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International Last Updated: May 15, 2022 - 11:55:52 AM

Kaliningrad Could Be the Next Flashpoint in the EUís Standoff With Russia
By Alexander Clarkson, WPR, May 11, 2022
May 14, 2022 - 10:07:34 AM

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On a warm summer evening in July 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin, together with the German chancellor and French president at the time, Gerhard Schroder and Jacques Chirac, looked on as a lavish fireworks display entertained a vast crowd in the Baltic city of Kaliningrad. In commemoration of the 750-year anniversary of the founding of what had once been the Prussian city of Konigsberg, the Russian government that had inherited Kaliningrad after its conquest by the Soviet Union during World War II had put on elaborate festivities to celebrate its complex history.

For Putin, Kaliningrad was of both personal and strategic importance as the region in which his then-wife had grown up and as a symbol of Russiaís return to great power status through naval expansion close to the heart of NATO. As an exclave that had been handed to the Russian Soviet Republic under the USSR, Kaliningrad remained under Moscowís control even after its borders were cut off from the rest of Russia when Lithuania declared independence upon the Soviet Unionís collapse. While the participation of Schroder and Chirac at the 2005 festivities was intended to signal Russiaís partnership with Europeís most powerful states, the lack of invitations to Polish, Swedish or Lithuanian leaders sent a more ominous signal about who Putin believed should call the shots around the Baltic Sea.

In the decade that followed, the European Unionís hopes that Kaliningradís development could anchor cooperation with Russia were displaced by fears over how Putin might use it as a springboard for imperial ambitions. Russian military exercises practicing amphibious landings stoked fear in Sweden that its neutral status might tempt Moscow to seize the island of Gotland in the assumption that an attack on Swedish territory would not elicit a swift NATO response. Concern that Russian armored divisions could seize the Suwalki gapóthe sliver of Polish territory separating Kaliningrad from Belarusóto cut the Baltic states off from the rest of NATO led the Polish and Lithuanian governments to beef up their defenses around the exclave in the years running up to the current Russo-Ukrainian War. Recent exercises simulating nuclear strikes in Europe by Iskander ballistic missiles stationed in Kaliningrad represented a further escalation in Putinís use of the region as a means through which to pressure the EU.

In the wake of Russiaís invasion of Ukraine, it is this Russian military posturing around the Baltic that has attracted the most attention from Western policymakers. Yet there are also fraught domestic tensions related to Kaliningradís position within the Russian state that are also a cause for Putinís aggressive signaling toward Russiaís neighbors. Because of how Moscow originally annexed the Kaliningrad region, its unique social dynamics have been a source of strategic anxiety for the Russian state since the fall of the Soviet Union. It is a region whose pre-1945 history at the heart of the Prussian tradition came to a catastrophic end after the defeat of Nazi Germany. To tighten their grip on the Baltic, Soviet authorities expelled the German population there and replaced it with settlers from across the USSR. During the Soviet era, any discussion of the regionís German past was discouraged among its new inhabitants.

Yet by the 1970s, some interest in Kaliningradís pre-Soviet history began to be expressed by a handful of intellectuals. Such innocuous interest in the regionís German past gained momentum as the USSR collapsed. The opening of German, Polish and Lithuanian consulates and several European cultural institutes after 1991 marked a period during which the EU developed ambitious economic plans for the region in the hope that its prosperity could encourage Russiaís wider integration into Western institutions. This revival of interest in the regionís German past culminated with the adoption of the philosopher Immanuel Kant as a local hero, and Kantís identification with 19th-century Konigsberg was seamlessly integrated into a distinct 21st-century Kaliningrad identity.

Though there were local concerns about potential demands for financial compensation by former residents who had been expelled by the Soviets, hopes for economic investment from Germany led Kaliningradís business and intellectual elites to seek closer partnership with European institutions. These links were also fostered by the greater travel access to the EU that Kaliningraders were granted, including through visa-free access schemes. To the concern of state officials in Moscow, by the early 2010s, many Kaliningraders had become relaxed about their regionís German past and more familiar with the EU than with what they called the Russian ďmainland.Ē

The deepening crisis faced by Kaliningradís inhabitants mean that it has the potential to become a geopolitical flashpoint between the EU and Russia as volatile as Ukraine or Belarus.

These particularities of Kaliningradís relationship with its EU neighbors quickly came to be seen in Moscow as a threat to Russiaís strategic position in the Baltic. As Putin concentrated power in the hands of the central government in Moscow to destroy the ability of regional elites to challenge his position, the space for Kaliningraders to develop mutually beneficial ties with EU partners evaporated. That Kaliningrad had in 2010 been the scene of successful instances of mass protest that forced Moscow to withdraw its nominee for regional governor only increased suspicions within Russiaís security services over the regionís political trajectory. Even before Putinís seizure of Crimea in 2014, the support he provided to Russian nationalist organizations willing to intimidate anyone suspected of disloyalty marked the start of a crackdown against Kaliningradís civil society.

Fueled by paranoia among nationalist circles over what they viewed as ďseparatistĒ tendencies that they claimed were being stoked by German meddling, after 2014 Moscow shut down any initiative designed to build closer links with the rest of Europe. Putinís policy of confrontation, as well as restrictions introduced in response to the coronavirus pandemic, reduced the level of travel access to the EU that Kaliningraders had become accustomed to. Since the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlinís efforts to generate an atmosphere of nationalist enthusiasm for war have particularly targeted Kaliningrad in an effort to foster hostility toward EU states. With Kaliningrad containing such a large concentration of military personnel, this propaganda effort has found resonance among local civilians with strong links to Russian soldiers and sailors directly involved in military operations on Ukrainian soil.

The war hysteria fostered by the Putin regime may suppress discontent in the short term. But the economic harm inflicted by Putinís war against Ukraine and the sanctions the EU has put into place in response are exacerbating pressures that were already building up in the region. As an exclave surrounded by EU territory, Kaliningrad remains far more exposed to the impact of the EUís actions than any other part of Russia. The extent to which Kaliningraders have more extensive experience with life in the EU than much of Russiaís population is also a source of cultural distinctiveness that can also reassert itself against pressure from Moscow in volatile ways.

The geographic and historical particularities that define Kaliningradís identity do not mean that there is a realistic prospect of the kind of ďseparatismĒ that many in Russia view as a threat. The handful of activists that have advocated for separatist causes are an eccentric fringe with no political or cultural influence. Yet as pressures around Kaliningrad build, there are risks that a mix of economic frustration and cultural alienation from a distant central government could spill over into signs of discontent.

While the Putin regime in a previous stage of its development might have handled such protests carefully, in its current radicalized form there is a strong likelihood that it might view dissent in a region of such strategic value to Russia as an existential threat and respond violently in ways that lead to further escalation. The extent to which a paranoid fantasy of Kaliningrad separatism backed by Germany has become a common theme in Russian nationalist and military discourse also opens up risks that any clash between parts of the regionís population and state authorities could quickly be interpreted by Moscow as a sign that EU and NATO states are planning to take advantage of Russiaís troubles in Ukraine through a so-called color revolution in Kaliningrad.

For the EU, the risks surrounding Kaliningrad are difficult to calibrate. The region has remained quiet as a sense of patriotism mixed with tight regime repression has deterred any open expressions of dissent. Yet the deepening crisis faced by its inhabitants mean that it has the potential to become a geopolitical flashpoint between the EU and Russia as volatile as anything witnessed around Ukraine or Belarus. Right now, analysts and academics in Poland, Germany and Lithuania who could provide early warnings of potential destabilization in the region deserve much greater support and attention from EU institutions.

It is also incumbent on policymakers in the EU to look at what can be done to restore links with the population of such an important part of the Baltic community. However much Ukraine needs to be the EUís primary priority right now, a society so close to the heart of Europe is of crucial strategic importance not just to its immediate neighbors, but also to the EU as a whole. As a territory whose population sees no contradiction between Russian identity and commitment to building a shared European home based on the rule of law, Kaliningrad could provide a model for future engagement with the Russian ďmainland.Ē It could also be a symbol of solidarity that might help all peoples of the Baltic build a bridge to a better future and achieve what Immanuel Kant once called ďa state of contentment and peace of mind in which virtue is its own reward.Ē

Source:Ocnus.net 2022

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