Russia’s Baltic Fleet corvette Stoikiy undertook a live-missile firing drill and sank a target vessel earlier this week. This marks the emergence of the Baltic Sea as a region of intense strategic contestation between Moscow and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The development comes after Finland joined the US-led military bloc. Western think tanks and strategists have long been pushing to convert the Baltic Sea into a “NATO lake” to deter potential Russian aggression and target Moscow’s geographically separate exclave of Kaliningrad between Poland and Lithuania.
With Finland joining NATO in April and Sweden soon to follow, the Baltic Sea is again on the brink of a significant geopolitical upheaval.
Other Russian exercises have taken place since the beginning of this year, with a more significant live-fire component than the NATO maneuvers.
It is unclear whether the NATO strategy is to create a permanent pressure point in Russia’s northwest to engage its resources and prevent it from employing its full military capability in the event of a war.
But the fashion in which the military dynamics elsewhere around Ukraine are unfolding does suggest such a thinking.
Russian Warship Sinks Target With Repurposed Redut SAM
According to a RuMoD press release, the Corvette Stoikiy carried out a series of “scheduled practice firings using the Redut shipboard vertical launch system at surface and air targets in the Fleet’s maritime training zone.”
Video of the Baltic Fleet Project 20380/Steregushchiy-class corvette Stoikiy (545) test-launch of 9M96E Redut medium-range SAM missiles in the testing ranges of the Baltic Sea.
Video by Russian MoD pic.twitter.com/XqT4E1pvMZ
— Saturnax 🇸🇰🇪🇺🇺🇦 (@Saturnax1) September 20, 2023
The video shows the Stoikiy firing two missiles — assumed to be the Redut — from its vertical launch silos on the bow. One of the missiles is seen hitting a target on the sea over the horizon, with a subsequent shot showing a sinking boat, a target vessel with a hole in the hull.
“Control systems confirmed that the missile engaged the shield simulating a surface target located at a considerable distance from the ship,” the RuMoD added.
The Redut Surface-to-Air (SAM) is the naval version of the S-350 Vityaz medium-range Air Defense (AD) system. In this case, it seems to have been modified for surface attack roles, as Russia did several times with the S-300.
The drill also involved shooting down “a special aerial target simulating a small maneuvering aerodynamic target,” but the video did not feature this component.
“The firing was conducted in a complex jamming environment with the simulated electronic countermeasures,” suggesting a clash with a peer adversary (NATO), whose navies would be trying to disrupt Russian communication and radars.
The seriousness of the live-fire drills could be gauged from the fact that the training zone was “declared temporarily dangerous for civilian shipping and aviation flights,” with “more than ten surface ships and support ships on security duties in the vicinity of the missile launches.”
Whether this drill was a part of the Ocean Shield 2023 exercises the Baltic Sea Fleet announced on August 2 is not clear. The RuMoD said the exercise involved 30 warships and boats, 20 support ships, 30 naval and Russian air and space forces aircraft, and about 6,000 troops.
The aims were to “protect maritime communications, the transport of troops and military cargo, and the coastline defense.”
NATO & Russian Exercises Coincide
Interestingly, Russia’s latest drills came just after NATO’s two-week North Coast exercise ended, after commencing on September 9. This exercise saw troops from all NATO countries on the Baltic Sea, plus soon-to-be member Sweden and non-Baltic allies the US, Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France.
The US Navy sent the Mesa Verde into the drills, a ship of more than 200 meters (656 feet) in length, designed to transport and land some 800 marines in an amphibious assault. “Securing the sea routes through the Baltic Sea is another focus of the exercise that will take place off the coasts of Latvia and Estonia,” a Reuters report said.
NATO Wants To Fortify Baltics From Russia
An October 2022 article in the Hudson Institute called for the US to work with its NATO allies “to develop a strategy that deals with the Russian anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities in Kaliningrad” in the event of a conflict.
“In particular, this effort requires close cooperation and planning with Poland. NATO cannot carry out any credible defense of the Baltic Sea region without neutralizing the threat from Kaliningrad.”
Before the war, Moscow maintained approximately 25,000 Russian troops and security personnel, hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles, S-400 air defense systems, P-800 anti-ship cruise missiles, and sizable air and naval assets in Kaliningrad.
Since 2016, Russia has also maintained Iskander-M short-range ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad. The Iskander-M missile, which has a suspected range of 310 miles, can threaten Gotland and Bornholm with nuclear or conventional warheads from here.
“Kaliningrad allows Russia to project power in the region in a way it would be unable to without access to the exclave. If Moscow wanted to try capturing the Åland Islands, Gotland, or Bornholm, it would use Kaliningrad.
“Kaliningrad is the cornerstone of Russia’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy in the Baltic Sea region. If Russia has control of Kaliningrad during an armed conflict, NATO’s ability to act in the Baltic Sea region will be limited,” the article said.
A Politico report on July 13 said how NATO “has steadily increased its control of the Baltic Sea — a crucial maritime gateway for the Russian fleet which has bases near St. Petersburg and in the heavily militarized Kaliningrad exclave.”
Using Sweden’s and Finland’s advanced and capable militaries, the alliance aims to deter aggressive Russian plans in the Baltic Sea by consolidating the water body into a “NATO lake.”
Russia Responds After Seeing Threat To Kaliningrad
From Russia’s perspective, this might appear as a pre-emptive threat to Kaliningrad and its aerial supply routes from the land to the exclave that NATO has envisaged. It, therefore, necessitates such aggressive missile firing exercises.
On July 11, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov laid out the Russian concerns, saying NATO does not have anything to fear on its eastern (or Russia’s western) borders, but rather the other way round.
“It’s vital to realize under the current conditions that the Russian military infrastructure has never shifted towards Western Europe. It has always moved in the opposite direction,” TASS quoted Peskov as saying.
It, therefore, has been conducting exhaustive live-fire exercises that practice defending the exclave. A drill in early April included close air support (CAS), ground attack, aerial bombing, and maneuvers by infantry fighting vehicles (IFV) and ships of the Baltic Sea Fleet.
These maneuvers saw Su-30SM and Su-30SM2 multi-purpose all-weather fighters, Su-24 attack aircraft, and An-26 military transport aircraft play out tactical episodes of missions for their intended purpose – fire support for ground units, destruction of command posts, armored vehicles, and manpower of a mock enemy, as well as conducting aerial reconnaissance.
Before that, in late March, another drill saw the S-400 Triumph SAM system being included. “The S-400 Triumf teams’ systems practiced response strategies upon receiving an alert regarding a notional airspace violation by an enemy aircraft,” the RuMoD had said.
“Su-27 fighters from a naval aviation unit acted as the intruders while the air defense (AD) crews detected, identified, tracked, and engaged them in simulated combat. The exercises concluded with the Triumf teams electronically engaging the targets,” it said.