Moscow’s Baltic Enclave: Potential Flashpoint for Cold War Redux?

International Relations, Politics, Regional History

The Curonian Spit is a distinctive geographical feature on the Baltic Coast, a narrow spit of sand-dune covered land some 98km in length. UNESCO describes it as a “unique example of a landscape of sand dunes under constant threat from (the) natural forces of wind and tide”[1]. Recently the Spit has been the scene of a different, human-produced threat, one evoking memories for locals of a past Cold War conflict.

Curonian Spit
Curonian Spit
Curonian Spit bridges the Russian oblast of Kaliningrad❈ with eastern Lithuania, thus being a landform shared by the two countries. The normally tranquil seaside atmosphere has in the last two years been replaced by a tense mood, especially on the Lithuanian side. The seeds of the tension has its origins in Russia’s military incursions into the Ukraine in 2014 and the ensuing conflict over the control of the Crimean Peninsula. The Lithuanian government interpreted the brazen nature of Moscow’s military intervention in that sovereign state as a warning to the possibility of it being next on President Putin’s takeover list[2].

In the aftermath of the events in Crimea in 2014, the lessons of history (the 50 year Soviet occupation of the Baltic States) gave the Lithuanians and the other Balts cause to fear that a new invasion might be on the cards. Since then there has been immediate and tangible evidence of the perceived threat from Russia. Moscow has undertaken a renewed military build-up in Kaliningrad, adding an Air Force detachment and early warning system (Voronezh radar) to the land forces already on the ground[3].

Geopolitics plays a part in heightening the threat to the Baltics. Lithuania’s safeguard (as well as that of Latvia and Estonia) is membership of NATO, however the location of this chunk of Russian territory (Kaliningradskaya Oblast) cuts the Baltic States (henceforth BS) off from the rest of western Europe. Adding to these concerns is the fact that Russia’s Baltic fleet is stationed at Kaliningrad. NATO’s countermove has seen it propose sending battalions of 1,000 (mostly US) troops each to the BS and Poland.

The Vilnius government’s reaction to the Crimea crisis in military terms was several-fold – forming a Rapid Response Force (RRF); reintroducing a national draft to bolster Lithuania’s paltry regular force (8,000 troops); mobilising volunteer partisans (eg, the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union). The motivation is the possibility of direct military intervention by Russia, but the more immediate worry is the sense that the Kremlin could well employ the same tactics as in Ukraine, using pro-Russian (Udijan) separatist insurgents within Lithuania to destabilise the country[4].

imageBoth sides claim that their militarisation of the Kaliningrad/ Baltic region is a necessary counter to the actions of the other, recreating in miniature the standoff scenario of the Cold War. NATO’s take on Russian intentions is that it wants to use Kaliningrad to strategically position surface-to-air (Iskander) missiles to block NATO access to BS and northern Poland in the event of an attack on these member states[5].

Lithuania’s and the other BS’ concerns about Russia extend to the possibility of hybrid war. Russia has also adopted a soft power approach to undermining the BS governments through a variety of means, eg, influencing electoral results by fuelling social tensions within the Russian minorities (less effective in Lithuania than in the other, more Russian populated countries); harming BS economies through economic and energy blockades, wilfully destroying infrastructures; trying to weaken BS faith in the security structure provided by NATO[6].

Both NATO and Russia have stepped up their displays of “muscle flexing” in Kaliningrad in an attempt to intimidate the other side. During August 2016, a large contingent of NATO ground troops fired artillery and mortars close to the border with the Russian province. At the same time Russian troops drilled close by the oblast’s capital. In September the Russian Baltic Fleet undertook exercises off the coast as a demonstration of the Republic’s naval power. Both sides have extensively conducted war games in Kaliningrad … all part of an ongoing tit-for-tat jockeying for advantage in the Baltics. Russia and NATO both claimed to be reacting to border encroachments which had put at risk its national security[7].

The thousands of NATO forces on the ground are clearly intended to provide a deterrence to any plan by the Russians for aggression against the BS. The deliberate execution of large-scale army manoeuvres in Kaliningrad on the borders with Lithuania and Poland by Russia are aimed at destabilising the border area and shaking local confidence in the Alliance[8].

It should not be overlooked that the militarisation of the Baltic area cuts both ways! Earlier this year NATO’s “Anaconda-2016” operation was comparably large in scale to anything the Kremlin has engineered in Kaliningrad. A 10-day exercise involving 31,000 troops from 24 countries … a blatant power-play that was criticised by the German foreign minister for being a Western show of “sabre-rattling and warmongering”[9].

Most commentators play down the likelihood of the tense stand-off in the Baltic region between NATO and Russia escalating into an open war, however it remains a critical hotspot in international circles. There have been recent “close-call” incidents between US and Russia military personnel, two such in April 2016 involved Russian fighter planes and US warships.

The Baltics’ concerns as to what the Russians might do in Kaliningrad are matched by other members of the Alliance, not least of which the US. The Pentagon and military think tanks, in the light of Moscow’s readiness to intervene in Ukraine and more recently in Syria, are not optimistic about their prospects in a military conflict with Russia in Kaliningrad, were it to eventuate. US military analysts concede that the US/NATO would be no match for the Russian forces given the level and quality of Moscow’s military installations in the oblast[10].

From the Kremlin’s viewpoint, Kaliningrad is integral to Russia’s western defence system. In ‘Putinspeak’ Kaliningrad is part of the “Russian World” – moreover the Baltics as a whole are part of that world, which in Putin’s thinking are “lost lands (that Russia) has a historic right to”[11]. Often, Putin observers have drawn a link between the image portrayed by the Russian president (autocratic strongman, ex-KGB, ultra-nationalist) with his supposed designs on a more expansive role in the region. Putin has justified any extra-border aggression on Russia’s part as being consistent with his unwavering commitment to protect ethnic Russians anywhere outside in the world[12].

Unequivocally Putin’s aggressive forays into Georgia (2008) and the Ukraine (2014) underscore that urge for Russian expansionism, psychologically perhaps revealing a desire to regain the leadership role of the former USSR. Many in the West are quick to pounce on Putin’s public pronouncements about Russia asserting or defending its rights in the world as proof of an aim on his part to establish a Pan-Slavic empire, the notion of one people (Slavs), one single political entity (supposedly a hankering back to the glory days of either the Tsarist era or the Russian-dominated Soviet Union)[13].

Although speculation has been rife in the international media that Putin will launch a full-scale attack on the Baltics (à la Crimea), replete with dire warnings that WWIII is imminent, there is no consensus that this is a likely outcome. Rather, most commentators see a persistence of the tension that has been building up, an environment in Kaliningrad which is highly weaponised and therefore continues to be unstable and dangerous.

A more likely scenario than outright invasion of BS by Russia is that Moscow will try to foment separatism, inflame the local radicals and militants to rebel against the Baltic governments – an objective that may be more attainable in Latvia and Estonia with ethnic Russian populations of 27% and 24% respectively, than in Lithuania (less than 6% ethnic Russians). Russia may also ‘parachute’ in Russian activists and volunteers over the border to act as “fifth columnists”[14].

For the Baltic countries membership of both the EU and NATO seems to offer reassurance, its citizens by and large simply get on with their daily lives, neither panicked or pessimistic about the shadow of Putin’s Russia on their doorsteps. An air of edgy uncertainty, a tenseness nonetheless prevails as everyone waits and watches for Putin’s next move⍁.

Suwalki Gap
Suwalki Gap

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❈ the city of Kaliningrad, incorporated into the USSR at the end of WWII, was previously Königsberg, a German city (before that it was part of East Prussia). Originally, the area was called Sambia, after an Old Prussian tribe by that name
⍁ See also the following, related blog ‘Kaliningrad Oblast: Withering of the Russian Connexion?’

[1] ‘Curonian Spit’, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, www.whc.unesco.com
[2] The Curonian Spit is not the only hotspot in Russia’s western sphere, another identified by Western strategists and carefully watched by Poland, Lithuania and the US is Suwalki Gap. The Gap is a thin corridor of land separating Poland and Lithuania and stretching for about 100km in length. The NATO allies worry that it could be relatively easy for Russia to capture the Gap, and in so doing, connect Kaliningrad directly with Russia’s ally Belarus … at the same time it would cut off the Baltics from all NATO member territory and further encircle Poland to its northeast, M Bearak, ‘This tiny stretch of countryside is all that separates Baltic states from Russian envelopment’, Washington Post, (20-Jun-2016), www.washingtonpost.com
[3] ‘Russian Kaliningrad region poses challenge at NATO summit’, Daily Mail, (Aust.) 7-Jul-2016, www.dailymail.co.uk. The contrary view of Moscow is that the Vilnius government is using the fear of Russia to mobilise its own people, (view of a Russian political scientist), ‘If Russia Gets Crimea, Should Germany Get Kaliningrad?’, The Moscow Times, (21-Mar-2014), www.themoscowtimes.com. Lithuanian officials retorted that Russia was trying to buy off Lithuania soldiers to spy on behalf of the Kremlin, R Emmott & A Sytas, ‘Nervous Baltics on war footing as NATO tries to deter Russia’, Reuters, (13-Jun-2016), www.reuters.com
[4] K Engelhart, ‘Lithuania Thinks the Russians Are Coming – and It’s Preparing with Wargames’, 18-May-2015, Vice News, www.news.vice.com; A Nemtsova, ‘Ground Zero and the New Cold War’, The Daily Beast, (29-Aug-2016), www.thedailybeast.com
[5] L Kelly, ‘Russia’s Baltic outpost digs in for standoff with NATO’, Reuters, 5-Jul-2016, www.mobile.reuters.com
[6] J Hyndle-Hussein, ‘The Baltic States on the conflict in Ukraine’, OSW Commentary,, (25-Jan-2015), www.osw.waw.pl
[7] H Mayer, ‘Putin’s Military Buildup in the Baltics Stokes Invasion Fears’, Bloomberg, (6-Jun-2016), www.bloomberg.com
[8] ‘Lithuania, Poland, NATO Drills Aimed at Rising Tensions on Russian Border’, Sputnik News, (02-Jun-2016), www.sputniknews.com
[9] for a contrary view from a Western source that downplays the destabilising intentions of Putin in the Baltics see P Gleupp, ‘Putin’s “Threats” to the Baltics: a Myth to Promote NATO Unity’, CounterPunch, (12-Jul-2016), www.counterpunch.org
[10] See K Mizokami, ‘How a Russia vs. NATO war would really go down’, The Week, (16-Jun-2016), www.theweek.com; ‘Baltic Conflict Would Spell Defeat for US, NATO Against Russia’, Sputnik News, (04-Feb-2016), www.sputniknews.com
[11] ‘The Invasion of Crimea is Hurting Russia’s Other Enclave’, (Interview with Ola Cichowlas), Forbes, 6-Jun-2014, www.forbes.com;
[12] characterised as the “Putin Doctrine”, R Coalson, ‘Putin Pledges To Protect All Ethnic Russians Anywhere. So, Where Are They?’, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (10-Apr-2014), www.rferl.org
[13] or perhaps to an ideological, mythic state, neither East or West but the “otherness” of a multi-ethnic melange of a state, one with Mongol roots, under the hegemony of “Great Russian Nationalism”, P Mishra, ‘Putin’s Eurasian Fantasy’, Bloomberg L.P. (17-Mar-2014). Putin’s use of the term Novorossiya (New Russia) in 2014 in reference to the Ukraine situation is another association with the (Tsarist) past and a manifestation of new-found Russian assertiveness.
[14] ‘Is Russia really a threat to the Baltic States?’, Al Jazeera, 8-Jul-2016, www.aljazeera.com