Since the military annexation of Crimea by Russian forces in 2014, NATO has adopted a far more aggressive posture throughout much of Eastern Europe. Aware that the satellite commands established throughout the region would be insufficient to halt a full-fledged Russian invasion, these NATO elements are instead tasked with early detection and, if need be, serving as the last line of defense to hold off such an incursion until a more formidable NATO force could be assembled.

Because much of the emphasis in the media has been about NATO’s buildup throughout Europe, an issue with perception has begun to arise. People regularly hear about more U.S. troops deploying to Europe and discussions about standing up new command elements with partnered nations, but the threat they’re working to deter is usually summed up in quotations and postulation: the “Russian menace” is often nothing more than a vague what if in the minds of readers getting a legitimate play-by-play of NATO’s actions; leaving many to postulate that the true aggressor is actually NATO itself.

As is so often that case, however, perception isn’t always an accurate reflection of reality. While most NATO nations, in particular, the United States utilize a free press and a great deal of transparency with its citizens, Russia has no such concerns about keeping their populous (or the world’s, for that matter) informed about their military endeavors. This was apparent in the months leading up to last year’s Zapad military exercises, which saw Russia training alongside Belarus to simulate open war on Europe’s eastern flank. Because Russian statements regarding the event were so conspicuously misleading and inaccurate, analysts were left to offer best guesses as to the full size of the Russian force in Belarus and nearby satellite Kaliningrad, and as the drills neared completion, there was again little more to go on that satellite images to determine just how much heavy equipment Russia left in the vicinity of the Baltics — transported in under the guise of participating in the drills and then left as an intentional supplement to forces engaged in a future conflict.

An estimated 40,000 to 50,000 troops participated in the drills last year, far exceeding the 13,000 Russia claimed. | Russian MOD

This level of secrecy allows Russia to play the role of victim in much of their international dialogue when it comes to escalating tensions in the region. A common facet of outgoing communications from the Kremlin has become the idea of an “anti-Russia conspiracy.” Some national governments have been accused of playing a role in this aggressive “plan” to vilify the Russian nation on the world’s stage, including the U.S. for its accusations of election meddling and the U.K. for its allegations of nerve agent attacks within their borders.

Now, as Russia has continued to play up the idea that NATO is bolstering its defenses for no good reason, satellite imagery sourced from two different private sector analysis organizations have confirmed that Russia has not only been fortifying their defenses in the region, but they appear to be upgrading facilities believed to house nuclear weapons within the satellite territory of Kaliningrad.

Kaliningrad, an exclave of Russia’s that sits between Lithuania and Poland, abutting the Baltic Sea offers Russia a unique strategic advantage when coupled with nearby Belarus. A narrow stretch of land less than 70 miles long separates Kaliningrad from Belarus along the Poland/Lithuania border. Utilizing troops and equipment from either side of that stretch (known as the Suwalki Gap) Kaliningrad and Belarus would make it relatively easy to physically separate the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia from the rest of the allies to the South, severing supply lines and access.

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Modified image courtesy of Google Maps

Satellite imaging company Planet Labs recently released photos taken over a three-month span that show increased fortifications within a bunker facility in Baltiysk, Kaliningrad right near the Polish border.

“The visible change between the two images provided appears to be the fortification of buildings, characteristic of explosive storage bunkers, utilizing earthen berms to insulate these structures further. There also appears to be clearings, new structures visible within the forested portion of the installation, as well as a berm and exterior fence surrounding the installation,” Matt Hall, a senior geospatial analyst from analytic firm 3GIMBALS said. “Additionally, there appear to be new or redistributed items — potentially identifiable as shipping containers.”

Their analysis coincides with images released along with a report by the Federation of American Scientists, which shows upgrades to another facility only eight miles away.

“During the past two years, the Russian military has carried out a major renovation of what appears to be an active nuclear weapons storage site in the Kaliningrad region, about 50 kilometers from the Polish border, the report, written by Hans M. Kristensen, reads. “The features of the site suggest it could potentially serve Russian Air Force or Navy dual-capable forces. But it could also be a joint site, potentially servicing nuclear warheads for both Air Force, Navy, Army, air-defense, and coastal defense forces in the region. It is to my knowledge the only nuclear weapons storage site in the Kaliningrad region.”

The fortification, upgrade, and shipments of equipment to these facilities represents a potential shift in Russian strategy in the Kaliningrad region. Russia has long claimed that all of their non-deployed nuclear weapons are held in what they call “central storage,” which suggests they’re housed within Russian borders, however, the upgraded nuclear-capable facilities in Kaliningrad suggest that Russia’s claims are either not true, or will no longer be true in the near future. Of course, there remains the possibility that these upgrades are just a part of a wide-spread modernization effort within the Russian military, but with their shrinking defense budget, it seems unlikely that Russia would make such an investment with no strategic return.

Featured image: Belarusian and Russian troops take part in the Zapad (West) 2017 Russia-Belarus military exercises at the Borisovsky range in Borisov, Belarus, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. | AP Photo/Sergei Grits