17 March 2021

Russia’s Baltic Fleet has one foot on land

The changed security policy situation in the Baltic Sea has led the Russian Baltic Fleet to strengthen its forces in Kaliningrad. This is shown in a report from FOI.
“During the last five years, the Baltic Fleet’s modernisation has primarily focused on its land-based capabilities. It is remarkable that the task of defending Kaliningrad is so great,” says Jonas Kjellén, a researcher at FOI and author of the report, The Russian Baltic Fleet.


The Baltic Fleet Grad Sviiazhsk-class small missile ship Serpukhov next to the Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Photo from Shutterstock.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the geographical circumstances of the Baltic Fleet were altered. The Baltics became independent and the situation of Kaliningrad, embedded between the Baltics and Poland, became more exposed. In 2012, Russia began rearming its air defence systems around Kaliningrad with the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system.

“From a Russian perspective, the most qualified Western threat is from the air, and the air defence of Kaliningrad has been prioritised. Russia is more fearful of its position in the Baltic today compared to during the Soviet years. If one can’t defend Kaliningrad, one can’t defend the basing of the ships, either,” says Jonas Kjellén.

After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the security situation in the Baltic Sea changed. The Baltic Fleet was augmented by two ships from the Black Fleet and an army corps has also been created.

“It can be difficult to distinguish the modernisation of Russia’s armed forces in general from what has to do with the changed security situation in the Baltic Sea, but the reinforcement of the Baltic Fleet’s ground forces is an example of the latter.”

Despite the investment in air defences and land-based units, the Baltic Fleet still has a strong naval capability,” says Jonas Kjellén.

“You have ships for both coastal operations and with the capability for more distant missions. The Baltic Fleet continues to have a mix that makes it possible to operate within its entire area of responsibility, which extends out to the North Sea. One doesn’t withdraw because the security situation has deteriorated.”

Only looking at the Baltic Fleet’s inventory, however, does not provide a comprehensive view of the Russia’s naval activities in the Baltic. According to Jonas Kjellén, Saint Petersburg, on the Gulf of Finland, in its capacity as Russia’s naval centre, with a major shipbuilding industry, also plays an important role.

“It’s a region with a lot of traffic, with ships coming and going, which makes the actual presence greater. The navy staff moved there in 2012, and the largest shipbuilding group is about to move there. As a result, there are often other warships in the area than those belonging to the Baltic Fleet,” explains Jonas Kjellén.

What is the background for FOI’s research on the Baltic Sea Fleet?

“From the Swedish perspective, the Baltic Fleet is the most important part of the Russian armed forces. To the extent that Swedish air and naval forces encounter Russian platforms on an everyday basis, they usually belong to the Baltic Fleet. I believe that those who work in the Swedish navy have a need for information and therefore the report is aimed at both practitioners and policymakers.”

“By studying the Baltic Fleet, one can also get an impression of Russia’s armed forces in general,” says Jonas Kjellén.

“The organisation of Russia’s naval forces is special. Apart from ships, there are also ground forces, strategic air defences and fighter aircraft. Thus, a small organisation like the Baltic Fleet has a whole range of capabilities. By looking at the Baltic Sea Fleet, you can get insight into almost everything.”