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The Kaliningrad Oblast Today: A “Military Bastion 2.0”, not a “Bridge of Cooperation”

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (2nd R), Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (R), President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko (2nd L), and Lukashenko's son Nikolai watch the joint war games Zapad-2013 (West-2013) at Khmelevka base in the Kaliningrad Region, Russia, September 26, 2013.

In the late 1990s/early 2000s, Kaliningrad Oblast—the Russian enclave situated on the shores of the Baltic Sea—was frequently referred to as a would-be “pilot region” and/or “bridge of cooperation” between Russia and the European Union.

Sadly, this was nothing more than a mirage created by the air of freedom spreading across Central and Eastern Europe as a result of the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. The vestiges of these hopes were removed irrevocably between 2009 and 2016. This period did nothing but corroborate the unwelcome reality that Kaliningrad is neither a “pilot” nor a “bridge”. It is a growing source of threat, skilfully used by Moscow to intimidate the countries of the Baltic Sea region. Conceived as a military bulwark against the West in 1945, the oblast now seems to be returning to its historical roots and a mission chosen for it by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

What was supposed to happen … and what actually occurred

The start of the journey for post-1991 Kaliningrad was quite optimistic. The advent of progressive, liberal-oriented governor Yurii Matochkin (1991–6), the region’s proximity to Europe, and a benevolent stance on cooperation with the West among a sizeable part of the Russian ruling elite, provided many foreign and domestic experts with idealistic hopes of Kaliningrad soon becoming the “Russian gateway” to Europe and a “Baltic Hong Kong”. Indeed, the oblast was given an opportunity to feel a bit European not only by virtue of its geography but also through various EU-backed initiatives—an opportunity inconceivable for the vast majority of Russian regions. Yet the expectations were not destined to be realised. The reality proved much more disappointing than the dream.

Instead of a “Baltic Hong Kong”, Kaliningrad became a Russian embarrassment and the “black hole” of Europe.1 Instead of an island of prosperity and joint projects, it would rapidly deteriorate into the “Russian AIDS/HIV capital”, “double periphery” and “smugglers’ capital” of the Baltic. This was profoundly aggravated by the absence of any coherent strategy on Kaliningrad on the part of Moscow, which resulted in the economic collapse of the oblast in 1998.

In the minds of the local population, the pervasive impoverishment and humiliation (especially given the extent of progress in neighbouring states) that ensued after 1991 were inseparable from “liberal experiment” and the unfriendly posture of the “West”. These sentiments were easy to breed: having been isolated prior to 1991, Kaliningrad was simply not prepared to face the newly globalising world in which prosperity was measured by readiness to compete and change rather than the size of subsidies allocated by the federal centre under imaginary pretexts.

The way out: Back to the USSR?

During the Soviet period, Kaliningrad Oblast was a somewhat privileged region: the ability to travel to the Baltic States and sizable economic subsidies secured a relatively prosperous lifestyle, unimaginable for many citizens of the USSR. Moreover, the lion’s share of the local economy was tightly bound with the needs of locally stationed armed forces personnel. Many scholars believe that between 1945 and 1991 Kaliningrad was the most heavily militarised place in Europe (and probably the world).2 But this was a “golden cage” and an illusion of well-being, as became particularly clear after 1991 and would have a sobering effect on the local population. Regretfully, lessons were not learned and the sources of hardship were not correctly identified.

That is why, when, in 1999, Moscow started cracking down on local freedoms established by the first governor, the reaction of the vast majority of Kaliningraders was mild, to say the least. Unfortunately, the prospect of stability outweighed the opportunities offered by a free market based on competition and merit.

In the meantime, it should also be acknowledged that, in spite of growing political assertiveness displayed after 2003, Moscow did not dare to use Kaliningrad as the venue for a massive military build-up and a regional “scarecrow”. Its mission was mainly seen as an auxiliary mechanism and a venue for negotiations with key European players (as deemed by Moscow) and a mouthpiece for “anti-Baltic” sentiment. Incidentally, this was clearly demonstrated during the 750th anniversary of Kaliningrad/Konigsberg in 2005. Meanwhile, public obedience was to be secured through a new law on Special Economic Zones (SEZ) adopted in 2006 that removed the last vestiges of freedom and fully transferred the local economy under Moscow’s direct supervision/dictate.

Vicissitudes of history: How Kaliningrad turned into a “military bastion 2.0”

Those (quite numerous) experts who argued that, with the collapse of the USSR, Kaliningrad Oblast irrevocably lost its military potential and no longer posed a serious security threat to the region turned out to be wrong. Between 2009 and 2016 the oblast underwent intensive militarisation that rapidly transformed it into a formidable outpost of Russian military might in the Baltic Sea region.

However, the first alarm signal for the West came long before 2009. In June 1999, Exercise Zapad-99 was held. As a result, Russia adopted a new national security concept that recognised the weakness of Russian conventional forces and enabled Moscow to use its nuclear potential in the event of an emergency.3 Another troublesome episode related to the alleged deployment of nuclear weapons on the territory of the oblast in the early 2000s, which was vehemently denied by the Russian side. Sadly, the majority of European politicians, experts and intellectuals decided to avoid the issue in order not to antagonise the Kremlin.

A truly dangerous threshold was crossed in 2007. The notorious “Munich Speech” by President Putin not only showed the existing abyss between Russia and the West, it also identified Russian readiness to use Kaliningrad as a pawn in a power play against NATO. From this point on, Moscow began to pursue “Iskander diplomacy”4—threats to deploy nuclear missiles on the enclave’s territory if the West did not agree to Russia’s demands.

The growing military potential of Russian activities in the enclave can be conditionally separated onto organisational reforms and military build-up.5

1. Organizational reforms. Between 1991 and 2016, the Baltic Sea Fleet attained a disgraceful reputation as a “nest of crime”6 and “the Kremlin’s headache”.7 In order to restore its former military might, Moscow undertook a drastic move, decapitating the entire Baltic Sea Fleet overnight by sacking virtually all its top-rank commanders. Of course, it would be premature to draw any far-reaching conclusions; rather, this should be seen as a sign of commitment on the Kremlin’s part to act decisively and upgrade not only military capabilities as such, but also eliminate the remnants of the previous chaos.

2. Military build-up

- Military exercises. Strategic military exercises under the codename Zapad (carried out in 1999, 2009 and 2013) have shown the growing extent of Russia’s regional ambitions and its determination to preserve military superiority over NATO forces on this flank. The most striking differences between the three exercises were their territorial scope and the manpower and technical compound employed. The most recent Zapad may have involved up to 100,000 military personnel.

- Technical re-equipment. Within a very brief period, formidable and up-to-date examples of Russian weaponry have been deployed on the territory of the oblast. These include S-400 complexes, Bastion missile systems (including Onyx missiles with a range of 600 km or even 800 km),8 Kalibr missiles (up to 3,000 km) and nuclear-capable Iskander-M missile complexes (500 km), as well as various anti-missile installations (such as Podsolnukh-E and Voronezh-M radars).

In the end, as a result of a broad range of military-related activities in the Western Military District (WMD) carried out in 2015–6, Russia has been able to attain complete conventional superiority over NATO forces in the Baltic. In this regard, the striking transformation experienced by Kaliningrad certainly played an essential role in this process. It should be stressed that Kaliningrad Oblast has become the centre of the so-called anti-access/area-denial ‘bubble’ (A2/AD),9 posing a serious challenge to the Baltic States and Poland and simultaneously reducing the strategic geopolitical role of Belarus. Moreover, due to the build-up of the enclave’s military strength, in the event of a direct military encounter with NATO forces in the region Russia could easily occupy Gotland and the Åland Islands, effectively turning the entire Baltic Sea into “Mare Nostrum”—an eloquent definition presented by the Soviet admiral Nikolay Kuznetsov in the late 1940s.

Moreover, Russia’s decision to walk out of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) in 2015 has granted the Kremlin the right to beef up its military presence on the oblast’s territory to the extent that Moscow deems appropriate without any requirement to be accountable to any external players. The consequences of this move are yet to be fully understood.

There is, however, yet another facet related to the profound security-related transformations experienced by Kaliningrad Oblast—the so-called “Suwałki Gap”.

What is the “Suwałki Gap”, and who should be scared?

Kaliningrad’s status as a centre of the A2/AD “bubble” is inseparable from the Suwałki Gap ("przesmyk Suwalski" in Polish) phenomenon. Approximately 100 kilometres wide, this strip of land connects Poland and Lithuania and has the oblast and Belarus at its upper and lower extremities. The strategic importance of this area has been specifically underscored by the Commander of the United States Army in Europe, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who stated that it could potentially be a target of Russian military aggression.10

If this became a reality, the three Baltic States would be effectively cut off from other NATO countries. Moreover, by using Baltiysk and Kronstadt—home ports of the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet—Russia could complete the blockade from the sea.However, for this to be feasible Moscow would need the full and unconditional support of Belarus. But, given the most recent (as well as more distant) differences between the two countries, such support appears to be in real doubt; just remember Alexander Lukashenka’s stance on the Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

In the light of these developments, the upcoming military exercises Zapad-2017 are viewed with an ever-growing sense of alarm in Minsk (notwithstanding the official rhetoric). The most frequently stated sentiment in the Belarusian media is not about the transfer of additional Russian troops to Belarusian territory for the exercises, but how many of these troops will leave when they end.

What should we expect?

The speed with which Russia turned the “Kaliningrad puzzle” into the “Kaliningrad headache”11 is truly impressive. The prompt mobilisation of resources within a short period—an essential element of every authoritative regime—has been used to its optimum by Moscow in pursuing its strategic goals in the Baltic theatre.

It should be stated that a re-militarised Kaliningrad poses a serious and far-reaching challenge not only to regional players, but also to transatlantic relations. Russia is likely to speculate on a further build-up of military power in the enclave as a “just response” to NATO’s regional activities and under the shield of alleged Russophobia in the Baltic States.

But these impressive transformations must not be over-exaggerated. Having suffered a sound geopolitical defeat in 1991, Russia has been able to attain some semblance of status quo on the Baltic, but not to achieve the position enjoyed by the USSR. This said, it must still be argued that NATO has far greater potential in the region. This, however, implies that some steps should be taken. Their success will dictate the trajectory of the development of the entire region for the foreseeable future.


1 Sergey Sukhankin, ‘Kaliningrad in the “Mirror World”: From Soviet “Bastion” to Russian “Fortress”’. CIDOB, Barcelona, June 2016. Available at: http://www.cidob.org/es/publicaciones/serie_de_publicacion/notes_internacionals/n1_151/kaliningrad_in_the_mirror_world_from_soviet_bastion_to_russian_fortress

2 Sergey Sukhankin, ‘Kaliningrad: Russia’s island in Europe’. New Eastern Europe, Cracow, 29 January 2016. Available at: http://www.neweasterneurope.eu/interviews/1876-kaliningrad-russia-s-island-in-europe

3 For more information, see: https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2000_01-02/docjf00

4 https://jamestown.org/program/russia-flexes-iskander-muscles-northwestern-flank/

5 https://jamestown.org/multimedia/us-russia-security-europes-flanks-panel-four/

6 https://jamestown.org/program/the-russian-baltic-sea-fleet-a-nest-of-crime/

7 https://jamestown.org/program/russias-western-flank-a-mighty-pillar-or-a-headache-part-one/; https://jamestown.org/program/russias-western-flank-a-mighty-pillar-or-a-headache-part-two/

8 https://topwar.ru/112398-oniks-800-km-mif-ili-realnost.html

9 http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR200/RR229/RAND_RR229.pdf

10 http://www.baltictimes.com/u_s__army_commander_warns_of_russian_blocking_of_baltic_defence/

11 http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_kaliningrad_from_boomtown_to_battle_station_7256?utm_content=buffer87cfe&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer



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