Experts skeptical over Russian northwest military district expansion pledge

Russian President Vladmir Putin and Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu.
Russian President Vladmir Putin and Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu. Source: SCANPIX / AFP

Defense and security experts in Estonia have cast doubt on a pledge by Russia's defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, to strengthen Russia's military capabilities in its northwestern region, adjacent to Estonia, with a particular emphasis on airborne troops.

This would, at least in theory, lead to the creation of several new divisions and units.

Research fellow at the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS) Kalev Stoicescu said Thursday that: "Russia has previously threatened to take countermeasures if Finland and Sweden join NATO. It pledged to do so even before the two countries announced that they intended to join the alliance, all the more so after that, so now we will hear in more detail what these measures might be."

Stoicescu made his remarks in the context of Shoigu's recent announcement of plans to create separate Leningrad and Moscow military districts, to replace the current western military district, in response to the NATO accession of Finland and Sweden.

Stoicescu said: "Is this not a message to both domestic audiences and also to the outside world."

At the same time, the goal might be too ambitious, he added.

"Without a doubt, they would very much like to achieve this. I just doubt Russia's ability, both in terms of financial and other resources, that they have the full capability."

"Considering how costly the Ukraine war has already been to Russia - we are talking about hundreds of billions of dollars, or euros, and how much Russia plans to spend on the war next year – as Putin after all has said Russia is not holding together for the victory they really want, but which probably won't achieve."

Meanwhile, Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) press officer Taavi Laasik said that at the moment it is still difficult to say how the creation of the new units announced by Russia in the western part of the country will actually pan out.

Laasik said: "We are not dealing with anything new or extraordinary in itself - similar actions have been taken by Russia in the past, whose purpose is to demonstrated opposition to Finland and Sweden joining NATO, and an attempt to demonstrate [Russian] capabilities to western countries and even more so to the Russian public."

Laasik also cited substantial losses incurred by the Russian armed forces in Ukraine, which have significantly weakened the western forces of that country's military. "In fact, the full-scale war started by Russia in Ukraine has had a significant negative impact on the western military community of Russia and the country's army in general - both in terms of personnel and equipment;" he went on.

What new qualities Russia seeks, over and above the creation of two new airborne divisions, and where the resources and personnel to create this will be taken from, remains unclear, Stoicescu said.

Of current airborne troops, the infamous 76th Guards Air Assault Division, usually based in Pskov, , and other airborne divisions, have suffered significant losses in the war, in addition to actions they have taken part in in Syria and elsewhere.

Rampant corruption cap off the difficulty of transferring what looks good on paper, into reality, Stociescu added.

Twinning major reforms at the same time as a conflict is ongoing, and putting in place additional resources on to the armed forces, does not logically work out, he said.

At the same time, the focus on airborne assault troops makes sense. "This is compatible with Russia's aggressive and escalating stance - the emphasis is not on defense, but on offensive capabilities," Stoicescu continued.

Taavi Laasik also noted that even with all of its setbacks, the Russian military still has the capabilities to threaten the security of this region of Estonia.

"At the same time, only the future will show whether and to what extent they will be able to realize the stated plans," he went on.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu says Moscow will create new military bases in its western regions and form 12 new units and divisions in response to Sweden and Finland's move to join the NATO military alliance

Shoigu, 67, has been defense minister for a decade and is identified as a close confidante of Vladimir Putin.

He has an apparent fetish for dressing up in full military garb and has appointed himself to the rank of general, despite having zero military experience.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mait Ots

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