Intelligence is worried: there will be no more silence around Lithuania

Kremlin's web
Kremlin's web, Shutterstock

Although Russia has failed to defeat Ukraine quickly, this totalitarian and Soviet-like state is capable of continuing the war in Ukraine for at least 2 more years while at the same time determined to build up its armed forces in a Western direction steadily. This means that the Russian military noose is tightening around Lithuania, the threat to our country remains high, and the reaction time for a response in the event of aggression against us is shortening, Eglė Samoškaitė is writing at the news portal.

This is the picture the Department of State Security and the Second Department of Operational Services painted in their National Security Threat Assessment. The Department of State Security is responsible for intelligence and counter-intelligence in the fields of public political, economic, scientific, technological and information activities, the security of the diplomatic service and other Lithuanian institutions operating abroad, and the protection of state and service secret information. The Second Department of Operational Services deals with military intelligence.

Despite Russia‘s entanglement in Ukraine, conventional military threats to Lithuania come from both Kaliningrad and Belarus. Russia can redeploy the necessary forces to Belarusian territory at any time and has unrestricted access to Belarusian airspace and infrastructure.

The war in Ukraine has hardly weakened Russia’s military capabilities in Kaliningrad, either – the redeployment to the occupied territories in Ukraine has somewhat weakened only the land component but has had no impact on the naval and air elements. Intelligence concludes that the capabilities of the Kaliningrad military grouping are fully sufficient to prevent the NATO alliance from deploying the necessary defence capabilities and to hinder the forces’ actions in the region.

“Today, we cannot reassure ourselves that Russia is losing the war, that it is weak and that its threat has somehow diminished. Ukraine has not yet won the war, just as Russia has not yet lost the war. The decision to go to war was a strategic mistake on Russia’s part, and it will, of course, be very costly for Moscow, but Russia has occupied and currently controls about a fifth of Ukrainian territory. It is unlikely to lose its resolve to seize more, and Russia has the resources to continue the war for a long time to come,” said Elegijus Paulavičius, Director of the Second Operational Services Department

Russia and Belarus will try to demonstrate their military power against the West in the Zapad military exercises in the second half of 2023, two years ahead of schedule. During the exercise, there is an increased likelihood of various incidents, intentional or unintentional, which Russia would certainly deny and portray itself as the victim of a Western conspiracy. 

Russia is preparing for a long confrontation with the West

According to the intelligence community, all indications are that Russia will remain a source of instability and threats in the region in the medium term, i.e. 3-5 years. The Putin regime can continue the war and retain control of Russian society for at least six months. Even if the failures on the battlefield in Ukraine, further mobilisation of the army or a sudden deterioration in the economic situation were to cause some trouble, the alternative to the Putin regime is likely to be another authoritarian regime. So it is not worth pinning hopes on regime change.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has been going on for over a year but has not forced Russia to change its strategic objectives. It is still aiming for the complete destruction of Ukraine as a state. As a result of the heavy losses suffered in Ukraine, Mr Putin announced last year a mobilisation and ordered an increase in the number of personnel in the Russian armed forces to 2 million from 2023, with the creation of 137 000 new posts.

Plans were then announced to increase the threshold number of military personnel by a further 350 000, to form three new motorised rifle divisions, and to reorganise the seven motorised rifle brigades into divisions – a reinforcement of around three times. These plans should be implemented by 2026 or so. This means that we have about two years or a little more to prepare.

“It is estimated that the changes would increase the number of personnel, weapons and combat equipment within the current Western Military District by between 30 and 50 per cent,” the National Security Threat Assessment reads.

The reforms of the Russian Armed Forces will not impact the war in Ukraine, but they do not bode well for Lithuania. This is likely Russia’s attempt to prepare for a long-term confrontation with the West. And although all this is very expensive, money for military spending is a priority for Russia.

Russia’s military budget for 2023 is around EUR 66 billion, not to mention classified expenditure lines. Intelligence estimates that, although the sanctions against Russia are constraining its economy, this will not prevent it from funding military needs as a priority because the needs of the public are not as important in this country.

According to Kęstutis Budrys, National Security Adviser to the President of Lithuania, Lithuania and its allies have approximately 7 years to prepare. By that time, Russia will probably have rebuilt and reinforced its capabilities in the Western Military District.

Priority will be given to reinforcing Kaliningrad

Kaliningrad is of paramount military importance to Russia as it serves as a bridgehead to maintain Moscow’s power in the Baltic Sea region. Before the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Russia prepared Kaliningrad to operate in an isolated mode by providing additional ferries and ships so that necessary goods could be transported by sea and by bringing the liquefied natural gas storage ship Marshal Vasilevskiy to the area in early February 2022.

Transit through Lithuania is also important for Kaliningrad itself. It is believed that if the Kremlin is not satisfied with the transit conditions in the future, Russia will choose to escalate tensions in the region by seeking concessions.

As mentioned, except for ground forces, the Ukraine war has hardly weakened Russia’s military capabilities in Kaliningrad. In January 2022, three large landing ships with troops and equipment left for the Black Sea, and Su-30SM multi-role fighters were transferred to Crimea, but the rest of the capabilities remained in the region, and the air component was even reinforced as at least four more modern models of Su-30SM2 fighters were then brought to the Kaliningrad area.

However, with the deployment of the 11th Army Corps of the Baltic Fleet from Kaliningrad to Ukraine, some units lost up to 50% of their personnel and up to 30% of their equipment in the fighting, and the holes were filled with volunteers and reservists, which led to a deterioration in the quality of personnel.

However, the intelligence concludes that the Kaliningrad Group’s capabilities are sufficient to fulfil one of its most important functions, i.e. to create a deterrent Anti-Access/Area Denial effect, which means that NATO is being prevented from deploying the necessary capabilities in the region and that the actions of the existing forces are being disrupted.

Intelligence analysts believe that Russia will seek to rebuild and reinforce as soon as possible the reduced land component capabilities in Kaliningrad as a result of the war in Ukraine and will give priority to this. However, the reconstitution and reinforcement of the Kaliningrad battlegroup will depend on the course of the war in Ukraine: if Ukraine does not do well, the reinforcement of the Kaliningrad battlegroup will take longer.

Lukashenko is worried about himself, but it’s not getting easier

Lithuania and the NATO alliance are also threatened by Belarus, which has largely lost its independence. The Russians have unfettered access to Belarusian territory, airspace and infrastructure, and Aliaksandr Lukashenko would undoubtedly give the Kremlin military support.

However, whatever happens around him, Lukashenko has the greatest interest in preserving his power. The interesting day will be 25 April 2024, when Belarus will hold parliamentary and local ‘elections’ and elect members of the All-Belarusian National Assembly, the new supreme legislative body.

If Lukashenko decides to step down from the presidency, he would retain power and influence by becoming President of the All-Belarusian National Assembly.

Repression and intimidation of the population are likely to continue in the run-up to the elections, but it will be important to maintain a stable economic situation and to avoid any other actions that may cause popular discontent, which is why the National Security Threat Assessment suggests that Belarus is unlikely to become directly involved in the war in Ukraine.  

Here’s how Russia doesn’t fall

Despite being sanctioned by the West, Russia still manages to maintain its economy, devote the necessary resources to the war, partially circumvent the sanctions, or benefit from the support of a small group of allies.  

It is already evident that the sanctions adopted by the West have caused difficulties for the Russian economy but have not led to its collapse. Russia depends on the export of energy resources and hopes to redirect them to countries friendly to Moscow while trying to get the goods and technology it needs, which it cannot get from Iran or China, by circumventing the sanctions. This is being helped by the countries of the South Caucasus and Central Asia, which, although they do not support Russian aggression, are taking advantage of the situation for their own economic benefit.

“Russia’s military industry, constrained by sanctions, is in dire need of Western electronic components to rebuild its missile arsenal and manufacture, modernise and repair other weapons and combat equipment. Military companies are also facing shortages of simple parts, which is why Russia has already had to turn to its few remaining foreign partners (Iran, North Korea, China) for arms and ammunition, but not always successfully”, the National Security Threat Assessment reads.

Iran is known to supply Russia with unmanned aerial vehicles, which provide some replacement for depleted stockpiles of precision-guided munitions such as Iskander and Kalibr missiles. China supports Russia in the information and diplomatic spheres and is helping to mitigate the impact of sanctions, for example, by importing energy resources from Russia and integrating Russian financial institutions into the Chinese inter-bank settlement system.

Intelligence says that Chinese companies do not engage in sanctions circumvention schemes because of the risk to their reputation and fear of exposure to Western sanctions, but that small and medium-sized companies act as intermediaries when Russia seeks to acquire restricted and dual-use goods.

In addition, Russian entities have attempted to use companies and individuals in Lithuania as intermediaries in the organisation of sanctions circumvention schemes to supply Western-made equipment to Russia.

“According to intelligence, using companies and individuals in Lithuania, attempts have been made to organise the supply of Western equipment and components to Russia that are also suitable for military use. The most common methods used to evade the control and sanctions regime are: false data and descriptions of goods are provided at customs declaration, thus concealing the true purpose of the goods, and the final recipients are concealed when the goods are transported through a long chain of intermediaries,” the document said.  

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