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, Foreign Policy wrote.
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. 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.
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.
Foreign Policy writes that, 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.