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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ready for the Worst Case

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Last week U.S. government officials leaked information to the press that Russia had secretly moved tactical nuclear weapons to the Kaliningrad region, a small patch of Russian territory sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania on the shores of the Baltic. Moscow fiercely denied that there were any nuclear weapons in the area, and President Vladimir Putin told journalists that the report is "rubbish."

But somehow the denials did not sound completely convincing. Kaliningrad is the home base of the Russian Baltic Fleet, and all armed forces in the region (including the army and air force) are under overall naval command. Last week’s denials were mostly coming from Russian naval spokesmen. However, since the sinking of the Kursk submarine last August, the navy has issued so many false statements that now it is hard to believe anything it says.

Although the Russian authorities have only themselves to blame that no one believes them, this time they are probably telling the truth: Tactical nukes most likely have not been moved into the Kaliningrad region — yet.

In 1991 Russia and the United States agreed to remove all land-based tactical warheads from Europe. Naval tactical nukes were removed from ships and stockpiled. This nonbinding agreement is still observed, and both sides dismantled most of the removed warheads. The removal of tactical nuclear weapons was more than just an outburst of disarmament enthusiasm caused by the end of the Cold War. Battlefield nukes need a field of immanent battle for deployment, but there was none left in 1991. NATO and Russian troops were separated by distances so great that there was no need to keep nuclear artillery shells.

Air force and naval tactical nukes were not abolished, though, since even then there remained the distinct possibility that they may be needed someday. However, their numbers were considerably reduced.

The same logic still applies today. Poland may have joined NATO, but no forces are yet concentrated on its border with Russia. There is nothing in the 100-kilometer maximum range of battlefield Russian land-based tactical delivery systems in Kaliningrad that would warrant a nuclear strike, only peaceful Polish villages and marshes.

The Russian Baltic Fleet is a collection of rusty surface ships with no modern nuclear attack submarines. Also, the Baltic Fleet does not presently face any significant concentration of enemy power. There is no military reason whatsoever to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad today.

Most likely, U.S. military intelligence observed not the actual movement of weapons per se, but enhanced preparations of facilities and personnel for a possible swift nuclear deployment in the future. For some years now, the Russian military has been preparing to face a limited NATO attack. After the bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999, these preparations have been enhanced and Kaliningrad has been singled out as the most exposed area.

Russian military planners believe that NATO will first impose a sea, land and air blockade of the Kaliningrad region and then attack it with stealth bombers and cruise missiles, forcing Russia to either start a global nuclear war or simply to surrender like Yugoslavia and accept Western (i.e., American) domination.

To prevent such a scenario, a joint command under naval supervision has already been established in Kaliningrad so that all forces can fight as a unified garrison even if besieged. Planners also consider it crucial to have the capability to rush tactical nukes into Kaliningrad before NATO closes in. The Kaliningrad garrison could use them to fight its own local nuclear campaign that may not involve the rest of Russia.

Tactical nuclear weapons could also serve as a regional deterrent. But it is imperative that the warheads be rushed in at the last moment, so that NATO cannot destroy them in a surprise preventive strike. It is also important that the nukes are not deployed beforehand so that the West cannot use them as a pretext to attack Kaliningrad.

In 1991, many believed that the world had changed profoundly. But the nature of military planning never changes: It is always the worst possible scenario that is considered the most probable. Unfortunately, when not restrained by a free press and an informed public (which is the situation in Russia today), the military can often make these terrible scenarios come true.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent, Moscow-based defense analyst.