Russia Continues to Leave Strategic Borders With NATO Open With Minimal Manpower

The Russian Federation, under longtime autocrat Vladimir Putin, lives in a state of ultra-nationalism and renewed imperialist ambitions—putting the country on a path of conflict with NATO. However, during the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moscow is acting in the complete opposite of the paranoia the Kremlin displays to citizens.

Border regions with Russian military garrisons are depleted of manpower, particularly near the contact lines with NATO members. While Putin and the ruling elite tell the world, Russian citizens, and foreign followers that NATO is a “threat,” Moscow continues to display that the defensive alliance was never indeed a threat to Russia.

Using NATO “Encroachment” as One of the Pretexts to Invade Ukraine

A major case that Putin uses to justify the invasion of Ukraine is that NATO “broke treaties” over membership expansion. The now-dead last Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, would state that no such deal or promise occurred.

During the nearly two-year all-out war in Ukraine, Russia has made illegitimate annexations in Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaphorizhzhia, and Kherson. It continues to threaten potentially pushing toward Odesa to link up with the unrecognized state of Transnistria.

Russia’s imperialistic ambitions, called ‘Novorossiya,’ put the country on a collision course with NATO more so than the latter, as the Kremlin’s expansion plans towards Romania and the Suwalki Gap between Poland and Finland would put Moscow in direct conflict with the military alliance.

Withdrawing Manpower from the Arctic Border with Finland

During World War Two, the Soviet Union, the predecessor to the Russian Federation, fought two major wars with Finland after the former attempted to annex the Nordic state into the USSR.

The Winter War and Continuation War saw the Red Army suffer nearly a million casualties in both wars despite vastly outnumbering Finland. In the Cold War, Helsinki remained neutral regarding the Warsaw Pact and NATO, but Moscow’s concerns remained.

For the past several decades, the Russian Defense Ministry placed a sizable military garrison along the Finnish and Norwegian border—up until the full-fledged invasion of Ukraine.

In an interview with the Financial Times in August 2023, Elina Valtonen, the foreign minister of Finland, stated that instead of reinforcing the border garrison based in Alakurtti, Russia instead pulled troops away from the Finnish border—now seen in Ukraine.

FM Valtonen’s claims were further verified earlier in the summer of 2022 when the Russian military withdrew over one hundred tons of equipment and manpower from the 80th Motor Rifle Brigade and redeployed to Ukraine, where they are seen fighting in the South.

The 80th Motor Rifle Brigade, which specializes in arctic warfare as a contingency against Norway and Finland, has suffered heavy casualties—leaving Russia’s Northwestern borders weakened. At the same time, Finland’s military capabilities continue to grow.

Emptying Kaliningrad

In the aftermath of WWII, the majority ethnic German city of Konigsberg was ethnically cleansed under the orders of Soviet tyrant Josef Stalin. Russian settlers and heavy military equipment would be brought to the enclave, which sits between Poland and Lithuania and shares a maritime border with Estonia and Finland.

Russia has turned Konigsberg, now Kaliningrad, into a military fortress. The city serves as the headquarters of Russia’s Baltic Fleet, and in 2018, a state Duma member confirmed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles were transferred to the enclave. Nevertheless, the war in Ukraine has changed the scope of Kaliningrad’s once-feared status in Europe.

The 11th Army Corps, Russia’s main military garrison in Kaliningrad, was redeployed to Ukraine in 2022 as casualties mounted on Moscow’s end. The results of the deployment are catastrophic—the 11th Army Corps suffered significant casualties and has most likely been reconstituted numerous times with untrained conscripts, as many Russian units have since February 2022.

Along with dispatching the 11th Army Corps, the Kremlin redeployed the elite 336th Naval Infantry Brigade to Ukraine. Deployed, the 336th Russian Marines are also suffering heavy casualties.

In Ukraine, the commanding officers of the 336th Naval Infantry Brigade, the chief of staff, and the deputy commander were both killed during the war, with other heavy losses within the Marines.

With long-range rockets being supplied to Ukraine, such as Storm Shadow and Scalp missiles, Russian air defense has been decimated during the war. To supplement gaps in air defenses, Russia redeployed its most coveted S400 air defense system from Kaliningrad to Ukraine’s border—leaving the enclave itself defenseless if a war with NATO were to break out.

Other Fronts Russia Withdrew Valuable Manpower and Equipment

Outside of the once-fortified borders with NATO, Moscow also has strategic bases in Syria and Armenia and occupied parts of Georgia and Japan.

The 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, Armenia, built as a first line of defense against NATO on the Turkish front, has seen its weak, experienced commander, Colonel Kondrashkin Andrey Vladimirovich, and some of his subordinates killed in Ukraine.

In early April 2022, the British Military of Defense announced that Russia redeployed 1200-2000 from the occupied regions of Georgia to Ukraine, where the separatist South Ossetia Battalion has sustained heavy casualties.

Syria, led by the four-decade-long Assad regime, enjoyed palpable support when the Russian military intervened in 2015. Russia’s direct military intervention turned the tide of the Syrian Civil War and effectively saved the Assad regime, but the war in Ukraine has changed the security landscape.

Many combat veterans of Russia’s aerospace forces, paratroopers, and Spetsnaz from Syria have been killed in Ukraine, with the Kremlin redeploying heavy equipment, such as the S300, from the Levantine nation to Ukraine. Israel, which is in a state of war with Syria, has taken advantage of the security gaps since 2022, hitting critical targets in the country.

The Kuril Islands, currently in control of Russia but long considered occupied Japanese territory, constitute a significant asset of the Russian Pacific Fleet. In late August 2023, Russia moved the S300 from the disputed Isles to Ukraine.

Along with heavy equipment redeployment from the East, the elite 155th Naval Infantry Brigade, considered Russia’s best Marines, suffered catastrophic losses in the disastrous Battle of Vulehdar in the winter of 2023. Headquartered in Vladivostok, the Naval Infantry represents Russia’s line of defense in Outer Manchuria, a region long sought by China.

Despite the often fear-mongering rhetoric displayed by Vladimir Putin over enemies closing in, the Kremlin has only shown how little external threats mean to them with their strategic assets deployed depleted of manpower and equipment. Instead, Russia is going all-in on its imperial invasion of Ukraine, banking on even further territorial gains that could put the country into confrontation with an even more enormous power in the future.

[Photo by W0zny, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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