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The threat from Kaliningrad has receded with Russia mired in Ukraine and NATO welcoming Finland, and likely Sweden, into its ranks, experts say. Russia’s goal of turning Kaliningrad into a launching pad to dominate the Baltics has “effectively been canceled,” according to a November report published by the French Institute of International Relations. “With the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO, the Baltic theater is reconfigured so profoundly to Russia’s disadvantage that no amount of effort could make ‘Fortress Kaliningrad’ defensible,” the report states.

https://www.stripes.com/theaters/europe/2023-12-11/baltics-kaliningrad-nato-russia-ukraine-war-12286401.html

Why does Finland joining NATO make it difficult for Russia to use Kaliningrad to dominate the Baltics? The article claims that Russia cannot use Kaliningrad to dominate the Baltics, but I don't understand why it would be the case. Finland opens a new front, but deploying troops to Finland is not an easy thing to do, and then launching an attack into Russia from Finland is not easy either and doesn't prevent Russia from using the location for its military.

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  • 8
    this is the original paper, en Français. Jan 29 at 2:10
  • 2
    "deploying troops to Finland is not an easy thing to do". Why? Jan 29 at 3:39
  • Nordic Response 2024 "The exercise will have its focal point in northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland, as well as in the corresponding airspace and sea areas. [...] Over 20,000 soldiers are participating in the exercise. Of these, approximately 10,000 will be on land [...] There will be particularly high activity at sea with over 50 registered submarines, frigates, corvettes, aircraft carriers, and various amphibious vessels." Jan 29 at 7:51
  • And "Russia summoned Finland's ambassador on Tuesday to object to a new defence agreement granting the United States broad access to the vicinity of the new NATO member's long border with Russia, Moscow's foreign ministry said on Tuesday". So at least Russia says it's worried about how easy it is for the US [toops] to deploy to Finland. Jan 29 at 8:37

11 Answers 11

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TLDR: It's based on a translation error and unclear geographical terminology

Kaliningrad isn't seen by Russia as a viable area denial chokepoint vs the Baltic Sea anymore. Whatever else the paper covers - "New challenges" is plural - the paragraphs about domination are only concerned with area denial from Kaliningrad. This is a naval (Baltic Sea), not ground (Baltics), segment of the paper.

Finland is hardly mentioned in the surrounding paragraphs, except to state that Russia's air operations near it have been rather cautious lately. It gets a lot of coverage elsewhere, on other challenges.

Original paper in French New challenges for Russia in the North and Baltics


Here it is in the paper

(Page 13, bizarrely tucked into a paragraph denoting the sad travails of the 18th Guard Mot Infantry Div. note the very similar phrasing and terms - dominate/cancel+abandon):

I think it makes a lot more sense and the rather confusing arguments made around how much sense the paper made are due to a translation error.

la partie centrale de la région de la Baltique

is translated as

the central part of the Baltic region

But "la Baltique" in French is the Baltic Sea, not the Baltic countries (singular vs plural, gendered language, "la" vs "les", subtleties entirely lost when translated to "the" in English). So bearing that in mind:

Ce qui peut maintenant être affirmé avec certitude est que l’objectif stratégique de transformer Kaliningrad en un « bastion » lourdement armé qui pourrait dominer la partie centrale de la région de la Baltique a effectivement été abandonné, mettant fin à des débats souvent acrimonieux en Occident. Le succès des frappes lancées par les missiles et les drones navals ukrainiens sur l’infrastructure militaire en Crimée a prouvé que les forces russes ne peuvent assurer une interopérabilité efficace entre différents systèmes d’armes de défense air-sol et côtière, qui est nécessaire pour rendre le modèle stratégique A2/AD fonctionnel.

What can now be stated with certainty is that the strategic goal of transforming Kaliningrad into a heavily armed "bastion" that could dominate the central region of the Baltic Sea has effectively been abandoned, putting an end to the often acrimonious debates in the West. The success of strikes by Ukrainian naval missiles and drones on the military infrastructure in Crimea has proved that Russian forces are unable to ensure effective interoperability between different air-to-ground and coastal defense weapon systems, which is necessary to ensure the functionality of the A2/AD strategic model.

.. some more stuff about Baltic Fleet drawdowns to move their gear to Ukraine ...

Further down:

Overall, the garrison of "Fortress Kaliningrad" has been shrunk significantly and the ability to safeguard supply chains has been lost, but the Russian high command shows little shows little interest in this profound strategic vulnerability.

So, basically, this is saying: from what we've seen in Ukraine it turns out that Russia can't dominate the sea (A2/AD) near Kalingrad as they struggle to coordinate their missile systems, as well as their air defense, so they would be more sitting ducks than a full area denial threat to that part of the Baltic Sea.

Note the references to "bastions" and "garrisons". This is a fortress, a defensive force, not a force to go raid the neighbors on land. But it does make sense if you want to maintain your hold on a chokepoint.

Additional points
  • Using Kaliningrad as choke point vs the Baltic Sea would make sense in the initial stages of a conflict before ground actions took place. Think "Houthis" in Yemen. It's a graduated escalation mechanism. Russia and NATO do not invade each other, they just take pot shots.

  • If you were to do this, your first priority would be to protect against NATO air/missile attacks. As Kaliningrad, IIRC, just moved some of it SAM assets to Ukraine, Russia seems to have shelved that idea entirely, for now.

  • The bit about coordination between surface-to-air and coastal defense is a bit confusing. But I recall War on the Rocks mentioning that Russia can't fire SAMs in an area its aircraft are operating in, unlike NATO. So, to move aircraft somewhere, they "turn off" SAM coverage for the entire zone. That would be problematic when operating coastal aviation. Mind you, that is a hard problem, as one can see from the frequent preponderance of "friendly fire" casualties in NATO operations.

  • The Houthis? Are still being a pest, with much less sophisticated systems than Russia's. So maybe it is a bit of "vendre la peau de l'ours" / "count your chicken before they're hatched" from these analysts.

  • Unlike colloquial speech, and especially so in French, "dominate"/"dominer" has a particular military meaning relating to artillery looking down and controlling an area which seems to be its usage here, rather than "being stronger" or "kicking butt".

This bit, btw, doesn't seem all that related to Finland. But it is very much what the original article says.

Translated with DeepL.com (free version)


What I originally started answering

The accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO has undermined Russia's strategic planning, in which the Baltic and Arctic theaters constituted distinct axes under different command, with specific objectives that exploited a military superiority now lost. Russia has gained unrestricted military access to Belarus, but troop shortages are hampering the effectiveness of this alliance, while the deployment of non-strategic nuclear warheads is highly problematic.

(Translated with DeepL.com (free version))

So basically they seem to be saying two things:

  • Russia has a lot less troops to throw at the problem, and they note Russia has taken troops out from Kaliningrad to Ukraine.

  • And its Arctic zone troops (Finland?) and Baltic zone troops (Baltics) now face a unified enemy command. So they can't just attack and figure everything else is calm in the area and that Finland is not going to pressure them.

That seems a factor, though Finnish army troops wouldn't necessarily be great to cross over water southwards to help the Estonians and Lithuanians. Not with that inconvenient Leningrad Naval Base nearby. But St. Petersburg itself would need protecting.



At the end of the day, no matter how you dice it, a NATO Finland is a lot less comfortable for Russia in this kind of special military operation adventure than a neutral Finland. Note however that the article is not that relaxed about Russia all the same as they note:

Indeed, Russia has lost its position of strength and ability to threaten its neighbors with projections of its military might, and while to many Western political strategists these changes seem artificial and temporary, in Moscow they are perceived as both unacceptable and irreversible.

from wikimedia commons cropped map of Finland-Russia-Baltics area

Related: Kaliningrad: Impregnable Fortress or “Russian Alamo”? | CNA . May 2023, though, before some of K's S400 got shipped out.

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  • They also sent arctic troops to Ukraine. Some of which lost their specialized equipment there (those multi-segment armored vehicles. Or what the technical term for that might be. Looks like "articulated" is the right one.) Jan 29 at 3:08
  • ^^ That is actually mentioned in the paper (p. 14). Jan 29 at 3:18
  • Link to the English version of the web page by IFRI, and IFRI's English version of the pdf here -- both captured by Internet Archive/way backmachine by November 14, 2023.
    – Buttonwood
    Jan 29 at 21:24
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    Sorry if this is off-topic, but I'm learning French and I'm not sure how «la partie centrale de la région de la Baltique» translates as "the central region of the Baltic Sea". Wouldn't it be "the central part of the Baltic Sea region"?
    – wjandrea
    Jan 30 at 20:20
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    @Italian But «la région de la Baltique» is the Baltic Sea region, no? I mean if you look on French Wikipedia, it's the equivalent of the English Baltic region.
    – wjandrea
    Jan 30 at 20:43
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This is in the article.

“Even if Russia attacks the Baltics, there will be nothing left of Kaliningrad. There’s no way to defend it — we’ll be blockaded,” he said. “The authorities say they will defend us, but truth be told, I don’t see that happening.”

Remember, Kaliningrad is an exclave. That means you cannot get to Kaliningrad from the rest of Russia by land. It's not a true exclave because you can still get there by sea without crossing into the territory of other countries, but it's still an exclave.

It stands to reason that exclaves are easier to attack, since they are hard to resupply. Finland and Sweden joining NATO simply makes it even harder for Russia to use the sea route, plus it adds NATO forces in the vicinity that can be used for offensive operations against the exclave.

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There are two problems with that statement, a smaller and a bigger one.

The smaller one is that Kaliningrad is not useful to dominate the Baltics, but also not needed. Russia has 400 km of borders with Baltic states and Belarus has further 400 km of borders with those. Meanwhile, Kaliningrad will find itself encircled in a hot war scenario.

The second, larger one is that normally you would want to prevent hot war from happening and/or expanding, and endangering your adversary's exclaves is one of the most dangerous action in terms of starting a hot war. So overall putting more pressure on Kaliningrad makes the war more likely.

In fact, many of the things which make one's strategic position better in case of hot war, also increase the chance that the hot war will actually happen. So it is very important to have a healthy compromise: You can only ever have a great strategic preference over some other party when at the brink of war with them; and that actually makes that strategic position quite poor.

A simple example, while militarily-wise it is great for the USA that it controls the arch of islands outside of Chinese borders starting from Japan and all the way to Philippines, at the same time it causes such level of danger of hot war that it has to be discussed constantly. If there were no US presence in the area, it is obvious that direct Chinese-US war would not even be worth discussing.

Having more/better weapon systems and more military personnel is the deterrent of lowest risk and highest yield, while placing your armies around your adversary's exclaves has the highest risk and low yield.

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    Or, in another way, strategically, its better for you to already have a gun to your opponents head before the fight starts, but pulling out a gun and pointing it at someone's head is likely to start a conflict.
    – David S
    Jan 30 at 16:49
  • @DavidS Exactly, and it can really only go downhill from there if you are waving that gun without intending to shoot a specific target right now. Everybody is on alert, they know you're dangerous in a bad way and if you ever pocket it bad they might get wrong ideas.
    – alamar
    Jan 30 at 19:41
  • This answer has undertones of pro-Russia propaganda to it. As in, (nonviolent, totally legal, not at all like "pulling out a gun and pointing it at someone's head") actions that allied Western nations take to mitigate the threat of Russian invasion, against the backdrop of Russia actively invading and annexing another nation's land, is somehow provocational towards Russia. Seems remiss to not at least note the fact that Russia has provoked the West's response by actually starting a hot war with a neighboring state, not long after annexing a bunch of that state's territory.
    – aroth
    Feb 1 at 4:40
  • @aroth As I have answered, and I didn't see serious refutations of that, all these actions make the direct military conflict more likely. They don't "mitigate" it. Perhaps they help win it if it happens, but that is already after all the damage happens, and especially to these buffer territories.
    – alamar
    Feb 1 at 10:11
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The obvious task for air, naval and missile forces in Kaliningrad in case of a hot war in the baltics. (ie a "special military operation" in one or several of the three baltic states formerly occupied by the USSR) is to deny those states any support by air or sea across the baltic sea.

This would realistically be accomplished by a blockade, including international waters and (parts of) finnish and swedish economic zones and territorial waters.

With Finland and Sweden neutral, such a blockade is quite plausible. Staying low or risk a barrage of cruise missiles over Stockholm and Helsinkki? Chances are that both Finland and Sweden would prioritize their own (short term) safety.

But with Finland and/or Sweden bound by article 5, things would look different. They would already be part of the war. It would not be an active decision to resist a blockade.

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Without Finland and Sweden in NATO, it is relatively easy for Russia to blitz into the Baltic countries while simultaneously blocking NATO from helping those countries defend themselves.

Why? Because those NATO troops and supplies would have to either come through the Baltic Sea, fly in or drive through the Suwałki Gap. The gap is relatively narrow and the whole width is within easy reach of extremely militarized fortifications on both sides (Kaliningrad and Belarus) which were built for this express purpose. Flying in is difficult because Kaliningrad is blanketed with AA (or at least, it was). Arriving by sea exposes the transports to naval raids from the Russian Baltic fleet, if not a complete blockade.

With Sweden and Finland in NATO, that same conflict would play out very differently. And NATO would be much more likely to actually defend the Baltic countries to begin with. Defenses based in Finland can affect the Russian fleet's ability to deploy into the Baltic. But they would also offer a much faster and safer way to bring reinforcements to Estonia from Finland due to proximity. NATO would win that campaign.

NATO attacking the Kaliningrad exclave would still not really happen, though. Hopefully anyway. There are a lot of nukes in there.

Which is the crux of the issue here: hot conflict between NATO and Russia would be incredibly awkward considering both sides' ability to launch short range nukes into each other. That NATO would now pretty convincingly win that war if it stays conventional only really matters in terms of Russia calculating whether it wants to launch the offensive. If the war escalates to nuclear conflict which I can't really imagine it wouldn't, then all bets are off.

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  • Re "... And NATO would be much more likely to actually defend the Baltic countries to begin with." --> That's going from 'highly likely' to 'essentially certain'. If Finland is substantively threatened then ALL NATO members are OBLIGED to assist them. How solid the obligation would prove to be in practice is moot, but it ranks about as close to certainty as you are liable to ever get in military circles. Jan 30 at 9:02
  • Finland is not called a Baltic country. Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia are. And these are in NATO for quite some time.
    – alamar
    Jan 30 at 9:55
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    Since the unilaterally declared independence of Kosovo supported by the USA, Russia has been hard at work making ethnic minorities real or imagined secede from countries that it considers within its sphere of influence. Georgia first, then Ukraine. NATO hardly moved a finger to defend Ukrainian Crimea. Would NATO attempt to re-take the Baltics if they fell to Russia? What if Trump is president? Treaties are treaties. As a Latvian I would rather have nukes and leave NATO than stay in NATO and not have nukes. Ukraine made the mistake of exchanging nukes for paper, with predictable results.
    – Kafein
    Jan 31 at 16:36
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Two Fronts

Treating Belarus as "Russian Proxy" and with Finland out of NATO the Russian plan for seizing the Baltics would be straightforward. The Russians surround the Baltics on three sides, and presumably would mass forces, and rush in for the capitals like they attempted in Kiev.

Assuming the rush is successful, within the first ~24 hours of the conflict, Russia has reduced its border with NATO to Poland's border with Belarus and Kaliningrad. This is a relatively small front. Now the objective would be to convince NATO that attacking the dug in, prepared forces in this constrained area would be too painful, and thus that freeing the Baltics is not worth the cost.

Separately, Russia would try to convince Finland that the attack is a fait accompli, and that any attempt Finland might make to aid the Baltics would be more expensive that it's worth - with Finland outside of NATO this is an easy sell; They are not bound by NATO treaties that oblige treaty partners to defend each other, and also without the NATO treaties protecting Finland, would be more frightened of Russia retribution.

Finland In NATO

But with Finland in NATO, Russia's border after the seizure of the Baltics is Poland plus the arctic border with Finland!

NATO routinely cross trains and stations foreign forces within treaty partner nations. Imagine how Russia's calculus changes if they know that substantial NATO forces - who have been cold weather training with the Fins(!) - are ready to open a second front.

This is why the paper references both a Baltic axis and an Arctic axis. With Finland outside of NATO, Russia could draw down Arctic strength to attack the Baltics. With Finland in NATO, that option is denied to them. They must defend both fronts, and that is significantly more expensive.

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Without reference to the actual paper, Kaliningrad makes it possible for the Russians to project power into the Baltic Sea.

That is important because, in the absence of Finland, the Baltic Sea provides the only avenue for the rest of NATO to come to the defense of the Baltic states, should they be invaded by Russia. If that happens, Russia would have the ability to pinch off Western supply ships carrying arms and matériel to the beleaguered countries.

Now that Finland is joining NATO, it becomes possible for the NATO to support the Baltic States overland, if necessary. Russia power in the Baltic Sea becomes less relevant.

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@Stančikas seems to have addressed the main issue better than others.

Regardless of translation quality, accessibility, timing, ... - If Finland is not a NATO member then any response to Russian actions that threaten it in some substantive way are subject to political actions by notional allies. For example, we see the US Republicans stymying aid to Ukraine, when their attitude would historically have been very different.

If Finland is a NATO member the response to Russian action that poses a substantive threat is "Sir, Yes Sir".


Added: What the treaty actually says.

The obligation of NATO members to get involved has been questioned.
It was noted that Article 4 calls only for consultation. This is correct. However, Article 5 defines what "Sir, Yes Sir" means in this context.

It is important to note that "consultation" can be requested by any member at any time on any matter that they consider relevant to the treaty. While this has happened 7 times since 1949, the reasons for this have not qualified as the "trigger situation" described in Article 5.

In the current situation it is worth noting that if one member is attacked then it immediately places on all other members, including the US, to

  • " ... assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area. ..."

The North Atlantic Treaty. Washington D.C. - 4 April 1949

Article 4

The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.

Article 5

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security .

Article 7

Clarifies some regional issues, but extends rather than limits the areas involved.

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The claim is a bit nebulous, but it's essentially (pp. 11-14 in the paper)

  • Due to the war in Ukraine, Russia has weakened its troop presence in both Kaliningrad and on their long border with Finland. Troops from there were even sent to the front to Ukraine where the suffered losses. (It's not mentioned in the paper explicitly, but I recall seeing clips some of the articulated tracked vehicles of the Russian arctic troops being lost in Ukraine.)

  • So, Russia would have more trouble defending both regions (and Kola) simultaneously from a combined NATO ground attack. Thus, they may be reluctant to put more missiles etc. in Kaliningrad (to dominate the central region of Baltic sea) for fear of them being overrun, which was less of an issue for them when they didn't have to defend the ground border with Finland against a possible NATO ground attack there.

YMMV if you buy this [or not], but that's what the paper says. TBH, the paper itself weakens this argument by drawing a parallel between Crimea and Kaliningrad, by which it means that Ukrainian attack on Crimean ports have proven that the fleet base in Kaliningrad is similarly vulnerable. But this latter kind of vulnerability is not really related to Finland (being in NATO or not), or at least the paper doesn't make that connection.

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  • I did not recall reading before that troops from Kaliningrad were sent to Ukraine, but apparently they were. Jan 29 at 6:55
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The only new problem I see, it is no longer simple to have a war against Finland alone.

Speaking about the war against NATO without Finland, Finland is not so major addition to all force of EU and USA combined.

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  • This addresses THE main point far better than other answers (noting that I may have missed something". Jan 30 at 3:09
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The shortest answer is that Finland's border would be a flank to any attack from Russia's mainland into the Baltics.

And it would be a very difficult flank to subdue.

  • Finland constantly lives mindful of a potential threat from Russia, to the point that it maintains ready bomb shelters for everyone.
  • Finland's mountainous terrain is very difficult to navigate for an invading armored army.
  • This makes it a very advantageous place for deploying an offensive formation for a flanking counterstrike.
  • Generally offensive formations are vulnerable to preemptive strikes. But Finland is easily defended. So it can defend a large concentration of offensive forces.
  • Finland's border is very close to St. Petersburg, Russia's 2nd most populous city.
  • The only terrain which would stand between a counterstrike against St. Petersburg and Finland would be a lightly elevated area, roughly 25mi in radius. Flat terrains make advancing easier for motorized formations.
  • Even without taking St. Petersburg, its access to the Baltic sea can be cut of by a land invasion which stops short of invading St. Petersburg. enter image description here
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  • Taking St. Petersburg has already been attempted in 1942-1944, albeit by a different if aligned army.
    – Therac
    Jan 31 at 18:12
  • @Therac I don't believe I advocated taking it. A counterstrike would only have to run through it. It wouldn't have to be preserved. It can also go slightly west of it to cut off the Gulf of Finland. Remember the question is how would this protect from the expected russian aggression against the Baltics. Closing the Gulf of Finland would isolate the Baltic Fleet.
    – wrod
    Jan 31 at 21:55
  • @wrod I don't believe the 1940s attempt had any intent of preserving it either.
    – Therac
    Feb 1 at 1:05
  • @Therac then you are simply not familiar with history. Bulldozing it would have made it much easier.
    – wrod
    Feb 1 at 18:25
  • I am. Hitler's plan was to raze it all along - "there can be no interest in the continued existence of this large urban center. ... Following the city's encirclement, requests for surrender negotiations shall be denied". He just didn't get to nuclear weapons in time.
    – Therac
    Feb 1 at 21:11

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