Don’t Believe the Russian Hype
Moscow’s missile capabilities in the Baltic Sea region are not nearly as dangerous as they seem.
Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia’s potential to seize territory in its near abroad and prevent NATO from reinforcing the victim of the aggression has become a source of alarm. If there is ever such a land-grab operation against one of the Baltic States, it is feared, Russia could use its military might and geographic position to create a “no-go zone” and keep NATO reinforcements from reaching the annexed territory in time by cordoning off the theater of operations. This could be done using a combination of long-range anti-air, anti-ship, and anti-land missile systems, known in military jargon as an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability. After Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2014, Western defense officials began to worry about their ability to operate within the reach of Russia’s missile systems, often represented as bubbles—drawn as large circles on a map—indicating areas out of bounds.
The possible implications of Russian A2/AD capabilities were felt most acutely in the Baltic Sea region, where NATO reinforcements to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania could be stopped by missiles from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad sandwiched between northern Poland and Lithuania. Similarly, Russia’s presence there could stymie the use of Western air power in the region. In Sweden, there are fears that Russia, in a crisis or war, might grab the island of Gotland—located about 120 miles from Stockholm and 220 miles north of Kaliningrad—and deploy missile systems there to seal off access to the Baltic States. Until 2016, the island was de facto demilitarized, whereas today there is a mechanized company of some 150 Swedish soldiers protecting the island.
Despite these dangers, the threat emanating from Russia’s long-range missiles has been overblown since the war in Ukraine, which was a rude awakening to many in the West. All too often, Russia’s claims have been accepted at face value without factoring in its interest to present itself as a great power, to boost arms exports, and to carve out political influence on the cheap. After all, exaggerating the capabilities of its A2/AD systems is enough to attain a deterrent effect if Western decision-makers believe these claims to be true.
The most notable example of such fearmongering is the often-cited claim that the Russian S-400 air defense system can create no-go zones reaching 400 kilometers (250 miles) from Kaliningrad. If true—or just believed to be true—this could have major consequences. If NATO is seen as unable to protect its Baltic members from Russian aggression, this puts its fundamental collective defense commitment into question. Thus, Russia has a strategic interest in making its missile capabilities seem more threatening than they are.
Drawing on expertise at the Swedish Defense Research Agency, we have published a report—“Bursting the Bubble”—that takes a closer look at Russia’s A2/AD capabilities in the Baltic Sea Region. We find that Russia’s long-range missile systems, though capable, fall notably short of the Kremlin’s maximalist claims. The technological limitations of the Russian missile systems, vulnerabilities apparent from their field operations in Syria, and the range of possible countermeasures available to NATO, suggest that Russia’s no-go “bubbles” are smaller than claimed, more penetrable, and arguably also burstable.
Claims of far-reaching Russian A2/AD capabilities are mainly based on three systems: the S-400, the Bastion anti-ship system, and the Iskander ballistic missile. But early analyses have often equated maximum range with effective range, underestimated the inherent problems of hitting moving targets at large distances, and ignored a wide range of possible countermeasures. Together, this has led to the widespread overestimation Russia’s missile capabilities.
The S-400 system is often said to have a 250-mile range and to be capable of intercepting a wide range of targets, from transport aircraft to fighter jets, using a set of different missiles. However, the longest-range missile in the system, the 40N6, is not yet operational and has been plagued by problems in development and testing. Currently, the S-400 system is mainly a threat to large high-value aircraft such as Airborne Warning and Control System planes at medium to high altitudes (between 10,000 and 30,000 feet), at a range of 120 to 150 miles. In contrast, the effective range against agile fighter jets and cruise missiles operating at low altitudes can be as little as 12 to 22 miles. Moreover, while an S-400 battery can use several search radars to find targets, it is dependent on a single engagement radar to track targets and to guide the missiles in flight. This makes the battery vulnerable to attacks targeting the engagement radar and to attacks by swarms of cruise missiles.
The Bastion-P anti-ship missile system can constitute a threat to targets such as aircraft carriers out to a 180-mile range. But because the Earth is round, conventional ground-based radars cannot see ships more than approximately 25 miles away. Hence, airborne or forward-placed radars are needed to provide and update targeting data at extended ranges. To date, Russia has not demonstrated this capability.
The Iskander-M ballistic missile is clearly a danger to fixed ground targets within a 300-mile range. But the number of known missiles deployed in Kaliningrad is still small, just 48 in total, when compared to the number of potential targets, especially when the need to hold some of these nuclear-capable missiles back for possible nuclear use is taken into account. While still a significant threat to land targets, this pales in comparison to the existing threat from Russia’s longer-range air-launched and sea-based cruise missiles, and the emerging new threat from land-based cruise missiles as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty expires.
Russian A2/AD capabilities should not be underestimated, particularly as these systems are augmented by additional capabilities such as medium- and close-range air defenses, additional search radars and sensors, long-range rocket artillery, aircraft, ships, command bunkers, and communication links in Kaliningrad. That said, previous analysis has often overlooked the wide-ranging menu of possible countermeasures available to NATO.
First, the alliance could take indirect countermeasures if it pre-positioned more forces in the Baltic States in peacetime or chose less vulnerable routes of transportation by land from Norway into Sweden or through Gothenburg harbor and then onward to the Baltics by air or sea, avoiding the most dangerous area near the Kaliningrad exclave. It could also discourage Russia from using its missiles in Kaliningrad through deterrence—that is, by holding the exclave itself at risk by maintaining the capability to retaliate against it from the air or from land.
Moreover, NATO could take direct countermeasures of a passive or active kind. Passive measures could include dispersing or camouflaging valuable mobile assets such as aircraft, ships, and field headquarters, or moving them around in a manner that complicates an adversary’s targeting. Active countermeasures might include the use of decoys, electronic jamming, hacking, and head-on strikes against the missile, the firing unit, its radar, or other critical support vehicles.
While admittedly an imperfect comparison, lessons from recent air operations in Syria also suggest that even late-model Russian-manufactured air defense systems aren’t particularly effective and are vulnerable to a range of countermeasures. Throughout the war in Syria, the Israeli Air Force has been operating in Syrian airspace with near impunity, conducting numerous air raids using unstealthy F-16 and F-15 aircraft. In the process, it has only lost one aircraft while reportedly taking out half of the Syrian air defense assets.
Israel’s Air Force has furthermore taken out at least two of the most modern Russian-made Pantsir short-range air defense units, and during another operation Syrian air defenses mistakenly shot down a Russian electronic surveillance aircraft. Moreover, Syria’s Russian-manufactured air defenses with Russian-trained crews have hardly made a dent in U.S., French, and British strikes against Syrian targets. Taken together, the track record of Russian-manufactured air defense systems in Syria raises questions about their actual performance in combat.
This analysis has four security policy implications. First and foremost, Russia’s A2/AD capabilities are less formidable than is frequently claimed, and an extensive set of countermeasures is readily available. This means that the prospects for reinforcing the Baltic States in a crisis are better than what is often assumed.
Second, to keep it this way, NATO and its allies will need to undertake concerted political and military efforts, including the relearning of skills such as camouflage and dispersal of troops or materiel, emission control (the modern equivalent of radio silence), and suppression of enemy air defenses. Successful anti-A2/AD operations also to some extent require pre-positioning of equipment, target acquisition, and multinational operations planning and exercises. Since many of the required assets are currently disproportionately American, burden-sharing could call for European allies to build greater capabilities, such as radar-homing missiles and long-range precision-guided munitions.
Third, further down the line, continuous development of NATO capabilities will be necessary, including improved anti-ship missiles, long-range anti-air missiles, increased capacity for electronic warfare, and buying or mimicking systems and practices successfully used by Israel in Syria. This is warranted, given that further Russian advances can be expected. This includes the 40N6 missile becoming operational and eventually acquiring the capability to use external radars to target ships and, later, aircraft, even though this is not a near-term prospect.
Finally, it is vital that nonspecialist security professionals critically examine Russian A2/AD capabilities. Exposed to a flurry of announcements in recent years about new Russian Wunderwaffen, no one should accept Russia’s stated capabilities at face value at a time when Moscow has every incentive to exaggerate, both to gain political influence and boost export sales.
Robert Dalsjo is the deputy research director at the Department of Strategy and Policy at the Swedish Defense Research Agency.
Michael Jonsson is the head of the Program for Defense Policy Studies at the Swedish Defense Research Agency.