NATO Drills To ‘Seize’ Russian Islands, Block Kaliningrad & Gulf Of Finland, Media Claims On Ex Freezing Winds

With NATO’s youngest member and Russia’s neighbor Finland hosting the ‘Freezing Winds’ exercises, there are reports that Russia held a training drill where its Baltic Fleet practiced launching the Kalibr cruise missile on its targets.

The Baltic Fleet operations by the Russians were conducted against the backdrop of the ongoing large-scale NATO “Freezing Winds” exercises in the Gulf of Finland and the Eland Islands region of the Baltic, according to the report.

However, the last time Russia launched a military drill in the Baltic along with NATO’s drills in the region was in June this year, two months after Finland became the newest member of the NATO alliance in April 2023.

The Freezing Wind drills are for the first time being led by a new member of the alliance – Finland, with about 5,000 servicemen, 30 ships, and 20 aircraft practicing military maneuvers less than 200 kilometers from Russia’s northwestern border.

According to reports, the NATO allies are training to mine the Baltic Sea and land airborne troops in a possible scenario of a conflict with Russia.

The threat that NATO’s presence to the Russian Federation is likely a driving factor behind Russian Kalibr launches in the Baltic. Although the specifics of these drills are not known, the Kalibr cruise missile has been extensively used to strike targets inside Ukraine in the ongoing war.

Kalibr cruise missile Russia
File Image: Kalibr cruise missile

However, military experts believe that the missile would not be able to obliterate an aircraft carrier, which is typically equipped with a multi-layered defense system that includes close-in weapon systems (CIWS), medium-range missiles, and long-range air defense systems.

Writing for EurAsian Times, Indian Air Force veteran and an avid Russian watcher, Squadron Leader Vijainder K. Thakur, said, “Subsonic cruise missiles, such as the Kalibr, pose no threat to an aircraft carrier. They are easily detected and destroyed well before they come anywhere near a carrier group, even in the case of a saturation attack.

This is in contrast with Russia’s plans, which include increasing the deployment of these missiles near the Baltic region.

Reports last month indicated that Russia is planning to base small, Kalibr-armed missile boats (Karakurt-class mid-sized missile boats and the Buyan-M class missile corvettes) in a lake in its far northwestern territory as another firing point into the Baltic Sea, as tensions with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) show no signs of abating.

“The flight range of the Kalibr cruise missiles that the Karakurts are armed with is over 1,500 kilometers. At the same time, in Lake Ladoga, Russian ships will be relatively safe from the navies of NATO countries based in the Baltic,” the report said. If the reports of the latest Kalibr launches are true, Russia seems to be emphasizing its Kalibr missiles despite the limitations associated with them.

Having said that,  the Baltic Sea has been a major flashpoint, particularly since the Western alliance led by the United States started referring to it as a “NATO lake,” indicating their strategic solidarity against what they saw as Moscow’s military aggression since the 2014 war. However, Finland’s entry into NATO has further complicated the situation for Russia.

NATO’s Freezing Wind Drills Challenge Russia

Finland kickstarted the ‘Freezing Winds 23’ drills earlier this month, in what is its first naval joint drills with NATO members since it joined the alliance. The drill is seeing participation by the Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group One, comprising seven warships from Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, and France, as well as three vessels from Germany and the Netherlands.

Ahead of the drills, the Finnish Navy told reporters that 16 Allied aircraft will also participate in the air maneuvers, which will take place over parts of the northern Baltic Sea and southern Finland. It mentioned that air drills will also be conducted by the Army and Border Guard in addition to the Air Force. The Navy noted some participating vessels will berth in Turku and Helsinki, but they won’t be accessible to the general public.

In addition, a US Marine Corps detachment of F-18 fighter jets, French sea patrol aircraft Atlantique 2, and Standing Nato Maritime Group One naval operations helicopters were also scheduled to participate in the drills.

The drills have expectedly caused bickering within the Russian military forces. For instance, Russian Izvestia publication recently carried a report that said that military experts in Moscow have not ruled out that the drills may simulate 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,” the report said without mincing words. 

The report further noted that experts claim that while NATO regularly carries out these exercises in the Baltic Sea region, they were noticeably more violent in 2023. It also cited the Finnish commander, Yuhapekka Rautava, to prove the point. Rautava had said before the drill that the alliance’s anti-mine ships were not accidental in the drills. 

The naval landing will take place in the vicinity of the Åland Islands, according to the Finnish Ministry of Defense. However, Izvestia said that sources say NATO forces are capable of retaking Gogland, Big Tyuters, and Powerful, the outlying islands in the Gulf of Finland. They have complete control over the eastern portion of the Gulf of Finland due to their location. 

Further,  it stated that the former Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, Sergei Ordzhonikidze, did not rule out that in case of conflict, Finland may make claims to several Russian territories.

“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 during the maneuvers, they are working out this strategy against our country,” he was quoted as saying.