Kaliningrad: Russia’s Key to NATO Conflict
Kaliningrad, an exclave of Russia, has been an interesting piece of Russian foreign policy over the last decade. In 2016, it lost its SEZ status for duty free trade and survives almost entirely on monetary injection from Moscow.
Recent military developments have suggested it could be used as a forward operating base to springboard into conflict with one of its NATO neighbors. Another piece of the puzzle is that it is the only port Russia has on the Baltic Sea, but Kaliningrad relies heavily on resources from its neighbors such as water, electricity, and other necessities.
The latest developments show Russia has deployed a group of Bastion missiles to Kaliningrad. This piece is aimed at discussing the current situation, as well as events leading up to today, to emphasize the importance of Kaliningrad using a neorealist perspective. The level of analysis will hover at the state level, but may dip into the individual or systemic levels as needed for context.
Kaliningrad just might be the Achilles heel to relations between NATO, Russia, and the West.
If Kaliningrad were to become destabilized, the West might see another Crimean type operation or a Russian naval force clogging up the Baltic. The concern lies with a possible destabilization of Kaliningrad, is the presence of Nuclear missile capability. The world has never faced a severely destabilized territory that also possesses nuclear arms (Austin 2015).
Kaliningrad is Russia’s only remaining spoil from WWII. All other territories became independent after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. This territory is key to Russia as it is the only port on the Baltic sea for Russia, and its proximity to Central Europe, makes it a strategic firing position for missiles or for “green men” invasions into Poland, Lithuania, and Estonia. The Russian military buildup in Kaliningrad dates to the 2004 NATO expansion and the proposed US-Polish missile defense shield in 2008. Russia saw NATO make a large expansion with former Warsaw pact states and, for the first time, NATO members bordered Russia.
Since 2004, Europe has witnessed a constant balance of power between the new NATO members and Russia. After the 2004 NATO expansion, Russia immediately threatened moving nuclear capable missiles to Kaliningrad.
It wasn’t until the 2008 missile shield, planned for Poland and the Czech Republic, when Russia carried out her threat and moved Iskandar missile systems to the exclave (Zochowski 2016). With the latest NATO training exercises in Poland and movement of more troops to the region, Russia has, once again, attempted to balance the power in the region with last week’s missile moves.
When viewing these events through the neorealist perspective, the escalations become clear. It would describe this as a state ensuring its own survival, by implementing an offensive military presence, to increase relative power. This action has placed Russia and NATO into a security dilemma. We saw external balancing by NATO, when it allied with Poland, Lithuania, and Estonia by granting NATO membership. Then we saw internal balancing, with Russia announcing a rebuild of 152nd missile brigade and training specifically for those weapon systems.
The most logical and neorealist perspective for the next steps would be that Russia use Kaliningrad for anti-access and area denial in the Baltic. This could disrupt any NATO training missions occurring in the Baltic Sea and escalate tensions further. If this were to occur, the next move would be for NATO to contain Kaliningrad by blockading access to the port. This is the most probable standoff Russia and NATO could face in the Baltic. Another perspective and more unlikely, is that Russia may indeed be planning on introducing another Crimean type event in the region. Some have argued that Syria has been a live training ground to develop Russia’s military with the capabilities required for future incursions, especially after Russia’s displeasure with its military during the 2008 Georgia invasion (Standish 2015).
If Russia were to commit another territorial infringement along the Baltic coast, the neorealist might deem Kaliningrad as the viable excuse. This territory is already failing as an economy due to sanctions against Russia and removal of the SEZ status. Russia would use its military to “defend” a destabilizing Kaliningrad using the Baltic port and possibly crossing into NATO territory on the ground through Lithuania, Latvia, or Belarus. This might give Russia the leverage needed to annex a little more of Europe, as NATO would most likely not want to become involved in a direct conventional skirmish. Since the annexation of Crimea was not directly challenged by NATO or the West, we could expect to see the same behavior in the future from an ever-expanding Russia.
Today, the balance of power continues between Russia and NATO allies, and Kaliningrad will play an important role in Russia’s strategy against the West.