A small Russian enclave in Eastern Europe is playing an outsized role in tensions between East and West. It is Kaliningrad, a tiny area that sits at the center of a dangerous expansionist game between Russia and NATO. Here’s why people are worried.
Kaliningrad, Russia’s strategic seaport city, seems an unlikely part of Russia when spotted on a map. Surrounded by Lithuania and Poland (NATO countries) and cut off from the Russian motherland, Kaliningrad appears small and alone. It is the western-most point in Russian territory, making it an outpost of extreme strategic importance.
Map: Kaliningrad sits on the Baltic sea between Poland and Lithuania without direct land connections to Russia. .
Serious Tensions Building
The relationship between NATO and Russia, which has often been fraught with distrust and ambiguity, devolved rapidly after the events that unfolded in Ukraine caused both sides to rethink their military strategy. In 2015:
- NATO announced plans to expand towards Russia’s borders by moving a battalion’s-worth of US tanks, supplies and rotational forces into Baltic States
- Russia announced intentions to put advanced Iskander missile systems – capable of carrying nuclear weapons– in Kaliningrad. In addition, Kaliningrad could become the home of Russia’s most advanced S-400 air defense system, in which case the US fears that large swaths of Poland and Lituania would become no-fly zones
- Both NATO and Russia have had large-scale snap military naval and ground exercises around Kaliningrad. The exercises prepare each side for battle and serve to demonstrate to the other side an ability and willingness to fight. In June of 2015 NATO conducted mock landing exercises just 100 kilometers from Kaliningrad
- Poland is set to build a series of new watchtowers along its border with Kaliningrad
- Lithuania is reintroducing military conscription over security concerns about Russia
In 2016 Russian fighters – likely stationed at Kaliningrad –aggressively buzzed the USS Donald Cook off the coast of Poland.
Kaliningrad has a long military history, both as a Russian oblast (a Russian administrative zone) since 1945, and before that as Konigsberg, the capital of East Prussia. In 1945, Russian divisions won the city from German troops and the area was awarded to Russia during the Potsdam conference.
Russia’s President Putin delivers a speech in Kaliningrad, 2015
Today, with close to a million residents, Kaliningrad occupies an area of 15,000 square kilometers, which equals about 6,000 square miles.
From a military perspective, the outpost is the home port of Russia’s Baltic fleet, comprised of some 70+ combat ships. In addition the area has:
- Operations center for Spetsnaz – Russian special forces trained in hybrid warfare and feared by NATO
- Chernyakhovsk and Donskoye naval air bases, the former of which is reportedly capable of fielding nuclear bombers
- Defensive radar systems designed to counter NATO missile defenses such as Poland’s Patriot air and missile defense system, purchased from the US
In addition the area has the ability to garrison thousands of troops, but little accurate information is available to estimate current troop strength there.
Dangerous Tensions Peaking
Kaliningrad will become home to Russia Iskander missiles. They are road-mobile and can carry many payloads, including nuclear ones. In their standard configuration they have a range of about 500 to 600 KM – about 350 miles.
The snap military exercises, new missile deployments, watchtowers, conscription and NATO brigade announcements have created an alarmingly tense situation in the Baltic states and around the region.
Both Russia and NATO distrust each other, see their opponent as expansionist and believe the other is preparing the field for battle.
As tensions rise, the oblast is likely to play an important role in future events. Referring to Kaliningrad, L. Todd Wood writes at The Washington Post:
From a military perspective, all of this activity is happening in a very small geographical area. The chances for an accidental conflict or hostile interaction are very high. The Kremlin is playing a very high stakes game of chicken. If the objective is to frighten NATO’s northern tier, it is working.
Wood might have added that everyone seems very frightened, from the Russians who believe NATO is an existential threat, to the Eastern Europeans, who believe the same about Russia.
Also see: Rand Corporation’s NATO’s Eastern Flank projections, featuring the “Kaliningrad gap”.