The presence of the Russian military in Kaliningrad and on the eastern borders of Latvia and Estonia are contributing to the growing fear inside Baltic governments of the possibility of a Russian destabilization operation. Putin will not shy away from his commitment to protect the lives of Russians living beyond Russia’s borders.
Around the time of the Crimean annexation and in its aftermath, Russia began to enhance its military equipment presence in Kaliningrad. Added capabilities were anti-ship weaponry, air defenses, electronic warfare equipment, and about 20,000 military personnel.
On top of that, in Russia’s Western Military District, which includes St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, and border regions around the Baltic states, additional ground units were stationed along with modernized equipment, and the military conducted more intense exercises.
About 120,000 troops and a tank division are stationed in this district. These units, hypothetically, can be used for attacks against the Baltic states through of Belarus. The Baltic states are worried about a disturbance operation on their borders that can be supported militarily by Russia.
An increase of aircraft in the region could be particularly dangerous, as demonstrated by what happened with the Russian Su-24 bomber shot down by Turkey in 2015. An incident like that happening in the Baltics could prove disastrous for relations and the overall state of peace in the region. Putin, at least on the outside, is not intimidated by NATO and is more than willing to push the envelope with the Alliance to get an increase of Russian influence.
Invading a prospective NATO member like Ukraine is a clear example.
Taking into account Putin’s statements on Russians abroad, his desire for regaining influence over the region, and the strategic placement of military forces, the Kremlin can make the Baltic region a delicate one, if it is not already. NATO has responded starkly so far by stationing troops there, but the potential for conflict in the Baltic region between NATO and Russia will still require attention going forward.