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Kremlin Attempts to Erase Decades of Russia’s Military Expansion in Europe


Missiles are fired by a Russian navy battleship during a rehearsal of the Russian Navy Day parade in Sevastopol, Crimea, Ukraine. Friday, July 24, 2015. (AP Photo/Alexander Polegenko)
Dmitry Peskov

Dmitry Peskov

Kremlin spokesman

“…the Russian military infrastructure has never moved toward Western Europe...”

False

On July 11, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov criticized Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda’s proposal to establish permanent military NATO bases near the Russian border, claiming that Russia never moved its military infrastructure westward:

“It seems that the Europeans do not understand this mistake, here, it is very important to be aware that the Russian military infrastructure has never moved toward Western Europe, there has always been a movement in the opposite direction.”

That is false.

Over the last two decades, Russia has built dozens of new military bases and reactivated Soviet army installations along its borders with Western Europe. In 2014, Russia began a clandestine military operation in eastern Ukraine and in 2022 launched a neocolonial war against Ukraine, attempting to expand Moscow’s military westward. In 2023, Russia began deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, which borders three NATO countries — Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

Below is a brief catalog of Russian military progress in Europe.

Kaliningrad region, Russia

Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave located 370 kilometers away from the rest of the country, is Russia’s westernmost region.

Since 2016, Russia has significantly militarized Kaliningrad, transferring troops and weapons and forming the 11th Army Corps.

According to CNA, a U.S. government-funded research and analysis organization based in Virginia, from the 1990s through early 2016, the 11th Army Corps’ “composite ground force units had a nominal strength of 12,000 to 18,000 troops, including T-72 tanks, BTK armored personnel carriers, mobile rocket launchers, and artillery.”

Kaliningrad’s high degree of militarization makes it possible for the Kremlin, if Kaliningrad is the target of a Western sanctions blockade, to seize part of Poland’s Suwalki Corridor, a strip of land less than 80 kilometers long that separates Belarus from Kaliningrad.

Ukraine

After Russia illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine in February 2014, the Russian Defense Ministry seized Ukrainian military bases on the peninsula, reactivated old Soviet bases and built new ones.

Object-100 Utes is one of the restored Soviet military bases in Crimea. This complex of coastal missile positions is located in the mountains near Sevastopol. In 2017, cruise missiles were launched from this base during military training exercises.

Russia has also reestablished a network of Soviet radar stations in Crimea's mountains, from which its armed forces can monitor the Black Sea, including the movement of Romanian, Bulgarian and Turkish ships.

NATO countries perceived this westward movement of Russian military infrastructure as an open threat.

In September 2016, then British Defense Minister Michael Fallon said that London was concerned about the Russian military buildup in Crimea and the militarization “of the Black Sea region generally,” adding that Bulgaria and Romania felt “very threatened."

Russia has expanded the capabilities of its air force in Crimea by turning the formerly civilian Belbek airport into a military base. Since launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Moscow has been using air bases in Crimea to bomb Ukrainian cities.

By November 2021, Russia had built ten military bases in Ukraine's partially occupied Lugansk and Donetsk regions. Russia’s military deployed tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery, self-propelled anti-aircraft guns and other weaponry to those bases and used that weaponry in its February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

By early July 2022, Russia had established temporary and permanent military bases in two other partially occupied Ukrainian regions — Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.

Belarus

Russia’s armed forces in Belarus, which borders three NATO countries — Poland, Lithuania and Latvia — are currently at their highest level since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia has two military bases in Belarus (near the cities of Baranovichi and Vileyka).

The Russian military presence in Belarus allowed Moscow to supply the Lukashenko regime with weapons and equipment to suppress the Belarusian protests of 2020-2021.

In February 2022, Russian troops invaded Ukraine’s Kyiv and Chernihiv regions from Belarus. According to the European Parliament, Belarus also “provides its territory for Russian missile strikes and unmanned aerial vehicle attacks against Ukraine.”

As noted above, since June, Moscow has begun deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.

Moldova

In Moldova, Moscow stationed the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Transnistria, officially the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), a breakaway region not recognized by U.N. member states. The operational group, created in 1995, was based on the Russian armed forces' 14th Army, which had been part of the Soviet Union's armed forces.

At the 1999 Istanbul Summit of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Russia made a commitment “to complete withdrawal of the Russian forces from the territory of Moldova by the end of 2002.”

Russia failed to keep its promise, and the Moldovan authorities repeatedly called for a withdrawal of Russian troops and their replacement by international civilian observers.

In June 2018, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on Russia to withdraw its troops from Moldova's Transnistrian region.

The number of Russian troops in Transnistria in 2015 was estimated at 1,000-1,500. Since then, the number of Russian troops illegally present there has more than doubled. Ukraine estimated in June 2020 that some 3,500 Russian soldiers were stationed in Transnistria.

Serbia

In 2011, Moscow opened a Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in the southern Serbian city of Nis, which a 2020 Institute of New Europe report identified as a Russian military base:

“Russian troops, including engineering troops, helicopters and fighters, are stationed there. …The Center operates within humanitarian and ecological issues. However, it plays a double role and is also used by the Russian security services.”

The Russian and Serbian armies regularly conduct joint military exercises in Serbia. In 2019, Russia's Defense Ministry announced plans to build a Russian air defense base in Serbia.

In August 2022, Russia's Ambassador to Belgrade Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko openly referred to the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center as a Russian military base.

Georgia

After the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, the Russian military opened the 7th Military Base in Gudauta, located in Georgia’s occupied Abkhazia region. According to the InformNaplam website, this Russian military base, located in a country bordering Turkey, a NATO member, hosts “4 mechanized infantry battalions, a tank battalion, two artillery battalions, a rocket artillery battalion, a sniper company, a drone company, a reconnaissance battalion, as well as a number of other separate combat and logistics units.”

In 2010, Vladimir Komoyedov, the former commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, told the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta that the Federal Security Service, Russia’s successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB, had been given control over Abkhazia’s Sukhumi and Ochamchira ports, and that those ports had become an additional base for Black Sea Fleet ships:

“From now on, the Black Sea Fleet will be more dispersed and therefore less vulnerable. Plus, the task of protecting the sovereignty of Abkhazia from the sea is being solved.”

On February 1, 2009, the Russian military established the 4th Guards Military Base in South Ossetia, another Russian-occupied region of Georgia. That base, which hosts as many as 5,000 Russian military service members, is mainly located in the city of Tskhinvali, but separate units are spread across South Ossetia.

In 2022, units from the Russian military bases in Georgia took part in Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

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