John Bell, John Zada
Kaliningrad Oblast is an isolated Russian province and enclave nestled between the Baltic states and Poland in the heart of NATO territory. This is a vulnerable spot for Russia, since Kaliningrad can be easily cut off from its main territory. But at the same time, this area may suddenly turn into a Russian avant-garde, located in the depths of Europe and capable of becoming a hotbed of destabilization and escalation of tension.
As the conflict in Ukraine intensifies, the West is getting more and more involved in it, and the risk of its new zones is increasing. Geopolitical stakes are also growing in connection with the upcoming entry into NATO of Sweden and Finland. First of all, this concerns the Baltic region, and therefore Kaliningrad is turning into a critical center of attention.
This city, formerly called Koenigsberg, together with the region became a historical incident, being given to Stalin after World War II. Today, this strategically important and ice-free northern region hosts the Russian Baltic Fleet, a modern air defense force and mobile Iskander-M rocket launchers capable of delivering nuclear warheads to the target. Vladimir Putin could step up military activity in this militarized enclave as well as along the Russian border in the Baltic, posing a threat to NATO members Poland and Germany.
The first steps in this direction have already appeared. In April, Kaliningrad was in the news when Russia declared its readiness to deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles in the enclave if Sweden and Finland joined NATO (Lithuania, however, claims that Moscow already has nuclear weapons in the Baltics). Subsequently, Putin issued threats of a “lightning” response to Western intervention in the Ukrainian conflict. From this we can conclude that he had in mind Kaliningrad, since it is at the forefront not far from some capitals.
The military is developing another scenario involving a possible Russian invasion of the Suwalki Gap. It is a 100-kilometer stretch of rolling countryside belonging to Poland and Lithuania, and separating the Kaliningrad region from Russia’s ally Belarus. This corridor is considered NATO’s Achilles’ heel. In the event of hostilities between East and West, or if Putin simply decides to put a spoke in the wheel, Russian forces could seize this corridor, cutting off the Baltic states from their neighbor and NATO ally Poland.
Such a move would be aimed at linking Kaliningrad with Belarus and, consequently, with Russia. It will also deprive the Baltic countries of military and other NATO assistance delivered by land. This will mean the beginning of a war between Russia and the North Atlantic Alliance, which the parties have so far avoided in every possible way, despite all their statements and actions.
NATO and Russia are conducting military exercises in preparation for this development. After the start of the Ukrainian conflict, NATO troops in the area were slightly reinforced. Undoubtedly, such a scenario was taken into account.
In the short term, NATO must act very carefully. The Alliance needs to strengthen its grouping around the Suwalki corridor. But he must do so in a way that does not threaten Russian control of Kaliningrad and escalate if Moscow misinterprets these actions.
Fortunately, today there is little evidence that the struggle between Russia and NATO will go beyond Ukraine. Many will say that Putin is up to his neck in Ukraine, and his options are limited, and therefore he is not willing to settle for the worst-case scenario and further adventures. However, few could correctly predict his actions in Ukraine. First of all, those who believed that all parties after the seizure of Crimea in 2014 would act rationally, based on their reasonable interests, were mistaken in the first place.
Whatever happens, Russia and NATO will at some point have to re-negotiate a mutually acceptable security architecture and arrangement that will not lead to another major war. There may simply be a need for a “cold peace” where tensions between the parties persist but they actively avoid conflict.
In any scenario, the Kaliningrad region, currently considered by both parties to be a vulnerable spot and a potential hotspot, could also be seen as an opportunity. Like other places in Europe, it has a complex and multi-layered history. Once it was Baltic, then it became Prussian and German, and today it is Russian. The geographic location and vulnerability of this region means that it will be the focus of attention for the parties, forcing them to quickly create new agreements on security issues and other critical interests.
To eliminate the above risks, the parties will have to agree again that the Kaliningrad region, as well as Poland and the Baltic countries, become non-nuclear. Today Kaliningrad creates problems for both Russia and NATO. Primitive reflexes in this region are fraught with the most dangerous and tragic consequences. When calm prevails, or when the threat of mutual annihilation shakes all parties and forces them to resort to common sense, Kaliningrad can become the necessary launching pad for de-escalation and the development of a system of mutual security for the rest of Europe.