To detangle the intricate web that is the Kaliningrad question, it would be useful to look individually at the most relevant actors based on their interests and capabilities. The Russian Federation is an obvious choice as a sovereign of the Kaliningrad Oblast and as one of the decisive military Great Powers in north-eastern Europe. The United States must be taken into account as well. Even though recent development shifted a locus of their attention to the Pacific and the Middle East, their position as the Superpower and their relations with their eastern allies qualifies them as well. Although Poland does not possess capabilities comparable to Russia or the United States, and Lithuania even less so, the fact that they both share borders with Kaliningrad Oblast, and that their foreign and security policy is significantly affected by its vicinity, makes them also targets of the analysis.
The Russian Federation
It is necessary to view Russian actions in Kaliningrad Oblast in the context of Kremlin’s wider foreign policy. In contrast to Yeltsin’s more open approach to Western powers, Putin’s main goal has been to re-establish Russia as one of the major world powers, independent of the West, in which he has been so far quite successful. The economic stabilization that took place during Putin’s rule and the military reforms that followed made Russia once again capable of acting as a major player in several world regions, often able to challenge the United States [9, pp. 3-27]. The combination of military, economic and political means applied in the Middle East served to establish a Russian foothold in this vital region, while Russian actions in Ukraine, which are more relevant to the examined case, are a way of maintaining Moscow’s influence over the former Soviet republics.
Putin’s policy can be seen in terms of traditional realist discourse, in which a Great Power seeks to establish a buffer zone between it and its rival, which, in this case, are namely the United States, but also Western European countries and their international organizations, like the European Union and NATO, which are described by Russia simply as means for exerting influence by their most powerful members. In fact, NATO enlargement in eastern direction has been repeatedly described as a direct threat to Russia [9, p. 2].
Kaliningrad Oblast is an important card in Russia’s “big game”, namely because of its military importance. It serves as a platform for strategic deterrence and coercion, but also as a forward position for intelligence data collection and it is an only Russian ice-free port in the Baltic Sea. In the case of a larger conflict, the missile, naval and air forces located here could cripple NATO’s eastern infrastructure. Furthermore, the Baltic Sea is an important trade route for Russian naval trade and under it lies vital pipelines for oil and natural gas [25, p. 56]. By the 2015 estimates, there is around 25 000 Russian military personnel in the region, which makes it more than militaries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia combined [21, p. 7].
Part of Moscow’s strategy is also securitization of ethnocultural issues. As there was some renewed interest of certain German cultural groups in Kaliningrad Oblast and a small German minority appeared, a government-led campaign was launched against local Germans, accusing them of being a fifth column. A cultural-education center in Kaliningrad, German-Russian House, was closed in 2017 as a “foreign agent” and calling the city “Konigsberg” may since that year result in criminal charges [21, p. 4].
The dangerous economic situation of Kaliningrad as a region surrounded by unfriendly neighbors and thus economically mostly dependent on Russia has also been taken into an account by Kremlin. Although it has been expected that Special Economic Zone will be abolished, Putin instead chose to prolong it and to add further economic privileges to inhabitants of Kaliningrad Oblast. There have been major economic fluctuations, namely after the 2008 financial crisis and 2014-2016 Russian economic crisis, current trend, however, suggests stabilization and even modest economic rise [25, pp. 52-53]. This development, along with the nationalistic and anti-German mobilization of the Russian inhabitants, resulted in strong support of Kaliningrad population for current Moscow government [21, p. 5]. The sense of isolation and fear that stems from Oblast’s location and the dependence on the stronger, but distant „Motherland“ likely serve as a useful catalyst for the mobilization of the population.
The United States
The post-Cold War development presented the United States with a singular opportunity to spread its influence over the rubbles of the Iron Curtain, while the governments that came to power after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe were more than willing to form a close relationship with now the World’s single Superpower. Both through bilateral treaties and through the spread of NATO, the US gained allies – and interests – in the Baltic Sea region. Since the Polish ascension in 1999 and Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian ascension in 2004, President Bush voiced unwavering support for these countries.
The foreign policy of President Donald Trump, however, made many of NATO members uneasy, especially the smaller and weaker members, whose international security is strongly tied to the American support. Trump shocked his European allies when he proclaimed that NATO is „obsolete“ and the US may be forced to „let it go.“ In particular, he criticized the unwillingness of its members to keep up with 2% of GDP limit on defense, although the trend, particularly in case of Poland and Baltics, is the growth of defense spending . Last year, the US President went even further and proclaimed that the threshold should be 4%. At the same time, however, he praised those members who keep the 2% threshold, two of them being from the Baltic region – Poland and Estonia .
There are also worries about Trump’s relationship with Russia. His initial plans to warm up Russo-American relationship in order not to push Moscow closer to Beijing did find some positive response with realists, but the fact that Trump was investigated for receiving support from Putin during his election campaign would make any friendly steps towards Moscow seem suspicious. Despite his initially friendly rhetoric, in his actions, Trump took a more confrontational stance against Russia and its allies in the Middle East. US military presence in the Baltic region has also not wavered and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised to strengthen the US involvement in Eastern Europe .
The fears that Trump will destabilize Western security systems and will leave his eastern allies to Russia look, so far, unfounded, as this feared discourse can be seen mostly in US President’s rhetoric, but not in actions. The criticism of NATO is likely focused more on its more wealthy members like Germany, who spend considerably less on defense than the US . Just like in Russia’s case, we can notice a sharp realist turn in American foreign policy. Trump views Kaliningrad situation through the perspective of competition with Russia, where international organizations are not ends, but only means, and according to him, not even very useful ones. At the same time, he realizes that without American military support, Poland and Baltic states (and that means also American interests) would be too endangered by Russia and Washington needs to balance out their power in the region.
Still, though in absolute power comparison the US has a clear advantage over Russia, Washington is much more heavily involved in other world regions and Trump’s foreign policy has one clear main adversary – China. This means that the Baltic region is certainly not on the top of the list of American interests. Russia, on the other hand, is more likely to consider Kaliningrad a life interest, since it is its sovereign territory. It is also very probable that should Putin decide to use Kaliningrad as a beachhead for a military invasion, he would be able to take and for some time hold all Baltic countries and maybe even part of Poland before the US and their allies would be able to prepare a counterattack. Russia could then warn the US against further escalation by reminding Kremlin’s nuclear capacity, after which Washington policy-makers would be faced with the old-new question: “Are we willing to trade Vilnius, Riga or Tallinn for Washington or New York?”
Poland and Lithuania
Unlike other European governments lead by right-wing populist parties, Warsaw under Law and Justice party adopted a firm anti-Russian stance . The relationship of both countries is strained not only because of shared history marked by violence and subjugation but also due to more recent events. 2010 Smolensk catastrophe, which cost lives of several highest-ranking officials in Polish politics and military, including President Lech Kaczyński, soured the relationship even further, as some members in the Polish government claimed that Russia was responsible for the crash .
In Polish Foreign Policy Strategy, Poland clearly points out Russia as a threat to its security and peace in north-eastern Europe, and though it criticizes Western powers for showing weakness and indecisiveness during the Ukrainian and Crimean crisis, it also says that NATO, USA, and EU are vital supports for Polish international security [18, pp. 2-4]. It also warns about the rising tension in Eastern Europe following the Russian interventions in Ukraine and Crimea and specifically names the Russian military threat at Polish borders [18, pp. 4-6].
As a response to Russian military buildup, Polish Military plans to form a fourth division in addition to its three standing ones, which will be responsible for the security of Polish north-eastern borders. Efforts to gain air defense capabilities from Western allies have also increased and Warsaw even offered financial compensation to the US for the deployment of American armored division in Poland, right at Kaliningrad borders . It is worth noting that two aforementioned NATO military exercises, ANAKONDA 2016 and ANAKONDA 2018, were conducted under Polish military leadership.
It is quite clear that Poland takes Kaliningrad as a military threat very seriously. It restructures its forces in a way in which it is more capable of facing potential attack from Kaliningrad, raises its military spending and even offers to pay a different country to position its troops in its own territory, a move which, in a different context, would be more than controversial. The burden of Russo-Polish history, however, creates a specific context for Warsaw policy-makers, in which they have little choice but to treat Russian exclave as a real military threat and to do what they can to secure Western military support. However, current Polish government’s Eurosceptic position, which threatens to further destabilize the European Union, may be beneficial to Putin in long run, as he does not wish for Europe to act as a unified rival to Moscow. Still, there is a little room for doubt where Poland would stand should tensions in the region escalate.
As a considerably smaller country and without direct land access, except for a short Suwalki gap, to its more powerful allies, Lithuania is even more threatened by Russian military presence in Kaliningrad. In fact, the current Lithuanian National Security Strategy 2017 names Russian military presence in Kaliningrad Oblast as the “main threat for the security of the Republic of Lithuania” [19, p. 4]. Though Poland is still a relevant military regional actor , Lithuania possesses virtually no offensive air capabilities or tanks. However, relatively to the population size, Lithuania’s citizenry is much more militarized than Poland, as Lithuanian military is a quarter of Polish military’s size, while Poland has roughly ten times bigger population .
Apart from that, the Russian threat to Lithuania stems from another issue. Before the Lithuanian ascension to EU, a treaty between Vilnius and Moscow allowed transit of Russian citizens to Kaliningrad through Lithuanian territory using a “facilitated transit documents,” which are more easily acquired than visas. After 2014, concerns were raised that a little restricted travel could allow transport of Russian „little green men“ into Lithuania . To mitigate the risks, Lithuanian security forces put several measures in place, such as checkpoints near Belarusian borders, GPS monitoring and helicopter escorts for trains traveling to Kaliningrad from Russia and Belarus . To summarize, we can see even more prevalent fear of Russian invasion from Kaliningrad than in Poland, given Lithuania’s noticeably more disadvantageous position. In a long term, Lithuania can do little more but to hope for West to act as a deterrence against Russia’s ambitions, as it can do little on its own both against Russian conventional and nuclear forces.
Though the 1990s and early 2000s gave hopes to liberals as to what the role of Kaliningrad is going to be, the realist turn in the international relations during the past decade turned the Oblast into a vital military tool in Russia power games. Kremlin has a wide array of conventional and nuclear capabilities, which it could potentially use against NATO members at its doorstep. At the same time, through a combination of fear incitement and economic support, Moscow has gained firm support among predominantly Russian population in Kaliningrad. If the present trend continues, we can suspect further rising of tensions in the region surrounding Kaliningrad Oblast, a poker game in which Moscow holds the best cards.
Whether there will be a more destructive escalation to these tensions or peaceful de-escalation instead, will depend on the future development of the US-Russia relationship. Should Moscow decide to test Washington’s limits, the United States needs to show Russia that it is willing to take a risk of a much wider conflict, if it wants to keep its position in the Baltic region. That means that Moscow needs to be aware that should it employ Kaliningrad’s military capacities aggressively, the short-term gain in the Baltics and Poland would be meaningless in comparison to results of an American military response, and that the US will, in fact, be willing to risk Washington and New York for Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn.
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