Kaliningrad at the heart of the Russia-NATO confrontation

The outbreak of war in Ukraine, and the escalation of tensions between Russia on the one hand and NATO, the EU and, most recently, Lithuania on the other hand, have placed at the heart of the news the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, located between Poland and Lithuania.

Mid-June 2022, Vilnius, in application of the sanctions imposed by the EU, blocks transit of coal, metals and technological tools supplying the region (oblast) of Kaliningrad from the metropolis. These goods make up half of Kaliningrad's imports. As early as next December, oil and gas could also be blocked. Following this blockage, Kaliningrad initiated the reorientation the transit by sea of ​​sanctioned goods while Moscow has announced retaliation without specifying the exact content.

In the current context, Moscow's declarations have not lacked cause concern of certain observers: could Kaliningrad become the place of a direct confrontation between the Russian forces and those of the NATO countries?

The particularities of an exclave

Kaliningrad Oblast is a territory of 15 km2, bordered by Lithuania to the northeast, Poland to the south (both members of the EU and NATO) and the Baltic Sea to the northwest. It is geographically 360 km from the rest of Russia. It is the only exclave among the country's 83 federated entities (85 including the Republic of Crimea and the "federal city" of Sevastopol, illegally annexed in 2014). With a population of around 1 million, the oblast is the 50e most populated in the Russian Federation.

Peter Hermes Furian / Shutterstock

A legacy of the Second World War, this territory formerly part of East Prussia was assigned to the USSR following the Potsdam conference in 1945. The area was then at the center of major population movements and found itself repopulated with Russian speakers (to the detriment of the German-speaking populations expelled to Germany), to the point of becoming the most Soviet region of the country in the 1980s.

If during the time of the USSR, the oblast is transformed into military stronghold and closes to neighboring countries, it then opens under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin to attract foreign investment.

At the beginning of the XXIe century, the region is even seen as a “laboratory” for cooperation between the EU and Russia, in particular with the establishment of a free zone with special economic zone status – status withdrawn by Moscow in 2016. Despite this, Kaliningrad has been poorly integrated into the Baltic economic area and has remained mainly dependent on the rest of Russia, the latter passing through a monthly hundred freight trains to its exclave via Lithuania and Belarus (Lithuania having no direct border with the rest of Russian territory).

“Russia-EU: the Kaliningrad affair”, the Below of the cards (Arte, June 22, 2022). 

In 2015, surveys indicate that the population of Kaliningrad identifies mainly as Russian, and wants the oblast to be considered a separate region of Russia. No specific feeling of independence seems to have developed in this region, despite its geographical position as an exclave and its relatively recent attachment to Russian territory. In 2018, in the presidential election, the oblast votes 76% in favor of Vladimir Putin, that is to say in the same proportion as the whole country (even if, as elsewhere in Russia, the ballot is characterized by multiple irregularities).

A highly militarized region

At the same time, the area remains particularly militarized, in particular with the presence of a Russian fleet in the Baltic Sea, thus taking advantage of the strategic presence of an ice-free port. The positioning of surface-to-surface, surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles in the region, which could hamper a possible intervention by the Alliance in the Baltic, also creates tensions with NATO – especially since the deployment in 2016, reinforced in 2018, of ballistic missile systems with potential nuclear payload Iskander. Added to this are the “Zapad” military exercises (West) organized jointly with Belarus every four years and simulating a military conflict in this territory.

This militarization of the Kaliningrad territory, in a context marked by the annexation of Crimea, various Russian destabilization operations in the Baltic and, since February 2022, the large-scale attack on Ukraine, have led to a feeling of insecurity in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland – all NATO members and close neighbors of Russia. The cities of Narva (Estonia) and Daugapvils (Latvia), as well as the Latgale region (also Latvia), with a strong Russian majority, are thus often described by the media as potential "new Crimeas", giving rise to fears of a Russian attack under the alibi of the protection of Russian-speaking populations residing there.

Following the war in Ukraine, the Baltic countries were the first European states to stop importing Russian gas and to firmly show their support for Ukraine.

To counter this insecurity and mark Atlantic solidarity with the Baltic countries, NATO has, since 2017, deployed troops on rotation in the Baltic with the “enhanced forward presence” on the Eastern flank of the Alliance. In 2022, in response to the war in Ukraine, individual allies have increased their presence of troops, ships and aircraft, and NATO has also improved the responsiveness of its reaction force, making an activation in case of threat faster.

The Challenge of the Suwalki Corridor

The presence of NATO in the Baltic and in Poland, and the recent Lithuanian blockage of the transit of Russian goods, have also revived fears of an annexation by Russia of the Suwałki corridor, which connects Belarus to the territory of Kaliningrad. along the border between Lithuania and Poland.

Poland: the Suwalki corridor, the next military objective for the Russians? (France 24, June 6, 2022). 

This 70 km long corridor has long been considered the NATO's Achilles heel. Consisting mainly of swamps, two roads and a single train line connecting Poland to Lithuania, this corridor, however, represents the shortest distance between Belarus and Kaliningrad. Despite Russian attempts, after the collapse of the USSR, to secure this area by establishing an agreement authorizing a continuous presence of soldiers, only a more general agreement with Lithuania allowing the transit of passengers and goods was signed with the EU in 2003.

Taking the Suwałki corridor would allow Russia to geographically cut off the Baltic States from the rest of NATO members while ensuring a passage, via its Belarusian ally, to its exclave. An annexation of this type would lead to the triggering of 5 article of NATO, which commits its members to lend mutual assistance in the event that one of them is attacked.

It will have been understood: if, at the fall of the USSR, Kaliningrad was seen as an opportunity for cooperation between the European Union and Russia, its territory is today at the heart of growing tensions on the continent, the becoming a strategic and geopolitical issue.

Cindy Regnier, FNRS PhD student in International Relations, university of Liege

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com / Parilov

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