A Bridge that Was Not Built, a Hong Kong that Did Not Prosper: Kaliningrad at the Cross-road of History
Collapse of the USSR was to have become a starlet hour for Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia´s “island” in the “heart” of Europe. Domestic and foreign commentators — excited with seeming end of the Cold War and the East-West confrontation — rushed into calling the oblast (whose geographical location is indeed a promising one) as Russia´s would-be “Baltic Hong Kong”. The reality however did not match the expectations. Bright images turned out to be a part of — what Russia´s former Minister of Foreign Affairs Igor Ivanov defined as — “romantic ride”. Now, with a quarter of a century gone, Kaliningrad seems to be returning to the point from which its arduous journey had begun: militarizing, secluded and centre-dependent entity.
Disappointing mismatch: wrong time, wrong place.
To the majority of Russians the 1990s are equal to the “New Time of Troubles”. Painful and humiliating for the rest of Russia, this historical interim came to be a particularly bitter experience to Kaliningrad Oblast that became cut off from the rest of the country and lost its “semi-privileged” status overnight.
The dismantling of the “iron curtain” and the demise of oppressive ideology, promised to bring proliferation of international contacts and economic prosperity, yet the reality turned out to be much more complex than might have initially appeared. The local population was not fully prepared to face the realities of the changed world. Having spent decades in a vacuum and on a life support from the centre, the local population was an underdog in comparison with goal-oriented and handsomely supported by the West geographic neighbours (especially, Poland). On top of that, hugely dependent on the needs of military the local economic model did not sustain falling expenditures on security. Moscow on the other hand, was drowning in the abyss of power struggle between various political fractions, leaving Kaliningrad without any strategy.
Europe on the other hand, was of rather limited support too, but for different reasons. The unification of Germany, and the birth of the European Union (EU) captured hearts and minds of the Europeans, biding nations of Europe unprecedentedly new level of economic prosperity and regional integration. This huge project left very little (if any) place for tiny Kaliningrad drowning in its own problems. At the same time, German leadership had no desire to meddle in and worsen potentially lucrative economic relations with the Russian Federation by getting involved in affairs of Kaliningrad and thus breeding suspicion of irredentism. True, paralyzed with fear of separatism (on frequent occasions self-made) Moscow´s sense of alarm was particularly acute when it came to this physically detached oblast with foreign past.
This dichotomy between one side´s inability to do something and the other´s lack of desire, had a dramatic effect on Kaliningrad. By 1998, the oblast had deteriorated into a “double periphery”: Moscow saw it as a distant, politically instable backwater region; while in European perception the oblast was nothing more but a “black hole”, “smugglers capital” and “former Konigsberg”.
Broken hopes and wasted opportunities: what went wrong?
The advent of Vladimir Putin bided success to Kaliningrad. Putin´s good relations with Germany (given its economic might and a bond with the oblast) and nascent dialogue with other foreign leaders gave raise to the new round of hopes for stabilization of relations and ultimate overcoming of confusion of the late Yeltsin period.
Indeed, the start was running: Kaliningrad was proclaimed a “pilot region” and included in so-called “Euro regions” project (that had proved its efficiency in Europe). Furthermore, a combination of internal political stability (in the face of Admiral Vladimir Yegorov, who became a new governor) and Moscow´s readiness to assume full financial responsibility for Kaliningrad Oblast started to deliver first (rather meagre though) results. On the surface, the oblast managed to overcome the “scourges” of the 1990s and made first steps toward fostering cooperation with its neighbours.
This trend however was shaken and ultimately disrupted by a combination of various factors. Seemingly coincidental, they were in many respects pre-ordained by the nature of the very history of relations between Russia and the West, that (as it turned out) did not manage to overcome the lack of trust and suspicion deeply rooted in past unpleasant experiences. But those were not the only factors that interfered. Above all, Russia´s western partners misunderstood the nature of transformations experience by the country in the beginning of the new millennium, paying very little (if any at all) attention to specific traits of Russian national identity, history and culture. One of the main mistakes was the lack of understanding of the role of military might that has for centuries remained a cornerstone of Russian statehood and national pride. This was fully reflected on the example of Kaliningrad Oblast: having suffered full financial collapse in 1998, next year the oblast co-hosted Zapad-1999 strategic military exercises proving that that full de-militarization of the oblast was the luxury that Moscow could not afford.
With the time passing by, the nagging feeling of “imitation of progress” in regard to Kaliningrad was in the air. Maturing Russia was not ready to dramatically change the trajectory of development of the oblast, whereas Europe was preparing for fateful enlargement(s) of 2004 and 2007.
In 2004/2005, with the outbreak of the Orange Revolution (ardently supported by Kaliningrad`s neighbour, Poland), Russia`s relations with the EU and the US entered into a new phase. The image of partnership was rapidly ebbing and along with it, hopes for Kaliningrad to become a “laboratory” or a “bridge of cooperation” melting down.
From “bridge” to “bubble”: the (un)expected metamorphosis of Kaliningrad.
The era of the “cold peace” ushered in the year 2007, has had a dramatic (yet in many respects quite predictable) effect on Kaliningrad. Ill-calculated, frequently irrational and sometimes openly provocative steps from both sides erased this little that had been achieved within 1991 — 2006.
The Eastern Partnership initiative (a deeply flowed project that infuriated Moscow), Russia`s non-committalness, the talks about potential installation of US anti-ballistic missiles in Central Europe resulted in increasing sabre rattling form the side of Moscow, where Kaliningrad (due to its geographic position) was pre-determined to play a key role. Continuous threats to deploy “Iskander-M” mobile ballistic missile systems on the territory of the oblast were complemented by two strategic military exercises under the code name Zapad (co-hosted by the oblast in 2009 and 2013) and numerous snap exercises.
It was however the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis in the late 2013, became a threshold that brought military-strategic importance of Kaliningrad to a qualitatively new level. This became particularly evident in 2016 and 2017. The deployment of “Iskander-M” complexes (and its integrated employment with S400 complexes) in Kaliningrad Oblast explicitly showed that the oblast could be viewed as Russia`s most formidable Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) “bubble”. This produced panic among oblast´s neighbours, increasing the sense of insecurity and upgrading the level of regional instability. The next move by the Russian side caused perhaps even greater effect. Zapad-2017 became both a weapon of information warfare and yet another evidence of Russian determination to boost military potential of its Western Flank (enabled by Russia`s abandonment of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe). At this juncture, it wold not be an exaggeration to assume that by 2017, the oblast evolved from “Kaliningrad puzzle” (as European experts used to call the oblast throughout 1990s) into “Kaliningrad headache”.
Militarization however is by no means the only distinctive feature of the post-2014 Kaliningrad. Worsening relations with the West turned the entity into an “ideological battlefield” — thesis upheld by a broad range of politicians, experts and even the Church hierarchs. The atmosphere of obscurantism has been handsomely amplified by the outbreak of witch hunt aiming to “unravel” traces of the reviving “Prussian Spirit”, “creeping Germanization” and even nascent neo-Fascist ideology. In the bitter end, one of the oldest and most reputable foreign NGO´s the German-Russian House was forced to close its doors. On top of that was an abhorrent story with local Professor of Sociology Anna Alimpieva, accused of “separatism” and “promotion of LGBT ideology among local youth” that triggered a wave of condemnation from the side of local intellectuals, professors and even the governor Anton Alikhanov who openly expressed his disgust.
Who is responsible and what is to be done?
First and foremost, one thing has to be made absolutely clear: trapped on in the middle of Russia-West conflict, it is Kaliningrad with its nearly million-large population, who are the main losers. Things however are unlikely to get better. The post-Crimean world order has made it increasingly more difficult for Moscow and its Western partners to maintain sober dialogue.
From her side, Russia will not step down from chosen path, meaning that military fortification of Kaliningrad will not come to an end, rendering the oblast a tool of political pressure in a powerplay with Russia`s western partners. Kaliningrad should be seen as an indispensable element in Russia`s “arch of counter-containment” stretching all the way from Crimea to the Baltic Sea. The last proof — the deployment of “Iskander-M” complexes in the oblast — should be viewed as a corroboration of my point. Soon enough the oblast will receive the most advanced means of Electronic Warfare (EW), rendering this fortress virtually impregnable.
At this juncture, the range of choices available to the West appears to be rather limited. The only realistic option (withdrawal of NATO forces is beyond imaginable) — continuation of containment policies against Russia through increasing presence of NATO forces in the region — is an extremely risky path. Danger of such an approach is self-evident, potential repercussion are dreadful but the logic of developments in the realm of political relations between Russia and the West does not offer any feasible alternative. This will remain intact for at least 2-3 years. After this period much will depend on situation in Ukraine (where overcoming of crisis is hardly imaginable in a short-term prospect) and the Middle East.
However, even if stabilization on these two theatres arrives, I am still sceptical that the path of Kaliningrad would be dramatically changed. Born as the “Soviet fortress”, the oblast is likely to remain the “Russian bastion” for years to come.