Russian Forces in Kaliningrad: Implications of the newly formed 18th Guards Motor Rifle Division

BLUF

Several tactical formations in Kaliningrad have been reorganized into a restored 18th Guards Motor Rifle division. The plan to establish this division was telegraphed at least two years in advance. After much neglect, Kaliningrad began seeing modernization, infrastructure investment, and a slow force structure expansion after 2016. Russian ground forces have been converting many of their brigades back into divisions as the main tactical formation, though quite a few appear to have 3 instead of 4 maneuver regiments in practice. The news has been covered elsewhere in BMPD and Konrad Muzyka took a stab at it earlier, so I’m not the first to write on this, but hope this will be a more comprehensive update.

The map below from Konrad’s report for CNA, published in 2020, is useful for this discussion. I think Konrad did a good job in that report and it features great maps.

From Konrad’s 2020 report for CNA on the disposition of Russian forces in the Western Military District.

Implications for force structure in Kaliningrad

What does this mean? The 11th Army Corps will likely go from fielding 6 motor rifle battalions to 10, and from the currently deployed ~2 tank battalions, with 4 planned post-2019, to 6 tank battalions in total. I will try to offer some brief background on these plans, and recent history of force modernization in Kaliningrad. The short of it is that while this is a notable expansion of the force structure in Kaliningrad, it was long in coming, and folks should not be shocked by the outcome. Best to discuss it now, before the newly recreated 18th division makes its debut in exercises during Zapad-2021.

On December 1, 2020 the commander of Russia’s Baltic Fleet, Aleksandr Nosatov, announced that the division would be formed within the 11th Army Corps. There were rumors that a division level formation was returning to Kaliningrad, and it became almost self-evident that this was the plan once the Russian MoD began establishing a separate tank regiment earlier in 2019. On March 2nd, 2021 Kartapalov formally presented the division’s new banner, so they moved fairly quickly towards getting this off the ground. The division legacy harkens back to its creation in 1939, seeing action in WWII and receiving the Guards honorific in 1942. The 18th besieged Konigsberg in 1945.

Divisional banner presentation March 2021

After several reformations, it eventually ended up as the 79th Motor Rifle Brigade, which is the unit they used to remake the division again. There and back again is the story of Russian force structure. The brigade’s kit will form two motor rifle regiments, and they will use the command/support elements to form the core of the division. The 7th separate motor rifle regiment does not look like it will be part of this division, and remain more of a coastal defense force backing the 336th Naval Infantry Brigade. This discussion will not include the 336th Naval Infantry Brigade, 561st Naval reconnaissance center, 69th Naval Engineering Regiment, or the EW center there, i.e. the focus of this post is on the ground force reorganization within the Army Corps.

Implications for force structure? Ten motor rifle battalions instead of six will net around 2,000 more personnel, with a BMP-2/BTR-82A/MT-LB mix that averages out to 500 per battalion. The 11th separate tank regiment, plus three tank battalions (6 total), gives us almost 190 tanks, and ~40 BMPs supporting that regiment. Also, more self-propelled artillery battalions, as they already received the better part of a battalion of MSTA-S. By the looks of it the division will not include the 244th artillery brigade or the 22nd air defense regiment. They’re currently listed as part of 11th Army Corps, not the division. The 11th AC will need to assemble a mix of 2S19, 2S3s, and towed artillery in the interim to setup those arty battalions. Right now they have a battalion’s worth of 2S3 Akatsiya (18), most of a 2S19 MSTA-S battalion in the tank regiment, and several BM-21 Grad companies. It is possible one of the PVO-SV air defense regiments will join the division.

The 79th brigade appears to be split into 79th motor rifle regiment, with basically one seeder battalion right now, and another regiment is already being listed as the 9th motor rifle regiment with what looks closer to two battalions. The 11th tank regiment is being stood up with about two battalions filled. A batch of 30 T-72B3s had already arrived to get this unit started. The 7th independent motor rifle regiment appears like its going to remain independent, and even though I see it frequently listed as having a tank battalion – I do not believe this to be the case. This unit is primarily armed with BMP-2s, mortars, and Grad MLRS. Update: in April they renamed these motor rifle regiments the 275th and 280th, receiving the legacy of the regiments which originally belonged to the 18th division.

Why the change? Different reasons have been floated in the press, but the most logical is that brigades are for mobility, whereas divisions are larger static formations to hold down a front. Some articles describing this decision lay out the argument that existing forces were not sufficient to defend Kaliningrad against an attack from several vectors, i.e. Poland, Lithuania, and the coast. Also, that it is in response to increased U.S. force posture in Baltics. That could be true, and this could be your typical security dilemma outcome, or they were going to turn these units into a division anyway when the money/personnel side of the equation made sense. If we assume the 11th Army Corps is around 8,500 personnel right now with the division partially filled at about 50%, that total number could go north towards toward 10,500-11,000, not including coastal defense, or naval infantry units. I expect this to be a 3 maneuver regiment division, unless the 7th is brought in later. This is probably a conservative estimate depending on what happens with division support regiments as they still have to bring in a bunch more artillery and air defense.

Here is a hypothetical diagram from a Russian military article showing operational level divisions, and a prospective counter attack against a blue force that is invading Kaliningrad/Belarus. The discussion is from an article examining the use of army aviation in providing fires. You can see on this map the blue attack points into Kaliningrad from north and south, and those heading into Belarus. I would not run off with this as a scenario roadmap, but it is useful to illustrate some of the considerations.

В.В. АРИСТОВ, В.И. КОВАЛЕВ, В.В. БЕЛОНОЖКИН, С.В. МИТРОФАНОВА, МЕТОДИКА ОЦЕНКИ ЭФФЕКТИВНОСТИ ВЫПОЛНЕНИЯ ОГНЕВЫХ ЗАДАЧ ПОДРАЗДЕЛЕНИЯМИ АРМЕЙСКОЙ АВИАЦИИ В ТЕМНОЕ ВРЕМЯ СУТОК С УЧЕТОМ МЕТЕОРОЛОГИЧЕСКИХ УСЛОВИЙ

A bit of background

Soviet forces based in Kaliningrad were a large combat grouping centered around the 11th Guards Army. This formation was disbanded in the 1990s during a period demobilization and consolidation. Kaliningrad is mythologized as a fortress or bastion, but the forces there have historically suffered from lower readiness, and it has proven to be one of the last groupings to receive modernized equipment. Consider that 11th Army had over 800 tanks deployed in Kaliningrad, whereas after then force was considerably downloaded in the 1990s, and the ‘New Look’ reforms, the 11th Army Corps had on hand a single independent tank battalion with 41 tanks in it. They were dated T-72B1s with some BAs mixed in.

The Baltic Fleet is the runt of the four main fleets in the Russian navy. It has historically suffered from low readiness, poor attention to infrastructure investment, and dated kit. As an anecdote, I submit this 2013 story of a drunk soldier who took a BMP-2 to buy cigarettes, ran off the road, got it stuck in a ditch, then while he was getting a second BMP to tow it out the first one caught fire because he did not turn off the power block. Things have turned around since 2016, but this formation has only recently begun to benefit from the wave of modernization across the Russian armed forces.

In June 2016 there was a mass firing of 50 high ranking officers, including squadron, and brigade commanders. The purge was quite public. The fleet’s condition had declined, state of housing was poor, and the forces demonstrated poor readiness in exercises. Kaliningrad was more an outpost, and less a dreadfort. The commander at the time, Kravchuk, was tasked with creating a joint military grouping capable of defending this operational sector as part of the overall Western strategic direction. The money was seemingly embezzled or misspent. Either way, things did not begin to turn around until after 2016.

Since then, Russian forces in Kaliningrad began receiving new kit:

  • Two air defense regiments in the 44th Air defense division received S-400 battalion kits, although it looks like there might still be a couple S-300PS battalions left there as far as I know. This update has been long in progress, since 2013 if I recall.
  • Aerospace Forces (VKS) received some newer Su-30SM, Su-27P, and upgraded Su-24MPs as part of the 34th Composite Aviation Division.
  • The 22nd air defense regiment got fully upgraded with Tor-M2s, along with the other regiments under the 44th air defense division. 
  • In 2018 the 152nd Missile Brigade began the transition from Tochka-U to Iskander-M, which now appears complete.
  • In early 2019 the 11th separate tank regiment was announced. This first looked like it was being created out of the existing independent tank battalion in the 79th, but then became clear it was in addition to, with 30 T-72B3s arriving to start the first battalion.
  • In 2020 the 224th Artillery BDE received BM-27 Uragan in place of the BM-21 Grad. Some news reports suggested it was BM-30 Smerch, but I’m skeptical. That’s a fairly high-end/low availability capability in the Russian ground forces. They also took delivery of Crysanthemum-S ATGM tank destroyers for an anti-tank battalion. 
  • The coastal defense forces’ 25th independent coastal defense missile brigade currently fields 1-2 battalions of Bastion-P (SSC-5), and one battalion of BAL (SSC-6), soon to receive another battalion of Bastion-P. This is a bit murky, I can’t quite tell if they have three battalions increasing to four, or two turning into three. Since INF’s demise, different Russian news sources have been reporting various new ranges for Bastion-P, including 600km now. This is unsurprising, as the range of the missile always appeared to be understated, especially depending on flight profile. So you can pick your range for some of these systems, and Iskander-M is being advertised as having anti-ship functionality, just as all the anti-ship missiles can perform ground strike.
The 11th Army Corps independent tank battalion drilling during Zapad-2017.

Conclusion

Back in 2014 Kaliningrad was a creaky military outpost awaiting improvements even though some popularized wargames showed it contributing a host of battalion tactical groups to an invasion of the Baltics. Reorganizing around a division will give the enclave a much stronger ground force, but its more significant implication is the addition of more artillery and MLRS systems, which will allow the units based there to ‘interdict’ with fires and strike systems ground lines of communication without leaving Russian territory. The air defense and anti-ship component has seen significant upgrades, along with sensors, like over the horizon radar, and greater functionality for strike systems (ability to strike targets on land or at sea). It’s going to get a bit dense in Kaliningrad with all those units, and in the event of a military contingency it will be pretty hard to ignore or leave a formation this large along one’s flank, especially now that there is a tank regiment that can conduct maneuver without having to support motor rifle regiments (which have their own dedicated tank battalions.)

Invariably when considering force expansion plans people ask two questions: can they afford it, and do they have the people? The defense budget is quite large, with substantial purchasing power, and not expected to meaningfully decline. Russia’s problem is defense industrial capacity, less the money allocated to procurement/modernization. So yes, they can afford the kit. There is also no shortage of people, even though erroneous reports crop up frequently suggesting there will be some kind of manpower shortage. If anything, availability should increase until 2033, but there is a limit on overall resources, which results in choices between capability, capacity, and readiness. Therefore, the active force is not growing in total size even as larger formations get announced. That is a choice on prioritization. Contract servicemen cost money. Consequently, we are seeing a decrement to overall readiness as the price of a larger force structure with better capability. So, this shift to divisions ultimately yields a partial mobilization structure, and it will prove to be the case in Kaliningrad as well.

P.S. FOI has a new report out on the Baltic Fleet by Jonas Kjellén that folks should check out.