The current global security environment, which has been interpreted as a return to the interwar period, demands that we look afresh at several of our previously held understandings. Pessimists claim that we are resorting to power politics—a world where “the strong take what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. More than ever, we need to maintain our values-based culture where agreements are binding.
The West’s confrontation with Russia is mainly focused on the Baltic Sea region, where a so-called cordon sanitaire has been created by the former Eastern European satellite states between the two global powers. One does not have to be a military specialist to foresee that tensions may rise here.1 This can be seen in regular unpleasant incidents (e.g. provocations by Russian jets against US warships and aircraft, Russian planes constantly breaching the airspace of NATO allies, and Russian threats towards the Baltic states, Finland and Sweden) and the increasingly loud rhetoric Russia is using.2
In several senses, relations between the West and Russia have truly reached the state they were in before the 1975 Helsinki Accords. This Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe stated the inviolability of the post-World War II borders and acknowledged they would remain as such. The signatories to the Helsinki Accords were to refrain from threatening or using force against the territory or political independence of any state. They also undertook to avoid treating one another’s territory as an object of military occupation and recognising such an occupation and annexation as legal. The existing borders could be changed only as a result of negotiations on the basis of a voluntary declaration of intent from all the stakeholders.3
Today, Russia has probably abandoned the Helsinki principles. By occupying areas belonging to Georgia and Ukraine, Russia unambiguously showed that it believes the post-World War II territorial principles apply to it no more. The consequences of these events are somewhat balanced, which means that other countries also need to review their earlier positions. By occupying the Crimea and staging a military intervention in the Donbass, Russia also opened up the ambiguous subject of the territorial ownership of Kaliningrad (Königsberg).
This region, known as East Prussia before World War II, has a grand history. Among other things, it is the birthplace of Immanuel Kant, who created the idea of perpetual peace between nations.4 Königsberg (King’s Hill) was founded in 1255 by the Teutonic Order, the symbolic predecessor of a united Europe. After World War II, the issue of the territorial ownership of this region was not specifically regulated. In the Final Settlement of 12 September 1990 that conclusively ended World War II (hereinafter “the Settlement”)5 and which formally stipulated the unification of Germany, the latter waived its pre-war regions that remained within the territory of other states after the war. As the Kaliningrad Oblast belonged to Germany before the war under the name of East Prussia, it could have been presumed that the waiver also concerned Kaliningrad.
The fate of this territory is still legally vague since the question of the Kaliningrad Oblast was, so to speak, “lost in translation” in the Settlement.6 Formally, Germany has waived Kaliningrad, but it has never been given to or accepted into the territory of the Soviet Union/Russia. Article 1(3) of the Settlement states that “the united Germany has no territorial claims whatsoever against other states and shall not assert any in the future”.7 With this article, Germany undertakes to waive all claims to territories that belonged to it outside the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic and Berlin, without changing the right of ownership other states have with regard to these territories. Although the Settlement does not separately deal with the matter of territories transferred to the Soviet Union or Poland, Article 1(2) states that “the united Germany and the Republic of Poland shall confirm the existing border between them in a treaty that is binding under international law”.
In this sense, the Settlement does not adopt a clear position like the one the Allied Powers set out in 1945 with the Potsdam Agreement. Article 6 of that Agreement, which was/is the basis for Soviet/Russian control over the region, places it under the Soviet Union’s administration by specifying “the final determination of territorial questions at the peace settlement”. Although “the ultimate transfer to the Soviet Union of the City of Königsberg and the area adjacent to it” is stipulated in the Potsdam Agreement, the annexation of the territory or the right to incorporate it into the Soviet Union is not mentioned.8 This means that the region was treated as an occupied zone to be administered by an Allied Power and the Settlement does not revise this position in any way.
Thus, we come to the conclusion that no one has given Königsberg to Russia de jure under any international agreements and Russian presence in the region is solely de facto. Talking about Russian soldiers’ boots claiming any plot of land for a Russian ruler by stepping on it is simply imperialistic nostalgia and cannot be treated as a basis for modern international relations. Russia has no legal justification for remaining in the area. Kaliningrad’s current vague status is a reminder of Stalin’s principle of “divide and rule” that he applied in creating rifts in Europe—an effective method in what he believed to be the class war.
The fact that Russia still occupies Königsberg even in the early 21st century is a controversial situation in many senses. Primarily from a military point of view, there should not be such a high concentration of military forces in the middle of Europe—a veritable powder keg. For tactical reasons, as a tool for maintaining tension, Kaliningrad seems “excellent” for the current Russian leadership, but its usefulness is deceptive. In the event of a serious military conflict between the West and Russia, the West would want to neutralise the entire region quickly, which is why Kaliningrad actually does not have a strong strategic role for Russia in the sense of defence in depth. It would be the height of strategic naïveté to believe that Russia would be allowed to close the Suwałki Gap—the only path to the new Baltic Allies along the territory of NATO states—with a single strike from the direction of Kaliningrad and Belarus.
There is currently at most one-tenth of the arms and forces in the region that were present in Soviet times. Then, it was estimated that there was a maximum of 500,000 military personnel in the region, while there are said to be 25,000–30,000 today. The militarised area of Kaliningrad was virtually a part of the Lithuanian SSR’s Memel region (today’s Klaipėda), which formerly belonged to East Prussia, and if the military units there are taken into account, Russia’s military capability in the region has decreased by a factor of about twenty. The military and strategic significance of Kaliningrad would decline in leaps and bounds if Sweden and Finland become more closely associated with NATO than they are today. Russia’s military presence in Kaliningrad is provoking these countries to move in that direction.
Kaliningrad undoubtedly has a symbolic role for Russia, highly esteemed in the Russian orthodox tradition, and it is worth keeping that in mind. However, the erstwhile symbol of victory has become a backpack full of bricks for Russia, so to speak. Widespread unemployment and the high number of AIDS and tuberculosis diagnoses in the region unmistakably signal its social and economic degradation. With its poor potential for economic development, Russia has not managed to do anything reasonable in the area in the decades since World War II. The local population has not had the opportunity to benefit from the region’s advantageous geographic location. The people in Kaliningrad are increasingly frustrated about economic stagnation and the fact that Moscow has abandoned them in the socioeconomic sense. Western sanctions are clearly lowering the standard of living there and hinder development.9
The issue of the territorial ownership of the Kaliningrad Oblast after the Russians leave is considered a problem. The area could become a new bone of contention between Germany, Poland and Lithuania. For this reason, it must not be merged with the territory of any existing country. The solution, however, is also as plain as day. Königsberg must become the first region solely under the jurisdiction of the European Union, similar to the capital of the US, which forms a separate administrative unit, the District of Columbia. In this way Americans avoided the situation of the capital belonging to a single state.
The erstwhile Königsberg would thus become the true capital of the EU. Institutions that are currently spread between Strasbourg and Brussels could be transferred to “King’s Hill” over time. Königsberg would be under the sole jurisdiction of the EU, and all its residents would be citizens of the EU without being citizens of any specific EU member state. What a powerful symbol and application of Kant’s ideas would this be, since Königsberg would become a demilitarised zone. King’s Hill must be transformed into the new capital of the EU so the region can thrive economically, as in the past.
Placing the area directly under the EU’s jurisdiction after Russian forces leave would be a great idea. For the West, it would mean creating an oasis of peaceful development instead of a potential conflict zone. The current civilian population of Kaliningrad would probably welcome the idea with open arms and would be ready to declare their intentions in an internationally monitored referendum. Whatever happens with the region, it is unthinkable to consider the mass relocation of the locals, following the practice the USSR employed after World War II. Since Russia cannot manage the upkeep of the enclave in any case, it could leave Königsberg without losing face and lay a foundation for future good neighbourly relations with the West. From the EU’s point of view, this would demonstrate its serious intention to grow roots in the new Eastern European member states.
Today, it is extremely hard to open a discussion on Kaliningrad/Königsberg with Russia. At the same time, the EU must stop its passive and uninvolved attitude towards Russia. We have seen many times how things get done only when a challenge emerges. We need to be proactive, be it only until the Russians start to behave in a civilised manner. The moment when a new cycle of peaceful coexistence and closer cooperation begins in relations between the West and Russia may be closer than we dare to believe.
2 See Jaanus Piirsalu’s report in Postimees, 23 December 2016.
3 “Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe”, in Arie Bloed (ed.), From Helsinki to Vienna: Basic Documents of the Helsinki Process, Dordrecht, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1990.
4 Immanuel Kant, Zum ewigen Frieden, 1795.
6 See Raymond A. Smith, “The status of the Kaliningrad Oblast under international law”, Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences 38(1) (Spring 1992).
7 Treaty on the Final Settlement.
8 Report on the Tripartite Conference of Berlin – The Potsdam Agreement: Selected Documents Concerning the German Question, 1943–1949, Berlin: Staatsverlag der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, 1967.
9 Janusz Bugajski, “The Baltics confront Moscow’s ambitions”, The American Interest, 3 October 2014, http://www.the-american-interest.com/2014/10/03/the-baltics-confront-moscows-ambitions/.