In the latest intelligence update, the UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed on November 26 that Russia has probably moved some of its cutting-edge S-400 missile defense systems from Kaliningrad to the front lines of Ukraine.
This indicates that the Kremlin has sacrificed its air defense capabilities along NATO borders to make up for losses in Ukraine, where Kyiv is said to have destroyed at least three S-400 systems.
In its latest intelligence update, the UK Defense Ministry said, “Exceptional Russian air transport movements through November 2023 suggest that Russia has likely moved strategic air defense systems from its Baltic coast enclave of Kaliningrad to backfill recent losses on the Ukraine front.”
The update added that the new development is a follow-up to an uptick seen in the losses of SA-21 (NATO reporting name for S-400) air defense systems in late October 2023 within Russian-administered territories once part of Ukraine.
Ukrainian forces have recently singled out Russia’s sophisticated and expensive air defense systems. For instance, reports at the end of October stated that Ukraine had destroyed four S-400 systems, most likely with the help of the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) acquired from the United States.
The UK MoD published another intelligence update earlier this month. It predicted that Russia would likely have to reallocate its strategic air defense assets after suffering multiple losses of its long-range S-400 air defense systems. However, at the time, the intel update fell short of identifying locations from which Moscow would be looking to pull out these advanced air defense systems for use in Crimea and the Donbas region.
For Ukraine, aiming the S-400 is a coordinated attempt at dislodging Russia from the front lines and disrupting several of its tactical battlefield calculations centered on the sophisticated surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. The Russian S-400 air defense system has a maximum range of 400 kilometers.
This follows an uptick in losses of SA-21 air defence systems in Russian-occupied Ukraine in late October 2023. (2/4)
— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) November 26, 2023
Attacks by the Ukrainians on these state-of-the-art anti-aircraft weapons have lowered their air defense capability and necessitated changes to their operational deployments, upending several battle estimates. Additionally, it has shown the weaknesses and holes in the highly regarded air defense systems.
Russia probably lost at least four long-range Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) launchers to Ukrainian strikes. On October 26, Russian media said that three “SA-21 launchers” had been lost in the Luhansk region. Additional losses, according to sources in Ukraine, were attributed to Russian air defense in Crimea.
However, pulling off its strategic air defense systems from Kaliningrad is significant given that this Russian enclave is situated above Poland’s northern tip and geographically isolated from the rest of mainland Russia, which makes its defense a strategic priority for Moscow.
Moreover, the Kaliningrad enclave has Denmark on the west side of the Baltic Sea and shares an east boundary with Lithuania. Therefore, the Defense Ministry implies it would be a significant risk for Russia to move the S-400s out of Kaliningrad.
“As its most westerly outpost bordered on three sides by NATO member states, Russia sees Kaliningrad as one of its most strategically sensitive regions,” the Defense Ministry wrote. It further stated that the fact that Russia is prepared to remove defense assets from Kaliningrad indicates the “overstretch the war has caused for some of Russia’s key, modern capabilities.”
Russia has yet to comment on the intelligence update and regularly rubbishes and refutes the claims made by the UK intelligence. However, if authenticated, the development is somewhat fragile, given that tensions are running high between Russia and the US-led NATO alliance in the wake of the unending war with Kyiv.
Russia-NATO Tensions At An All-Time High
Russian relocation of its most potent air defense systems from the NATO borders comes at a difficult moment. Russian analysts recently warned that the Finland-hosted ‘Freezing Wind 23’ military drills could simulate and practice the capture of the Russian islands of Gogland, Bolshoy Tyuters, the Powerful, and subsequent blockade of the Gulf of Finland and the Kaliningrad region.
“The officially announced scenario of the exercises does not hide the offensive nature of the actions. Alliance soldiers are learning to mine the Baltic Sea and land naval troops,” a report published in Izvestia said without mincing words.
Additionally, it said that Sergei Ordzhonikidze, the former deputy foreign minister of the Russian Federation, did not rule out Finland claiming many Russian areas in the event of a confrontation.
“Finland participates in NATO to create a bloc to counter Russia in the north. This is a real threat to our interests in this area. In case of serious aggravation, they can lock our fleet and close the airspace in the region. I think that they are working out this strategy against our country during the maneuvers,” he was quoted as saying.
Ready to cast off! The last preparations are done and Freezing Winds 2023 is kicking off. After extensive coordination, vessels head to the Gulf of Finland and Archipelago Sea to train together for the next 9 days. This is the first large NATO Exercise led by Finland. #FRWI23 pic.twitter.com/BX6xLb0wmm
— Merivoimat – Finska Marinen – The Finnish Navy (@Navyfi) November 22, 2023
Moreover, Russia and NATO have now withdrawn participation from a key Cold War-era security treaty, the Treaty of Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, which seeks to prevent the amassing of troops on mutual borders. NATO’s decision to freeze the treaty came after a similar decision was made by Moscow.
On its part, NATO has been assessing a threat from Russia, with officials in Brussels urging the allies to do more to allow the free flow of military goods across borders. Earlier in November, NATO issued a warning to its members, pointing out that excessive bureaucracy is impeding the movement of troops throughout Europe and might lead to significant delays in the event of a conflict with Russia.
The chief of NATO’s logistics command JSEC, Lieutenant-General Alexander Sollfrank, said he would want to see a “military Schengen,” similar to the political Schengen zone that permits unrestricted mobility within the majority of the EU.
He cautioned that NATO must not allow Moscow to believe it has a chance to win because the alliance is unprepared, as this would lead to a miscalculation in the Kremlin.
Responding to these calls, the Kremlin said: To oppose Russia, NATO seeks to establish a military counterpart of the Schengen Zone in Europe. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow would respond if ‘the military Schengen’ proposal became a reality.
“The alliance has always regarded our country as a so-called notional enemy. Now, it openly considers our country to be an obvious adversary. This (statement) is nothing more than fuelling tensions in Europe, which has consequences,” Peskov told reporters.
Russia has already warned NATO allies of escalation as they continue to pour arms into Kyiv and encourage it to attack assets inside Russian territory.
The decision to move the air defense systems closer to Ukraine to fend off the continuing drone attacks comes against that backdrop and amid rising tensions with NATO.