its border with Ukraine, where, to date, no major military units have been deployed.

Plans call for new motorized infantry military units with about 10,000 soldiers each. The three new units will include an armored regiment, a self-propelled artillery regiment, and an anti-aircraft missile regiment. The new divisions will be part of the 20th Field Army with headquarters in Voronezh in central Russia.

Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov

In addition to land forces, the fortification of Russia’s Western boundaries will also apply to its maritime approaches. This will require an expansion of the Naval grouping, which is based in the Russian Baltics.

Part of these expansion plans relates to the Russian Baltics Fleet and its six new frigates of the Admiral Gorshkov-class (22350 project). These new ships are equipped with the most modern weapons and systems of operational control.

They have a displacement of 4,500 tonnes and can reach speeds of 29 knots. The ships are equipped with 16 cruise missiles of the Onyx or Calibre type, an anti-aircraft missile system "Poliment-Redoute", as well as anti-submarine torpedoes complex "Pack-NK". They can carry on board several Ka-27 helicopters.

Admiral Gorshkov, head frigate of the series, is currently being tested in the Northern Fleet. It should be accepted into the Russian Navy by the end of 2017.  The next two frigates, "Admiral Golovko" and "Admiral Isakov", are in various stages of progress at the shipyards in St. Petersburg and should be ready for sea trials in 2018.

Space assets are gaining importance, and Russia plans to equip its air defence divisions with S-300 or S-400 systems. These are capable of shooting down targets at a range of several hundred kilometers.

The Russian 6th Army, responsible for protecting the Western borders of the country, is currently being deployed in the closest proximity to NATO troops, which are deployed in Baltic states. The 6th Army capability includes about two dozen S-400 and Pantsir surface-to-air missile systems to protect not only Moscow and the Moscow Region, but also St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Murmansk and other cities. The new Pantsir anti-aircraft missiles are designed to deal with both cruise missiles and drones.

In the air, the Russian Ministry of Defence considers its Su-34 bombers as the best fighters to protect its Western border. Specially designed for operational flights at low-altitude breakthroughs, they are equipped with Khibiny, an electronic warfare countermeasures system capable of masking from enemy radar.

Overall, according to plans of the Russian Ministry of Defence, the combat potential of the Western military grouping will be probably the most powerful since the end of the World War II and will help the country to efficiently deal with the possible aggression from NATO.

Eugene Gerden is a Russian defence analyst who regularly writes for FrontLine.