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Baltic Fleet

The Baltic Fleet is headquartered in Kaliningrad, where it is defended by a naval infantry brigade. From this rather exposed location, the fleet controls naval bases at Kronshtadt and Baltiysk. The breakup of the Soviet Union deprived the Baltic Fleet of key bases in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, leaving Kaliningrad Oblast as the Fleet's only ice-free naval outlet to the Baltic Sea. Kaliningrad Oblast is the headquarters of the Russian Navy's Baltic Fleet and the site of one of its two main naval bases in the region, Baltiisk. Armed forces comparable in size to the entire Polish army are stationed in Kaliningrad Oblast, which is a Russian enclave completely cut off from the rest of Russia by Poland and Lithuania. Developments in Russia's federal system in recent years have resulted in some areas gaining considerable autonomy, in particular Kaliningrad, where the Jantar Free Economic Zone has been set up. The other major Baltic Fleet base is at Kronstadt, a satellite-town of St.Petersburg located at the Kotlin island in the Gulf of Finland, some 29 km NW of St. Petersburg. The island is about 12 km long with a maximum width of 2 km, and the Navy base of the Russian Baltic Fleet occupies about one half of the island.

As of 1996 operational forces included nine submarines, twenty-three principal surface combatants [three cruisers, two destroyers, and eighteen frigates], and approximately sixty-five smaller vessels. The Baltic Fleet included one brigade of naval infantry and two regiments of coastal defense artillery. The air arm of the Baltic Fleet included 195 combat aircraft organized into five regiments and a number of other fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. The Baltic Fleet does not include any strategic-missile submarines, but as of mid-1997 it included 32 major surface combatants (3 cruisers, 3 destroyers, and 26 frigates), more than 230 other surface vessels, roughly 200 naval aircraft, 9 tactical submarines, and a brigade of naval infantry. As of mid-2000 the Baltic Fleet included about 100 combat ships of various types, and the Fleet's Sea Aviation Group units were equipped with a total of 112 aircraft.

In response to Lithuanian objections, Russia's Baltic Sea Fleet canceled the weapons firing exercises scheduled for 26-29 September 1994 off the coast of Lithuania within that country's economic zone. The scheduled exercises had provoked sharp protests among Lithuanians.

In the late 1990s the incorporation of air defense units into the Baltic Fleet structure was the first step in reforming the Baltic Fleet. Another step was the creation of the Fleet's coastal and ground forces based on the Baltic Fleet units and the 11th Guards General-Purpose Army that is located in the Kaliningrad region. The Fleet's artillery, rocket, coastal units and a marine brigade, and ground force's units were consolidated into a completely new structure, the Fleet's ground and coastal troops. As of mid-2000 this group consists of the Moscow-Minsk Proletarian Division, a Marine Brigade, Coastal Rocket Units and a number of bases at which arms and equipment are kept.

In the immediate postwar period, the Soviet Union established a formidable, closed enclave in the former East Prussia, including a large naval port at Kaliningrad (formerly Knigsberg). When the Soviet Union collapsed, the independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania deprived the new Russian state of major ports on the Baltic Sea, and 15,000-square-kilometer Kaliningrad Oblast between Poland and Lithuania was cut off from Russia. When Russia insisted on maintaining Kaliningrad as a heavily armed garrison, it aroused considerable international criticism, especially from Poland. Knigsberg was awarded to the Soviet Union under the Potsdam Accord in 1945, but the Russian Federation holds no legal title to the enclave.

When Russia withdrew all its former Warsaw Pact forces from Poland and the Baltic states during 1992-94, some air, naval, and ground forces were relocated to Kaliningrad, ostensibly because of housing shortages elsewhere in Russia. In mid-1996 the official military garrison was estimated at 24,000 ground troops of the 11th Guards Combined Arms Army, including one tank division and three motorized rifle divisions, three artillery brigades, surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles, and attack helicopters.

As of 1996 Western experts estimated that the total Kaliningrad garrison includes as many as 200,000 military personnel, compared with the official Russian figure of 100,000. In 1993 the population of the enclave was about 900,000, of whom about 700,000 were Russians. There was strong sentiment in favor of autonomy among the civilian population, and international pressure continued to advocate reducing the garrison to a level of "reasonable sufficiency," far below its current size. Some Russian military authorities agreed with this idea because maintaining the Kaliningrad force was extremely expensive. However, a large-scale deemphasis of the military would be difficult because the entire oblast has been structured to meet the needs of the armed forces. In addition, Russian nationalists argue that Kaliningrad is a vital outpost at a time when Russia is menaced by Polish or even Lithuanian membership in NATO.

Russian naval forces in the Baltic Sea are tasked primarily to support Army operations and conduct landings and other naval operations to gain control of the Danish Straits. The headquarters for the Baltic is at Kaliningrad. Baltic Fleet ships also conduct out-of-area operations and deployments to the Northern Fleet and Mediterranean Sea. Additionally, the Baltic provides an excellent deep water testing area for newly constructed and repaired ships.

St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad, Petrograd, St. Petersburg) is the second largest city in Russia and the shipping and shipbuilding center of the Baltic coast. It contains five major shipyards, several lesser yards and one large commercial port. Most importantly, St. Petersburg is where some of the largest Russian naval vessels (surface and submarine) are constructed. About 15 miles west of St. Petersburg, in the Gulf of Finland, is the old port city of Kronstadt, which contains a naval base, commercial port, and ship repair facility.

A number of other ports along the Baltic coast were lost to Russia when the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania withdrew from the USSR. These include Tallinn, Riga, and Liepaja, which reduced Russia to only two locations for construction, repair and operational capabilities, namely St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad. This obviously increased the overall vulnerability of the Baltic Fleet.

Much of the Northern Baltic Sea, including the Gulf of Finland, Gulf of Riga, and Gulf of Bothnia, is frozen over during the winter months. In addition, operations in this region are also limited during the autumn months due to low clouds and dense fog.

The Baltic Sea is of major importance to Russia for three main reasons: as a commercial shipping route from western industrial region to Europe and western ports; the Baltic Sea forms the northern flank of the central front; and shipyards on the Baltic are vital to the Russian Navy.

Access to the Baltic is severly restricted at the western margin by the intrusion of the Danish peninsula and a series of narrow straits, which themselves are interrupted by several islands. Strategically, this region is of prime concern to Russian military planners. From east to west and from south to north several significant areas deserve mention. First, the island of Bornholm represents a major control point to the Danish straits system, Denmark proper, and as a defensive position at the "mouth" of the Baltic. Second, is the Kiel Canal which traverses the northern German province of Schleswig-Holstein from the city of Kiel on the Baltic westward to the mouth of the Elbe River on the North Sea, just northwest of Hamburg. While small, the canal is capable of handling warships up to Krivak class size.

Between the offshore islands lies a series of small straits, only one of which is passable by deep draft vessels. This is known as the Great Belt (Store Baelt) lying between Fyn and Sjaelland islands. Finally, to the north lies the bulk of the Danish peninsula, whose tip is called The Skaw, and which controls access to the entire region via the Kattegat and Skagerrak (straits), which are some 20 and 60 nautical miles wide, respectively.




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