Since the Soviet Union’s implosion in December 1991, Kaliningrad, Russia’s westernmost oblast, has been separated from Russia proper. It is surrounded by Lithuania and Poland and today is a fault line of east-west conflict in the East Baltic Sea region. In the mid-1990s, I belonged to a roundtable driven by the question: “Can Kaliningrad serve as a bridge and not a barrier to east-west cooperation?” This was a major concern of its Lithuanian organizers. They could not forget that in August 1994, the last vehicle in a convoy of Russian army trucks leaving Vilnius carried an ominous sign: “We will be back!”
After the Second World War, the Red Army occupied what was once East Prussia. Stalin divided it between the USSR and Poland and named it after a former Soviet president, Mikhail Kalinin. Kaliningrad’s legal status was never finalized, since a treaty ending the Second World War was never signed, although the United States has conceded Russia’s de facto control of the exclave. Most of its citizens—almost one million—are ethnic Russians, as well as Russian speakers from elsewhere in the Soviet Union.
During the Cold War, Soviet air, ground and naval units stationed in Kaliningrad represented a defensive redoubt that protected Northwest Russia from a Western invasion. Conversely it was an offensive platform from which Russia’s massive conventional forces could overrun Western Europe. After the Soviet Union’s demise, Russian military assets atrophied and members of the armed forces lived in squalid conditions; some of their families occupied rusty war ships that were anchored in the port of Baltiysk. The Kremlin feared Western agents would exploit their plight to subvert Moscow’s rule. This prospect was groundless but a number of Americans, Europeans and Russians believed that given Kaliningrad’s unique features, it could undermine relations between Kaliningrad and its neighbors. To prevent this outcome, they formed the roundtable. Later, with a foundation grant, I conducted research and interviews in the countries from which the participants originated, and it resulted in a book, The Kaliningrad Question.
Most officials that I spoke to in Moscow and Kaliningrad were favorably inclined toward foreign financial and technical assistance to the oblast. Its population was poverty-stricken, as the region’s economic growth was halting, corruption was pandemic and crime prevalent. Its infrastructure was ancient and in disrepair; the roads were rutted by deep potholes and most of its water and sewage treatment plants had been constructed during the East Prussian era. Therefore, some in the Russian foreign ministry hoped it would serve as an economic bridge to the EU, while provincial officials hoped access to its neighbors would be an economic windfall for the oblast. Others reasoned it could serve as a pathway for Russian membership in a new revised Euro-Atlantic security system. Dmitri Medvedev, who served as president for four years after Putin vacated the presidency in 2008, was a strong advocate of this relationship.
At the same time, Russian foreign-policy analysts noted that since its residents lived hundreds of miles from Russia proper, and avoided close KGB/FSB oversight, revanchists in Lithuania, Poland and Germany might exploit them. This fear was stoked by a large number of them holding international passports—60 percent. And, should they bolt, it was assumed that Russia would not be their preferred designation. Many resented Moscow’s failure to pass or operationalize economic legislation—like its special economic zone—and later Putin denying them the option to select their own governor. But in truth, there was no mass-based movement that challenged Moscow’s rule.
Upon Putin’s reelection to the presidency in 2012, he lost interest in joint development programs with Western partners, and Kremlin hard-liners were furious that the Western members of the roundtable declared Kaliningrad a “problem.” They deemed this designation a pretext to exploit Russia’s domestic dislocations, and that specter gained traction as Putin reasoned Washington, DC was bent on regime change in Russia just as it had orchestrated “colored” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. George W. Bush’s deploying components of a ballistic-missile defense system in Poland fed Putin’s conspiratorial musings, claiming that Russian and not Iranian missiles were the basis for its construction.
From the Western point of view, Kaliningrad was a “black hole,” a source of economic and social instability common in eastern European societies that were making the daunting transition from command to free-market economies. It fostered criminal, economic and social toxins that flowed beyond the exclave’s borders. The word “flowed” was not just a metaphor. Once, after visiting the former home of Thomas Mann in the Lithuanian Baltic Sea resort of Nida, I spotted a massive pool of garbage despoiling the Curonian Spit that it shares with Kaliningrad—underscoring the cavalier attitude Russian authorities have adopted toward environmental calamities. Similar ecological gifts now can be spotted on the Baltic Sea, drifting ominously toward Scandinavia. They have prompted Sweden to construct water-treatment plants throughout the Kaliningrad Oblast.
Likewise, Western security analysts were disturbed by evidence that the Russian mafia controlled the flow of alcohol, drugs and amber that crossed Kaliningrad’s borders to associates elsewhere in Europe. Even more ominously, their trade included firearms and ammunition. Brussels tried to improve conditions there through development programs like TACIS—Technical Assistance to the Commonwealth of Independent States. But in my discussions with EU consultants in Kaliningrad city, I discovered their efforts were being undermined by Moscow. It denied Kaliningrad enabling legislation that officials in Moscow promised and later discontinued. Uppermost in the minds of NATO defense analysts were reports that the enclave was home to large numbers of conventional forces (as many as three hundred thousand) along with their equipment. What troubled them most of all were ominous reports that Kaliningrad contained nuclear-capable Iskander missiles.
This grim depiction of Kaliningrad’s military posture was adopted by the U.S. media, but I learned it was unfounded. The Pentagon estimated the number of Russian ground, air and naval personnel in the oblast amounted to a figure about ten times smaller than the one that had been widely publicized—thirty thousand badly equipped military personnel. Likewise, there were no nuclear-capable missiles there and no plausible reason why they were required. At the same time, Moscow’s fears about Western revanchists conducting a campaign to secure parts or all of Kaliningrad that “once belonged to them” were unfounded. The Germans, Lithuanians and Poles who had legitimate claims were not anxious to absorb close to one million economically strapped Russian speakers.
In 2011, as Putin was preparing to resume the presidency following the Medvedev interregnum, east-west tensions escalated. The relationship got even cooler after massive displays of discontent erupted on the streets of Moscow. Upon his return to the presidency in 2012, Putin concluded that the Americans were behind the colored revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine and were bent on stoking regime change in Russia itself. Putin and like-minded colleagues ignored what I deemed a truism: some energetic American strategists might welcome his ouster, but prudent ones harbored another nightmare—Russia becoming a failed state. In discussions of the merits of NATO enlargement, much was made of the Balts fearing the return of Russian tanks, but another, perhaps more likely specter was the fear that Russia would collapse just as the USSR did and produce a tsunami of violent, uncontrolled chaos that would consume their societies. Today, American defense analysts harbor similar fears; if Russia imploded most of the world’s richest and militarily most powerful countries that abut it would not escape the fallout. The most terrifying question of all was: What would happen to Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal? Putin is at times a reckless rival, but under his rule, Russia’s nukes are in safe hands. Were he deposed, the violent mayhem following his demise could represent an existential threat to America and the liberal world order—its prized patrimony.
Another likely outcome that would accompany Russia’s disintegration is in the Far East, where China is best able to exploit the subsequent mayhem that would spread throughout Eurasia. Then too, in addition to anxiety about the fate of Russia’s nukes, the resulting global firestorm would compel the Pentagon to quickly adopt a host of vexing and expensive responses to Russia’s implosion. Does it have any plans of this kind in its strategic grab bag?
The answer to that question is beyond this essay, but it is against this backdrop that Western defense analysts have revisited The Kaliningrad Question. After Lithuania entered NATO, President George W. Bush visited Vilnius and promised that America would never allow the Russians to reoccupy the Baltic democracies. Years later, President Barack Obama indicated in Estonia that he would provide all NATO members with Article Five protection. To bolster that pledge, he sent American infantry and armor units to Poland while other allies sent their troops to the Baltic countries. But many eastern European defense analysts complained he had waited too long to counter Russian aggression that included disparate forms of hybrid warfare. Less than two days after his appearance in Tallinn, one of Estonia’s security operatives, Eston Kohver, was kidnapped by Russian agents and taken before a Russian judge charging him with espionage. That was small beer, since Estonia has been subjected to massive Russian cyberattacks.