Putting the squeeze on Russia

The Russian exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea could be a pressure point to get the Kremlin’s attention

April 4, 2014 6:30AM ET

What Russia fears most — to be surrounded by NATO — has already happened.

A piece of Russia the size of Connecticut is totally disconnected from the rest of the country and surrounded by NATO members Lithuania (in the north) and Poland (in the south). This exclave on the Baltic Sea and its main city share a name: Kaliningrad. Known as Konigsburg when it was the capital of Prussia and the home of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, the city was heavily damaged during World War II. Most of the German population was either killed or fled, and the remainder was expelled by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

As Crimea is the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Kaliningrad is the home of its Baltic Fleet and has the country’s only ice-free European port. Both regions are essential to Russia’s sense of geopolitical security. A special economic zone with a strong manufacturing and fishing economy, Kaliningrad was slated to be Russia’s Hong Kong, an honor that will now go to Crimea. Russia saw Ukraine slipping into the West’s grasp, thereby completing Russia’s encirclement on the west from the Baltic to the Black seas. That possibility was totally unacceptable. So Russia took Crimea.

The U.S., Europe and NATO were caught off guard by President Vladimir Putin’s swift and violent action. They shouldn’t have been so surprised, as it was their wooing of Ukraine that fed Putin’s paranoia (or his realpolitik, depending on your point of view).

Some leaders weren’t so surprised, of course. In response to Russia’s Crimea grab, Marko Mihkelson, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Estonian parliament, was quoted in The Economist on March 29: “We said so many times: Russia is not a new Russia.” By this he meant that Russia was reverting to its nature of rapacious imperialism (though for Russia, Ukraine is not about empire, but survival).

The Estonians do, of course, have cause for concern. Something like a quarter of their country is ethnically Russian. (By comparison, Latvia has 27 percent and Lithuania 6 percent.) They fear invasion from a Russia that would justify such action as protecting its own people from oppression, a foreign policy principle previously enunciated by then-President Dmitry Medvedev after the war with Georgia in 2008.

But the Baltic states’ fear of invasion is baseless. The Russian population there is nothing like the clear majority in Crimea, though their histories do have some similarities. On an authoritarian whim, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954 as a present to mark the 300th anniversary of the union of Ukraine and Russia. It was an act entirely without practical significance at the time, since it was all part of the Soviet Union. The same could be said of Kaliningrad, which was left detached from the Russian Soviet republic after WWII. What did it matter? Kaliningrad was between the Lithuanian Soviet Republic and Poland, home of the Warsaw Pact. Neither would defy the Kremlin.

This changed with the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the Soviet Union. Suddenly Kaliningrad was cut off from the Russian mainland and surrounded by Poland and Lithuania, both soon to be part of NATO.  

If Crimea can be an exception to the Budapest Memorandum, why can't Kaliningrad be an exception to the Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany?

Oddly enough, though surrounded by NATO, the Russians don’t seem in the least cowed in Kaliningrad. In fact, they’ve used the area quite aggressively. Both presidents Putin and Medvedev have threatened to place missiles there in response to U.S. plans to install anti-missile systems in Eastern Europe. For the Russians, Kaliningrad has been more of a forward-staging area than an endangered exclave. When Russia launched live-fire war games in Kaliningrad right after the invasion of Crimea, the Poles and Lithuanians were so shaken that they invoked Article IV of the NATO charter, which calls for consultation with other NATO allies when “territorial integrity, political independence or security” is threatened. The U.S. responded by sending a dozen F-16s to Poland and six F-15s to Lithuania, as well as a KC-135 Stratotanker to refuel them in the air.  

Russia’s Achilles’ heel

But maybe Kaliningrad is not so much Russia’s extended fist as its Achilles’ heel. It is a point at which pressure can be brought to bear on Russia, in a way the Kremlin is more likely to feel and understand than the sanctions imposed thus far.

The West can rattle the Kremlin by questioning the validity of Kaliningrad’s belonging to Russia. The original agreements about the postwar boundaries of Germany, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were set out in the Potsdam Agreement of 1945. Those agreements were provisional and became final only 45 years later on Sept. 12, 1990, with the signing of the Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany. That in turn made German reunification possible on Oct. 3, 1990.

The Russians have always insisted that the U.S. promised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that if he removed Soviet troops from East Germany, NATO would not move “one inch east.” As Gorbachev himself put it: “The Americans promised that NATO wouldn’t move beyond the boundaries of Germany after the Cold War, but now half of Central and Eastern Europe are members, so what happened to their promises? It shows they cannot be trusted.”

Now, in response, the West can say — tongue in cheek, but deadpan — that if the final redrawing of Europe’s postwar map was in fact based on a broken agreement with Moscow, then perhaps it all should be reviewed again, with special attention paid to some of the more unnatural results of that political cartography, such as Kaliningrad. Also, in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the Russians agreed to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity when Kiev surrendered its nuclear weapons. If Crimea can be an exception to that agreement, why can’t Kaliningrad be an exception to the Final Settlement?

This diplomatic feint will require considerable skill and finesse. On the one hand, the West cannot seriously threaten the post-WWII and post–Cold War international order, but, on the other hand, it must shake up the Russians by pretending to be willing to do so.

This diplomatic offensive could be paralleled with military exercises using the F-15s and F-16s recently sent to the area, other assets being beefed up appropriately. Such a move would get Russia’s attention and show it that the West can play rough too. This would best be done before any serious negotiations begin over the fate of Crimea and Ukraine.

It is not true that power is the only thing that Russia understands. It is, however, the only thing that everyone understands.  

Richard Lourie is the author of the forthcoming book “King of the Wolves: Vladimir Putin and His Russia.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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