When, in a video conference on 20 May, Kaliningrad Governor Anton Alyokhanov tried to justify Vladimir Putin’s wish to retreat the construction sector in the enclave under his leadership by arguing for the disruption of logistics chains from Europe after the start of Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine, he received an instant retort.
He argued that it was inappropriate to invoke the special operation because the downturn in Kaliningrad’s construction sector was still expected in 2020-2021. Therefore, the reference to “let’s be straight” is inappropriate.
After all, the working conversation with the Governor, who will (formally) leave office in September, began idyllically enough; with Vladimir Putin’s statement that he was generally satisfied with the work of Anton Alikhanov and even hoped that he would continue in a similar spirit for the next few years.
It seems that a man accidentally hit a sensitive spot for the Kremlin’s master.
Earlier, on 16 May, in an interview with the portal DoRzeczy.pl, the former Deputy Minister of Defence of Poland and a columnist Romuald Szeremietiew, had argued in favour of the demilitarisation of Kaliningrad and the renaming of the area in the context of the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO, which had already taken on real organisational contours.
According to Romuald Szeremietiew, Kaliningrad in its current form and formal status will become a significant problem for an enlarged NATO – it is not appropriate for the Alliance to sit on a powder keg, so to speak.
It is therefore appropriate to ask the people of the region to stop associating themselves with the Soviet criminal Mikhail Kalinin, who, by the way, was also responsible for the massacre of Polish officers, policemen, intellectuals and civilian prisoners of war in the spring of 1940, in the forest of Katyn, close to Smolensk.
A couple of fragments that are probably not directly related in terms of meaning, but they are, let us call them, symbolically symptomatic, and, by association, they visibly pierce the existential oxymoron of the European enclave of Kaliningrad.
The Germans founded the University of Königsberg in East Prussia, the oldest university in what is now Russia. The philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who was a professor there, is now being ignored as much as he can by both the local (Kaliningrad) Russians and Moscow.
What (besides the right to ignore) in exchange for a vanishing construction business?
According to Elisabeth Bro, a specialist in international relations and security policy in Northern Europe at the American Enterprise Institute, tensions in the Baltic States may be rising, although an open confrontation between Russia and the West in the region is unlikely to happen.
In an interview with Svoboda (23 April), the expert wondered about the Kremlin’s decision to use the invasion of Ukraine to unprecedentedly escalate the security tensions in the so-called “grey zones” (a term used in the theory of international relations to describe the space “between peace and war”), which already include the Baltic Sea.
In this context, Elisabeth Bro recalled that Moscow had also delivered nuclear warheads to the Kaliningrad enclave for a period of time in 2018. To summarise: the problem is only one of logistics, nothing more. Unlike peaceful construction.
Kaliningrad is de facto the armoury of Russia, which can be used to make threatening moves against its neighbours – first and foremost the Baltic States, Poland, but also Finland and Sweden, which are already on the verge of NATO.
Kaliningrad, annexed from Germany in 1945, has always been a closed zone, a military outpost during Soviet times. After a brief “thaw” in the 1990s, it is returning to its Soviet status, so to speak, “in full”.
The enclave is currently home to the headquarters of the Baltic Sea Fleet of the Order of the Twice Red Banner, and the fleet itself is stationed in Baltiysk. Chernyakhovsk and Donskoye are military bases with thousands of military personnel living there.
The 11th Guards Army, formed in 2016, is stationed in the area (by analogy with World War II, it was the 11th Guards Army that captured Königsberg, in April 1945), and has a powerful air and air defence (S-400 zenith complexes and Pantsir surface-to-air missiles) group.
The Iskander missile complexes deployed in Kaliningrad have a range of 400 kilometres, and Iskander missiles are capable of carrying both “conventional” and nuclear warheads (and may have been “tested” in 2018?). Chkalovsk military airport has been reconstructed.
A powerful Voronezh-DM radar station has been built, capable of detecting targets practically over Europe. Three radio-electric defence regiments were also designated to defend the region against air attacks. And so on.
It is not for nothing that it has become a meme that Kaliningrad is the most militarised region in Europe, a ‘garrison city’, a ‘fortress without a state’, etc.
As Dmitry Gorenburg, a military expert at the CNA Corporation (Virginia, USA), points out, confrontation of Moscow with the West is gaining momentum, and from Kaliningrad it is possible to threaten “outwards” almost anywhere.
According to the expert, the growing importance of the Baltic Navy contrasts even with its relatively peaceful Soviet heritage, when its main mission was coastal defence. The Russians now have all the major shipyards in Kaliningrad where they test new ships. There seems to be a “visual shift” away from coastal defence.
On the other hand, already in the context of the war in Ukraine, a study by the Russian portal Projekt, published on 23 May, reveals that Moscow has been forced to throw all combat-capable units against its neighbour, with troops from 52 Russian regions from Kaliningrad to Kamchatka – all 11 land armies and one tank army, all airborne forces, all intelligence units, marines from all four navies…
“Demonstrations” of the “remaining” military equipment and forces are taking place “side by side” in Kaliningrad, possibly to “pre-emptively warn” neighbouring countries that – there are still forces left, don’t try it…
Let the growing paranoia of the Kremlin about the world around it be confirmed.
Objectively, this territory, which has been “preserved” in every sense since World War II, is still fragile from a security point of view because it is separated – like an enclave – from the “main” Russia.
Kaliningrad is still dependent on the goodwill of its neighbours for any supply, and it is common to think that the position of Lithuania is the most grateful in this respect.
It is true that times are particularly turbulent and the Kremlin is paranoid. In February 2020, in the article ” Fragile Eastern Flank of NATO in the Eastern Baltic”, we reminded you of the information published by the American portal The Daily Beast in October that year about modelling of the Russian attack along the Suwałki corridor carried out by the Californian think-tank RAND in 2014-2015.
According to it, the Russians would be able to mobilise 25 battalions (about 10,000 troops) quickly to launch an attack, while NATO would immediately mobilise 17 battalions (about 6,800 troops). This would allow Russia to quickly build a bridge along the 90-kilometre-long so-called Suwałki Corridor between Belarus and Kaliningrad and cut Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia off from NATO.
The military expert Yuri Fedorov, in his article “Belarusian Nod” published on the portal Svoboda. org (15 September 2020), pointed out that the deployment of several Russian air regiments, combat rifle and tank units on the “blades” of a nodal targeting the NATO “heartland” along the eastern border of Poland, the southern border of Lithuania, and the northern border of the Ukraine, would change the balance of forces in favour of Russia on the southern shore of the Baltic Sea.
NATO would face the extremely difficult dilemma of engaging in a “major war” with Russia with a significant possibility of escalation into a nuclear conflict, or accepting defeat and thus practically condemning itself to political suicide.
For a very long time, it was assumed in the expert community that Vladimir Putin and his generals were convinced that Western leaders would choose the second option.
Things are changing dynamically and there is talk of Western mobilisation. But the paranoia in the East is certainly not going to abate either, and the future is in doubt.
It is probably also appropriate to recall that the Suwałki Corridor is still called the Achilles’ heel of the Baltic States, with the militarised Kaliningrad on one side and Russia’s ally Belarus on the other.