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Russia forced to move air defences from Kaliningrad to Ukraine frontline amid heavy losses

Russia has likely been forced to move several air defence systems from its Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic Sea coast to the frontline in Ukraine amid the losses it has suffered there, according to the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Vladimir Putin appears to have been left with no choice but to weaken the defences of Kaliningrad, an outpost bordered by Nato members on three sides and considered one of Moscow’s most strategically sensitive regions.

“Exceptional Russian air transport movements through November 2023 suggest that Russia has likely moved strategic air defence systems from its Baltic coast enclave of Kaliningrad, to backfill recent losses on the Ukraine front,” the MoD said in its latest intelligence update on Sunday.

Putin’s forces suffered particularly high losses to its SA-21 air defence systems in Russian-occupied Ukraine in late October 2023, it said.

Ukrainian attacks most likely destroyed at least four Russian surface-to-air missile systems that were located in occupied territories in a span of a single week, the MoD said in an earlier update on 2 November.

“The fact that the Russian MoD appears willing to accept additional risk here highlights the overstretch the war has caused for some of Russia’s key, modern capabilities,” the MoD said.

Sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania on Nato’s eastern flank, Kaliningrad is geographically completely separated from the country’s main territory.

A map showing the Suwalki Gap in northeastern Poland between the Russian territory of Kaliningrad and Belarus (The Independent/Datawrapper)
A map showing the Suwalki Gap in northeastern Poland between the Russian territory of Kaliningrad and Belarus (The Independent/Datawrapper)

The isolated oblast is only accessible to Russia through a contentious strip of land, the Suwalki gap, that links Russian ally Belarus to Kaliningrad.

Moscow places significant strategic importance on Kaliningrad because it houses the Russian Baltic Fleet in the port of Baltiysk, and it stands out as one of Russia’s few ice-free European ports.

In May, Poland said it was reverting the name of Kaliningrad to its historical name Krolewiec on maps, prompting a furious reaction from the Kremlin.

The region was formerly called Koenigsberg when it was ceded from Germany to the Soviet Union after the Second World War.

In 1946 the Soviets renamed it Kaliningrad, after Mikhail Kalinin, one of the leaders of the Bolshevik revolution.