Russia’s Stripped Its Western Borders to Feed the Fight in Ukraine

But Finland and the Baltic states are still leery of Moscow’s long-term designs.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Russian and Belarusian troops take part in joint military exercises.
Russian and Belarusian troops take part in joint military exercises.
Russian and Belarusian troops take part in joint military exercises close to the Baltic region in Asipovichy, Belarus on Sept. 18, 2017. Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Since Russia first launched its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has been peeling military forces away from its bases in Northern Europe to plug gaps in its forces suffering high losses and battlefield setbacks against Ukrainian troops.

Of an original estimated 30,000 Russian troops that once faced the Baltic countries and southern Finland, as many as 80 percent of them have been diverted to Ukraine, according to three senior European defense officials in the region, leaving Russia with only a skeleton crew in what was once its densest concentration of military force facing NATO territory.

“The drawdown we’ve seen from this region in the past seven months is very significant,” said one senior Nordic defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military matters. “Russia had this ground force posture facing us for decades that is now effectively just gone.”

Since Russia first launched its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has been peeling military forces away from its bases in Northern Europe to plug gaps in its forces suffering high losses and battlefield setbacks against Ukrainian troops.

Of an original estimated 30,000 Russian troops that once faced the Baltic countries and southern Finland, as many as 80 percent of them have been diverted to Ukraine, according to three senior European defense officials in the region, leaving Russia with only a skeleton crew in what was once its densest concentration of military force facing NATO territory.

“The drawdown we’ve seen from this region in the past seven months is very significant,” said one senior Nordic defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military matters. “Russia had this ground force posture facing us for decades that is now effectively just gone.”

The official stressed that Russia’s air power in the region hadn’t changed and that Russia’s Northern Fleet—the crown jewel of its naval power, which is based in the Kola Peninsula—has remained relatively untouched. But Russia is moving other high-end military hardware, including antiaircraft systems and missiles, away from the region to Ukraine alongside its troops. Russia appeared to remove some S-300 antiaircraft systems from a protective ring around St. Petersburg, one of Russia’s largest cities that is near Finland’s border, according to satellite imagery obtained by Finnish media outlet Yle this month. One missile basing area in the region, manned by Russia’s 500th Antiaircraft Missile Regiment, appeared to be abandoned entirely, according to the satellite imagery.

“The reasons are twofold and pretty simple,” Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas told Foreign Policy. “These forces were used to generate sufficient combat power for the initial invasion in February. As Russian forces were sustaining heavy losses in theater, they had to be replaced [and] restored during the fight.”

The new estimates on the changing ground forces shed light on how the invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s steep battlefield losses are altering the military map in Europe well beyond Ukraine’s borders. Now, defense officials across the Nordic-Baltic region are questioning how, and when, Russia could ever reconstitute its military forces along NATO’s northeastern flank, particularly as Finland and Sweden stand poised to join NATO. Slovakia on Tuesday became the 28th NATO member to ratify Finland and Sweden’s NATO accession, leaving Turkey and Hungary as the final two countries in the bloc to approve the next round of NATO expansion.

Current and former U.S. and European defense officials who spoke to Foreign Policy stressed that Russia remains a long-term threat to the region, particularly to the small Baltic states, and that they expect Moscow to reconstitute its military strength in the Russian Western military district in the long run irrespective of how the war in Ukraine goes.

“They threw almost everything they had at Ukraine,” said Jonatan Vseviov, secretary-general of the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “But that is a very narrow way of analyzing threats. The immediate direct military threat [to the Baltic region] is obviously low at the moment because there are no professional troops at our borders. But that is not to say that Russia is not dangerous.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin last week announced a partial military mobilization of some 300,000 conscripts and issued veiled threats about using his country’s nuclear weapons should the West continue to send military aid to Ukraine. Many defense analysts in the West said Putin is likely posturing, but they agree the warnings underscore that Moscow remains a threat to NATO countries despite its costly military setbacks in Ukraine.

“Russia is extremely dangerous, and the long-term danger of Russia will depend on the outcome of this war,” he added. “If it becomes the case that they get at least partially something they were after in Ukraine, then we predict extremely difficult times for all of us in Europe.”

A significant number of the Russian forces pulled away from the region are in Russia’s 6th Army, which until recently had been responsible for fighting in the Kremlin-occupied Kharkiv Oblast that has been overrun by a lightning Ukrainian counteroffensive in the last month. The 6th Army is typically tasked with defending Russia’s border along with the Baltic States and Finland.

“The redeployment of ground forces has been necessary because there is a desperate shortage of trained soldiers,” wrote Harri Ohra-aho, an intelligence advisor to the Finnish defense ministry and the former uniformed chief of defense intelligence, in an email. “It has nothing to do with the NATO threat (which hasnt existed except in the rhetoric of the Russian leadership).”

Anusauskas, the Lithuanian defense minister, said a number of Russian units from the Kaliningrad Oblast, the small Russian exclave between Lithuania and Poland, have also deployed to Ukraine. Before the war in Ukraine, Russia had around 12,000 ground and airborne troops in Kaliningrad and 18,000 ground and airborne troops, along with hundreds of tanks and other heavy military vehicles, in western Russia near the Baltic and Finnish borders, according to a publicly released assessment from the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service.

Two European defense officials estimated there could be as few as 6,000 of the original 30,000 Russian ground forces left in Kaliningrad and near the Baltic region. Although that number could change if Russia brings new conscripts into the fold to backfill its forces being ground down in Ukraine, those conscripts are likely to be severely undertrained and poorly equipped.

“Today, the Russian threat to the Baltics is not what it was a year ago just because of how severely degraded the Russian forces are,” said Jim Townsend, an expert at the Center for a New American Security think tank and former senior U.S. Defense Department official. “But if you’re a small Baltic country, you can never let down your guard just because Russia is not performing well today.”

The U.S. Defense Department declined to say whether it had seen Russian units leaving Northern Europe. But Pentagon officials say the recently declared mobilization of Russian conscripts is another sign that the Kremlin’s war efforts are flailing in the face of stiff and effective Ukrainian resistance backed by Western armaments.

“Russia’s troop mobilization is another sign that Russia is struggling to salvage its illegal occupation of Ukraine,” wrote Pentagon spokesperson Robert Ditchey in an email. “Our focus continues to remain on supporting Ukraine with security assistance as they defend their country.”

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has sent $15.2 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since his presidency began in January 2021, and it announced a new $1.1 billion package of military aid on Wednesday. Separately, Congress unveiled a plan to send an additional $12.3 billion of military and economic aid to Ukraine as part of an interim government funding bill expected to pass this week.

Russia’s grave troop shortages, which have forced Putin to declare a snap partial mobilization of Russian military reservists that appears to have stretched deep into Russian society, also forced the Kremlin to cobble together atypical units for ground combat in Ukraine. Several defense officials from the Baltic countries said Russia’s Baltic Fleet has sent its personnel into Ukraine as ground combat units because they are losing infantry with inordinately high casualty rates. Those officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military matters.

If and when Russia reconstitutes its forces along the Nordic-Baltic borders, it will face a new map of Europe, with Finland and Sweden both expected to join the alliance in the coming months. “With [Finland and Sweden in NATO], we have acquired a strategic depth,” said Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks. “We can turn the Baltic Sea into a ‘NATO lake,’ and the possibility of any Russian attack from the sea, from the West, is no longer a risk. Our backyard is much safer with Finland and Sweden as allies.”

Anusauskas agreed, saying the addition of Finland and Sweden to the NATO alliance is “changing the whole geometry of the area of operations for both NATO and Russia.” He added: “It is a huge headache for Russia.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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