Military exercises right next to civilian holidaymakers.
In a turbulent year, Russia's interventions in the Middle East and the United States have absorbed the attention of the global news media. Though its effort to regain influence over Ukraine has slid into stalemate, the seeming geopolitical successes the Kremlin has enjoyed have generated the impression that Vladimir Putin's regime is successfully undermining the cohesion of the Western alliance system. With blatant computer hacking and aid to populist parties designed to influence the internal politics of the European Union and United States or deepening involvement in the Syrian war, the Russian government has certainly managed to project the image of an expanding power on the cusp of overcoming internal and external challenges to its position.
Amplifying such growing concern over Russian expansionism in the West have been developments in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. A Russian region on the Baltic Sea cut off at the end of the Cold War by Lithuania and Poland as well as nearby Belarus from the rest of the Russian Federation, Kaliningrad has become a key part of a wider Kremlin strategy focused on military rearmament and expansion of strategic infrastructure. Even before Russia's seizure of Crimea and the creeping invasion of Donbas, moves by the Russian military to increase the numbers of troops and ships stationed in Kaliningrad raised concerns among the states surrounding it. With Putin's return to the presidency in 2012, further initiatives to increase the reach of the anti-aircraft systems stationed in the region as well as repeated threats to station Iskander medium range missiles there only stoked this sense of alarm over the extent to which Russian forces in Kaliningrad represent a deadly threat to the security of NATO states.
With hostilities escalating in Ukraine, large scale military exercises in 2014 involving amphibious landings in Kaliningrad as well as incidents off the Swedish coastline that seemed to indicate that naval forces stationed there were being used for covert operations led to considerable focus withing NATO on the Kremlin's strategic plans for the region. Concern that Russian tank brigades using Belarus as a springboard could use the so-called Suwalki gap to cut off the Baltic Republics from the rest of NATO by linking up with units in Kaliningrad led the Polish and Lithuanian governments to step up security measures around the exclave. With the Russian military following through on its threats to station Iskander missiles in the summer of 2016, a wider range of NATO states including Germany and Denmark have come to focus on the threats that developments in Kaliningrad seem to pose to Europe's security. The resulting spiral of NATO exercises around Kaliningrad and Russian military exercises within the exclave have cemented the impression that the Kremlin's policy towards the region is part of of a grand strategy to cement Russia's status as a global power.
Yet as with so much of the Russia's military posturing in Europe and the Middle East, there are more complex internal political dynamics shaping the Kremlin's actions in Kaliningrad. While geopolitical analysts remain fixated on debates over the seeming success of hybrid warfare and hacking attacks whose impact is still not entirely clear, internal social and economic pressures within the region remain largely ignored in assessments of the factors motivating the Russian state to turn it into a fortress at the heart of Europe. This neglect by analysts focused on grand strategy of internal dynamics within the exclave that have long been noted by scholars specialised in the history of the Baltic region may lead policymakers to fail to appreciate the importance of factors that could help de-escalate tensions around Kaliningrad. Conversely such potential blindness among Western policymakers to how internal developments within the Kaliningrad region may be shaping the Kremlin's aggressive stance could turn the region into a geopolitical flashpoint that could make the Ukraine crisis look like a late afternoon tea party by comparison.
From East Prussia to Kaliningrad Oblast - 1945
The unique social and political dynamics of the Kaliningrad region that are causing the Kremlin such concern remain rooted in the way in which Moscow originally acquired the territories that now constitute this exclave. Though most German lands east of the Oder and Neisse rivers were handed to Poland, a large swath of East Prussia was taken over by the USSR and apportioned to the Russian union republic rather than the Soviet successor Republics of the once independent Baltic states. In the short term, attempts by the Soviet government to ensure the near complete suppression of any German legacy from pre-1945 East Prussia in the newly reconstitute oblast of Kaliningrad seemed to be destined for success. The mass expulsion of the German population was followed by the colonisation of the cleared territory by settlers from across the USSR. With large parts of Kaliningrad deemed a military zone closed to foreigners under Stalin and Khrushchev, the new Soviet settlers in the city were discouraged from discussing the region’s pre-1945 history.
The settler population itself was made up of former Red Army soldiers as well as rural and urban professionals that had been effectively press ganged from across the Soviet Union into settling in ruined towns and villages. While farmers or industrial workers from far flung cities in the Soviet north and Siberia such as Murmansk and Norilsk volunteered with great enthusiasm, city dwellers from Ukraine sent to rebuild the city of Kaliningad and staff its various institutions had to be coerced into remaining by the NKVD and police. Despite these initial pressures, by the late 1950s the population of the region had stabilised to the extent that reconstruction efforts made considerable progress.
Like other settler societies dominated by a strong military presence, Kaliningraders recreated much of the state culture of their society of origin in an environment unmediated by the influence of a strong indigenous presence. For such a regionally and culturally diverse group of settlers the key unifying factor remained the institutions and rituals of a shared Soviet experience. This regional dynamic only began to shift once the reforms introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev radically altered the social structures of the USSR as a whole. As separatist sentiment swept the Baltic Republics that divided it from the RSFSR, Kaliningrad became increasingly cut off from the rest of the Soviet Union. At the same time, the collapse of Soviet state meant that the military institutions that had shaped Kaliningrad life since 1945 were suddenly less socially dominant. Moreover, the contraction of employment opportunities in what territorially isolated Kaliningraders were coming to call the Russian “mainland” created a situation where by the mid-1990s there were far fewer incentives for graduates to leave the region for Moscow or St Petersburg.
Facing their own severe economic downturn exacerbated by the region’s territorial position, local political and cultural elites were faced with a difficult set of choices. With the Yeltsin presidency mired in infighting and wars in the Caucasus, Kaliningrad remained a peripheral priority for the Russian state. As both the military and industrial pillars of the region’s economy fell apart, political leaders and academics who had once served the Communist Party of the Soviet Union searched for funding and trade opportunities that closer links with the European Union might generate. With the Soviet order that had once shaped the region’s cultural frames of reference defunct, both elites and the wider population also began to look for alternative historical and cultural frames through which to express a regional sense of identity increasingly distinct from a distant Russia Federation.
Though interest in Kaliningrad’s pre-Soviet history had already been building within the universities in the late 1960s, this activity had remained largely focused on the preservation of the remnants of Prussian architecture. Such small scale activism that couched critiques of the Soviet present through an interest in a German past began to gain a degree of momentum over the course of the 1980s as a growing number of Kaliningrad born residents took interest in city beautification initiatives at a moment of state decay. Though not yet a direct challenge to Soviet ideology, initiatives such as the establishment of the Deutsch-Russisches Haus in 1993 or the restoration of the Lutheran Salzburg church in the town of Gusev (or Gumbinnen before 1945) represented a major shift in historical discourse in a region where discussion of the pre-1945 past had been a taboo only a decade before. As the need for external investment became increasingly clear, even state officials provided some support to historical reconstruction efforts in an effort to explore possible routes to reviving the local economy.
The German Fish Market and the Soviet House of Culture
With this growing willingness to open up debate about Kaliningrad’s pre-Soviet history, the conditions for a full blown process of reconciliation with potentially generous German partners were in place by the time the USSR ceased to exist in December 1991. By the mid-1990s, German tourism as well as more limited inward investment from German individuals and businesses helped stabilise the region’s economy. With the removal of state travel restriction, better off Kaliningraders able to get visas at newly opened consulates could cross into Poland and even Germany with increasing frequency. Such regular access along with the chaotic and crime ridden politics of the exclave fuelled cross-border smuggling, causing concern among Polish law enforcement agencies worried that such instability that would hold up Poland’s accession to the EU. Where tourism and trade provided the basis of formal cooperation, the illegal extraction of amber and extensive smuggling opportunities also created deep bonds between corrupt officials and organised crime on both sides of the Kaliningrad-Poland border. Yet this pervasive criminal activity also increased daily interactions between Kaliningraders, Germans and Poles at a time at which the region’s population had significantly less contact with everyday life in the rest of Russia.
The opening of German, Polish and Lithuanian consulates as well as cultural institutes and Catholic and Lutheran churches marked a period during which the EU developed ambitious plans to foster economic initiatives through which the exclave could act as a bridge to help Russia’s wider integration into Western institutions. As Vladimir Putin's first wife was a Kaliningrad native, between 2000 and 2007 great interest was shown by the Kremlin in projects that could help improve the city's profile.The exclave’s unique geostrategic position and the great interest of Germans and Poles of East Prussian origin helped turn the region’s pre-Soviet history from an ideologically embarrassing relic to be avoided into a major economic asset for the political and cultural elites of the region. In an environment where all the certainties of Soviet society had collapsed, the economic opportunities as well as the yearning for a new sense of civic identity among large segments of the population created the basis for a re-engagement with the German past.
However much such rapidly deepening contact between Kaliningraders and their European neighbours opened up new opportunities for local elites, it also heightened concerns in Moscow over the possibility of a creeping European or even German takeover of the exclave. As the Putin government concentrated power in the hands of the presidency the space for local officials in border oblasts like Kaliningrad to strengthen links with their European neighbours became more constricted. Russian security services fostered networks of nationalist and neo-Soviet organizations in the region to counter what they considered to be potential separatist tendencies. By 2008, even once obscure Cossack groups enjoyed funding in a region whose pre-1945 history and post-1945 population had little direct contact with Cossack traditions. Concerned that the bulk of the region’s population had repeatedly visited Europe while only a minority had visited “mainland” Russia more than once, federal authorities also initiated a programme of state grants for school visits to Moscow and St Petersburg. Under pressure from Moscow, by 2013 local politicians began to distance themselves from the previous decade’s effort to engage with the region’s history, instead focusing on a revival of nostalgia for the supposed military greatness of Soviet society.
These step by step moves to reimpose central control over the region were not entirely successful. Having eliminated gubernatorial elections in 2005, the Putin administration imposed an outsider to rule the region in the person of Georgy Boos. This proved an unfortunate choice, as Boos’s attempts to take control of various local forms of corrupt state revenue sharing pushed local elites too far and offended a wider population unwilling to pay additional fees to finance increases in institutional graft. These tensions culminated in a wave of protests that forced the removal of the governor and his replacement in 2010 by Nikolai Tsukanov, a locally born politician who balanced support from Kaliningrad power-brokers with demonstrations of loyalty to President Putin. Though Governor Tsukanov was heavily involved in deeply corrupt local business networks he remained unwavering in his loyalty to the Putin government. Yet as a locally rooted political figure, he also demonstrated commitment to the expansion of the university as well as the continued restoration and beautification of the historic quarters of Kaliningrad and other towns in the region. As part of a process to mollify local discontent, further state financial grants were disbursed to the local university and historical reconstruction efforts. At the same time, the Russian Ministry of Interior secure partial access to the Schengen area for Kaliningrad residents with the EU Commission and confirmed the continuation of the Special Economic Zone framework for a further five years.
Even this rearguard action to preserve the profitable particularites Kaliningrad had come to enjoy within the Russian political system could not withstand the pressures unleashed by the Russian army’s occupation of Crimea and escalation against the Ukrainian state in the Donbas region. Though initial EU sanctions in response to the Kremlin's actions did not directly affect Kaliningrad, the counter-sanctions set by the Kremlin limiting exports of agricultural goods from the EU marked the first step towards the unravelling of the region’s special relationship with its German, Lithuanian and Polish neighbours. A succession of military exercises that were seen as provocative by the Polish government along with restrictions on the travel of police and judicial officials set a tone that disrupted cooperation between the region’s institutions and their EU counterparts. The cancellation of Kaliningrad’s privileges as a Special Economic Zone on 1 April 2016 effectively crippled the basis for business collaboration between the region and European Union countries overnight, while the replacement of Nikolai Tsukanov as governor in August 2016, initially by a former member of the FSO (the Kremlin's personal protection unit) and then a young technocrat linked to a rising circle of officials within the presidential administration, indicated a systematic attempt to limit the power of local cultural and business elites.
In this increasingly repressive environment, the basis for cultural and economic collaboration between Kaliningrad’s institutions and European partners was systematically undermined. Prominent Moscow commentators began openly speaking of concerns of German-backed separatism in Kaliningrad. This statement in 2014 by the editorial board of the influential and extreme nationalist Zavtra magazine was a characteristic example of such paranoia:
"Experts do not exclude the possibility that events similar to those in Kyiv could take place in Kaliningrad. According to them, we must clearly understand that is another question. If the West wants to take revenge for Crimea, it is likely that the object of this will be the Kaliningrad region, cutting it off from the main part of Russia."
Teaching of and public engagement with the region’s German history has now once again come under the scrutiny of the security services, forcing academics to take up positions at German universities or shift to less fraught research topics. In a region where for twenty-five years much of the population and local elites operated in an environment in which it was possible to consider oneself both a European as well as a good Russian, sudden shifts in the political outlook of the top echelons of government in Moscow are forcing individuals and institutions to choose between these two forms of identity.
Whether the people of Kaliningrad are in a position to pursue economic and cultural projects increasingly at variance to Eurasianist rhetoric that portrays Russia as a civilization separate from Europe that is popular with the circle around Vladimir Putin is a more than open question. At a moment when meetings run by academics to discuss European culture such as the literature of Kafka and Orwell come under attack by pseudo-Cossacks who receive state funding, the space to engage with an identity narrative that reconciles a society built by Soviet settlers with the long German history of the region looks increasingly bleak. Though Moscow may succeed in eroding any sense of cultural distinctiveness in the region, it is equally possible that a particular regional sensibility built around regular contact with the region’s neighbours and engagement with the region’s diverse past may be difficult to eradicate. If that is that case, attempts by the Putin administration to impose political and cultural uniformity could become counter-productive, entrenching exactly the sense of distinctiveness within the Kaliningrad region that the Russian central government fears might become a foundation for separatist aspirations.
It is in the context of these complex internal social and economic fissures within Kaliningrad that part of the Kremlin's motivations to isolate the region through constant military sabre-rattling need to be understood. While stationing Iskander missiles, increasing troop numbers and running aggressive naval patrols all fit into the Kremlin's wider foreign policy strategy of keeping the West off balance, these military measures also fulfil a crucial domestic function in helping to keep Kaliningrad society tightly under Moscow's control. This use of military escalation helps suppress any potential local initiative that could entrench the region's sense of cultural and political distinctiveness from the rest of the Russian Federation in three ways.
First, by increasing tensions with neighbouring states it undermines the extensive web of personal and business relationships between Kaliningraders and Poles, Germans and Lithuanians that could help provide the local population with sources of income and influence outside of the Kremlin's reach. Between 1992 and 2012 collaboration between intellectuals, businessmen, state officials, policemen and even gangsters on both sides of the border between Kaliningrad and the European Union opened up a path away from dependence on the Russian military or the Kremlin's patronage networks. The ostentatious military displays in Kaliningrad in the past two years have gone a long way to undermining these links. It was Russian exercises timed provocatively close to NATO meetings in Poland that led the new PiS government in Warsaw as well as the Lithuanians to terminate their support for the Schengen visa arrangements for Kaliningrad citizens. In conjunction with the drastic changes in the region's Special Economic Zone framework, this has put thousands of businesses dependent on trade and tourism with EU countries under enormous pressure, making the region even more dependent on subsidies from Moscow. From the Kremlin's point of view the very costly intense military activity in the region has proven good value for money by arresting Kaliningrad's drift to Europe.
Secondly, constant sabre-rattling has distracted the West as well as many local inhabitants from an extensive local crackdown designed to further undermine institutional links between Kaliningrad and its Baltic neighbours. Since the summer of 2015, a whole range of initiatives that linked the region's cultural and educational life with that of other EU states have been severely cut or wound down entirely. The closure of the Klaus Mehnert Institute for European Studies and the impending threat to declare the Deutsch-Russisches Haus a foreign agent are part of a wider state assault on institutions that have fostered discussion over the Kaliningrad region's European history and strengthened close ties many Kaliningraders have built with artists and intellectuals from Germany, Poland or Lithuania. By declaring Kaliningrad a potential geopolitical flashpoint that needs to be defended at all costs, the Kremlin has effectively trapped Kaliningraders in a war bubble that isolates them from their neighbours and enables the FSB and other security services to crackdown on local civil society with a minimum of internal or external resistance. Shocked and demoralised, in the short term those milieus within Kaliningrad with a commitment to internal reform and close relations with EU states are too preoccupied with the struggle for survival to take any action that can counteract the social impact of militarization.
Finally an atmosphere in which war seems imminent can empower those parts of Kaliningrad society close to the military that were always hostile to attempts to engage with the legacies of the region's German history. Since 2012 the military build up has been accompanied by parades and battle re-enactments designed to emphasise narratives from Soviet history that focus on wars against German and other European states. Such constant propaganda bombardment coupled with repeated war scares has strengthened a sense of isolation among a large cross-section of the Kaliningrad population. Though a significant number of Kaliningraders are still willing to express discontent about local corruption or the chaotic turnover in the regional assembly and the governor’s office, the hostility of many fellow citizens towards dissent in a perceived time of war hampers such efforts. The way constant images and direct contact with a highly active military infrastructure reinforces this sense of mobilisation has sustained the loyalty of many Kaliningraders who had been willing to protest against Moscow only a decade before.
The war bubble in which Kaliningrad remains trapped may stabilise the region in Moscow’s favour in the short term. But the high level of economic harm inflicted by the Kremlin on the region in the name of national greatness and local control is storing up problems for the future. Far more heavily exposed to the greater extent of prosperity and stability in Germany, Poland and Lithuania than the population of a distant Russian Federation, Kaliningraders remain deeply susceptible to economic frustration and social dissent. A sense of cultural distinctiveness based on a unique cultural relationship to a European present and a German past may prove impossible for the Kremlin to eradicate, creating further points of tension between the inhabitants of the region and distant rulers in Moscow.
This is not to suggest that the chimera of Kaliningrad separatism that hardliners in the Kremlin seem to fear as much as Putin's deepest opponents abroad such as Paul Goble hope for is a realistic scenario. Movements that have advocated separatist causes have remained a fringe phenomenon in the region. For all the local emphasis on distinctive cultural and social roots, the great majority of Kaliningraders still see themselves as loyal Russians. Despite the fascination with Immanuel Kant and other symbols of a German past, it is extremely unlikely that the local population would deliberately abandon the Russia Federation for some new form of Baltic statehood.
Nevertheless, the fact that so many in the exclave see no inherent contradiction in embracing both a shared European space of engagement with their neighbours as well as a strong commitment to Russian culture could help trigger a wider geopolitical crisis. As much a legacy of the very transnational Soviet founding moment of this society as any traces of East Prussia, a sense of distinctiveness based on an interaction between deep contact with a wider Europe and strong loyalty to Russian identity could foster ways of approaching confronting deteriorating conditions among Kaliningraders that could elicit a violent overreaction from Moscow. A sense shared by scholars, businessmen and even gangsters that things are done differently in Kaliningrad from the rest of Russia could revive a culture of protest against representatives of a central state that only seem to be worsening the region’s economic crisis.
As with other regions in Russia any mass protest in Kaliningrad will most likely focus on specific local economic concerns over issues such as factory closures or bureaucratic corruption. In the eyes of the more paranoid elements within the Kremlin, protests that would reach the scales of those that toppled Georgy Boos in 2009 could swiftly become interpreted as a form of so-called colour revolution driven by putative internal traitors and Western intelligence services it so deeply fears. Such a misreading of local protest in such a militarised region could elicit an escalatory response by a Russian leadership that believes that any hint of separatism in any part of Russia could mark the first steps towards the collapse of the state. Coupled with violently counter-productive police measures more likely to alienate than win over frustrated Kaliningraders, such a crisis would also very likely lead to a military surge in the Baltic to prevent European intervention in the region’s affairs that could have unpredictable consequences.
While we are still some way from a Kaliningrad crisis, the risks a further deterioration of political and economic conditions in the region pose for global stability should not be underestimated. As long as the Kremlin remains hellbent on sacrificing the economic future of Kaliningraders at the altar of Russian greatness, pressures will continue to build up in the exclave that could burst open with unpredictable results. For the EU and the states neighbouring the region there remain few good choices. If they go too far in trying to restart the exclave’s integration in European institutional frameworks they risk stoking Kremlin paranoia that Berlin is plotting some form of reunification with the last remnants of East Prussia. Yet if Europeans allow Kaliningraders to remain trapped in Moscow’s war bubble they compound an atmosphere of isolation that makes a moment of crisis more likely.
One of the few measures the EU, Germany, Poland and Lithuania could pursue to reduce these risks would be a reinstatement of the limited Schengen visa access agreement for Kaliningraders that proved such a boon to the region’s economy. The PiS government in Warsaw may prove resistant to the return of easy mobility most likely to benefit Polish regions bordering Kaliningrad that are ruled by its political opponents in the opposition PO. Nevertheless, providing Kaliningraders with this lifeline could play help to act as a safety valve that stabilises the exclave’s economy and reduces the likelihood of a sudden explosion of discontent.
As a consequence Brussels, Berlin and Vilnius should exert the necessary pressure on PiS to reconsider. Contrary to the suspicions of more swivel eyed elements in the Kremlin, the European Union’s tendency to prize institutional evolution over revolutionary change would also make it more likely to encourage a de-escalation of any mass protests if they were to occur. Increased contact between Kaliningrad civil society and EU institutions through the restoration of the limited Schengen access agreement would actually reduce the risk of conflict by providing European officials greater means with which to encourage Kaliningraders to express discontent in ways that would avoid a dangerous crisis.
It is therefore unfortunate that European states preoccupied with a range of other problems have allowed themselves to be distracted by Russian military bluster from the internal faultlines within Kaliningrad society. Unless this changes, Kaliningrad will become another one of those geopolitical crises that everyone sort of saw coming but did nothing to prevent.