When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, several geographical anomalies were created. One has very much been in the news: Crimea.
Historically Russian, Crimea was added to Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev, himself an ethnic Russian and leader of the U.S.S.R. It didn’t matter much then since Ukraine and Russia were both “republics” within the U.S.S.R.
It mattered greatly, of course, last year, when Russia invaded and claimed Crimea as its own. The West has largely given in to that seizure, which President Putin claimed was merely reuniting historical Russian territory and people.
The Soviet Black Sea fleet was headquartered in Sevastopol in Crimea; after Ukraine became independent, Russia still maintained the fleet’s headquarters there. The fighting ongoing in eastern Ukraine could be for the sake of creating a land bridge for Russia to Crimea across Ukraine. Could this pattern be repeated elsewhere?
Kaliningrad was added to the Soviet Union in 1945. It had been part of Germany. It is now an enclave, separated from the rest of Russia by Lithuania, and either Latvia or Belarus (depending on the route of possible invasion). It is the headquarters of the Russian Baltic fleet. Unlike Russia’s other main port on the Baltic, St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad is ice-free.
The parallels with Crimea are alarming. Russia might seek a land bridge to the headquarters of its Baltic Fleet, as it has for its Black Sea Fleet. There are also differences. The residents of Kaliningrad are Russian, but of recent, not ancient, origin. The U.S.S.R. populated Kaliningrad with Russians, expelling the German citizens, after World War II.
Many other residents are of Polish extraction: a difference of less importance when Poland was a Soviet satellite than it is now.
So Russia does not have the claim of reuniting traditional Russian territory in Kaliningrad as it did in Crimea; but its military interest is at least as strong. Further, there is an additional element suggesting a Russian interest in “connecting Kaliningrad to the rest of Russia”: to eliminate NATO from Russia’s borders.
It has deeply troubled President Putin that the three Baltic nations Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are members of NATO. All three border Russia.
Nothing would bolster the new Russia’s self-esteem more than to neutralize the effect of a country bordering Russia being in NATO. The heart of the NATO alliance is Article V: an attack on one member will be considered an attack on all.
If, en route to Kaliningrad, Russia enters Lithuania via Russian ally Belarus, or crosses Latvia to do so, and NATO does not respond, Putin will have achieved a huge diplomatic and military victory. NATO’s promise of mutual self-defense will have been proved to be hollow.
Earlier this month, the U.S. announced that, starting in May, NATO would be holding three-month military exercises that would include the Baltics.
Preparatory to those maneuvers, on March 9, the U.S. delivered new tanks and other military equipment to Latvia. They will remain there after the troops leave. The fact that the troops will leave, however, is a signal of lack of resolve on NATO’s part. NATO troops are permanently stationed in Poland, which also borders Kaliningrad.
However welcome the upcoming military exercises are, the failure to station troops from other NATO countries permanently in the Baltics subtly reassures Putin that the Baltics are somehow “junior” members of the alliance: a signal that can have dangerous consequences.
On the other hand, there is no need to goad Russia into taking pre-emptive action. When the Ukrainian Parliament threw out pro-Russian President Yanukovych, Russia felt it was a sign of weakness if it did nothing. Yanukovych had been legitimately elected, and the parliament’s vote was 10 short of what the Ukrainian Constitution required for impeachment.
More important than the legal procedure, however, Russia saw the hand of the West in the street demonstrations that led to Yanukovych being toppled. Russia’s action in Crimea, unjustified as it was, is widely believed by Russians as having been provoked by the West.
The wisest course for NATO at present would be to go ahead with the military exercises, but to be in no hurry to withdraw its troops from the Baltics after the exercises end in August.
As long as troops from non-Baltic NATO countries are in Lithuania, Estonia or Latvia, Russia is unlikely to invade. But by not announcing this as a change of policy, NATO would allow Russia not to lose face. Exercises can take a very long time; and deterrence is far better than retaliation.