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From Prussian to Russian fortress. Kaliningrad – Russia’s military zone in the West

In the 19th century a system of fortifications was built around Königsberg (today’s Kaliningrad), the capital of East Prussia, with the aim of making the city impenetrable. This is how the “fortress city” came into being. However, the surrounding net of forts, bastions and barracks did not manage to defend the city during the Second World War. Faced by  new military technology, the 19th-century fortifications proved to be of little use. After the Second World War, the part of East Prussia with the capital fell in the hands of Stalin. After considering several different options, including the incorporation of the territory into Polish People’s Republic or Soviet Lithuania, the leadership of the Soviet Union decided to separate the fragment of East Prussia with Kaliningrad and turn it into a closed military zone. This is how the Kaliningrad Oblast was created, becoming the strategic westernmost bridgehead of the USSR.

July 7, 2016 - Paulina Siegień - Articles and Commentary

baltic fleet

Image by kremlin.ru

In Soviet times, the oblast had the special status of military zone, to which access was restricted not only for foreigners, but also other Soviet citizens. The majority of inhabitants were directly or indirectly involved in the work for the army. Apart from the military men, Kaliningrad was also home to their families and various industries supporting the army. Other sectors virtually did not develop. Problems appeared during Perestroika, and erupted after the dissolution of the USSR. The Kaliningrad Oblast, an orphan without the Soviet Union, became a Russian enclave stuck between Poland and Lithuania – which at the time aspired to join NATO and the European Union. In this new geopolitical situation, the Kaliningrad Oblast lost its role as a militarily strategic region. The presence of such a high number of armed forces (in different periods the number of units stationed in the area reached up to 200 thousand soldiers) became a burden for development in new economic and political times. For prosperous interregional co-operation, the demilitarisation of the oblast was necessary, and was pushed for by Poland and the Baltic states especially.

The reduction of the military potential of the area did was accompanied by the search for a new path of regional development, in light of the Oblast’s neighbours’ integration in Western structures. As a result of demilitarisation, the number of army units decreased gradually and in 2010 analysts claimed there were ten thousand soldiers permanently stationed in the oblast. The process of demilitarisation was also accompanied by the search for a new political and economic relationship with the rest of the region. Since the turn of the century and Vladimir Putin’s first presidential term, Russian authorities began to talk about Kaliningrad as a region crucial for co-operation with the European Union. For ten years, 2006 to 2016, the region has hosted a special economic zone, which was meant to attracted foreign investment. On both the central and local levels the EU sponsored projects to support the cross-border co-operation.  

The breakthrough for the strategy of bringing Kaliningrad closer to the EU came with the signing in 2012 of the Small Border Traffic Agreement between Russia and Poland. Within its framework the inhabitants of the whole Kaliningrad Oblast and the bordering powiat districts in Poland could cross the Polish-Russian border without a visa, only on the basis of a special permission granted for a period of several years (2-5 years) without the necessity to provide additional documents (invitations, co-operation agreements etc.). The success of the Polish-Russian agreement, which could be evidenced by the thousands of Kaliningrad Russians visiting Polish shops, strengthened the hope for lasting and effective co-operation with Russia. However, parallel to the strategy of opening up to the West, co-operation with neighbour states and the EU, the second important effect of Putin’s presidency for Kaliningrad was the gradual strengthening of its relationship with Moscow, within the “vertical of power” (вертикаль власти) structures.

The local authorities in Kaliningrad (the governor, the regional government, and the mayor of Kaliningrad) are part of a hierarchical and centralised system of governance, which rests on the delegation of tasks and financial resources from Moscow. The representatives of local authorities in Kaliningrad are also members of the Russian ruling party – Putin’s United Russia. In a symbolic sense, aspirations for Kaliningrad Oblast to be a region enjoying a special political status were ended with the creation of “Jantar” presidential residence in the Baltic resort of Pionierskiy.

Nevertheless, western, including Polish, experts announced the success of the Small Cross-Border Traffic Agreement, arguing that the programme is an excellent tool of the Polish and European soft power. Soft power in this context meant emphasising the success of the Polish transformation, democratic institutions and economic development, which were said to represent a remedy for the problematic status of Kaliningrad oblast as a region, still highly militarised despite the reduction of its military potential. The main flaw of this line of reasoning was that it connected the two aspects. It assumed that whether the Kremlin decides to use the strategic location of the area to destabilize the region will depend on the mood of local Russians. However, despite the fact that the small cross-border traffic led to an increase of interest in Poland and a more favourable perception of Poland and Poles among people in Kaliningrad, it would be difficult to imagine that this alone could influence the decisions made in Moscow. It is worth remembering that not only the inhabitants but also the local Kaliningrad elite do not make decisions about the use of the locally stationed army. During Putin’s presidency, despite the reduction of arms and military units on the ground, the military structures have been subject to a number of reforms with the aim to increase their ability to exert pressure in case of Russia-NATO conflict.

Whenever a discussion within NATO about the construction of anti-missile shields in Poland begins, the Russian media immediately responds with information on the Iskander missile complex in Kaliningrad, which is said to be able to carry nuclear warheads. Importantly, Warsaw and the whole territory of Lithuania are located within the reach of the Kaliningrad Iskanders.

During Putin’s and Medvedev’s terms in office, the living standards of military personnel have improved, including in the Kaliningrad Oblast. Professional soldiers and functionaries of other “power resorts” can expect state-sponsored accommodation and other social benefits (which in fact constitutes the continuation of USSR’s policy discontinued in the 1990s and fully re-established only during the economic stabilisation of the Putin era).

In addition, in order to secure the loyalty of the armed forces and protect the military men from the influence of Western soft power, in 2014 their ability to travel abroad was restricted. Military personnel and uniformed servicemen need permission from their supervisors to travel to 150 countries in the world. All EU member states, the United States, Turkey and Egypt have been included in the list. Although Russian authorities claim that it is not a ban but rather a recommendation, military people see it as a clear signal that they are not welcome to travel abroad.

The problem of Kaliningrad Oblast as a highly militarised region remains unresolved. In light of the growing tensions between Russia and the West sparked by the Ukraine crisis, the Oblast is often seen as a potential destabilising source and a threat to its neighbours, rather than Russia’s gate to the West and a model example of social and economic co-operation with the EU. 

Since 2014 the media has reported regularly on incidents taking place in the Baltic Sea area. Russian fighter jets and submarines have been violating the airspace and underwater borders of NATO member states. But apart from the incidents which did occur, the Russian media often heats up the atmosphere by disseminating fake information, such as the alleged crash between Polish and a Russian submarine, which was said to have taken place in April 2016. The Russian media, which initially cited an anonymous source, began to delete the information from the web soon after it was released. At the same time, the spokesperson for the Polish Navy told Polish journalists that the “Orzeł” submarine, which allegedly took part in the accident, was moored in Gdynia at the time.

Moreover, the media has reported on the intense military build-up in the region. During his presentation in the NATO Defence College in Rome, Polish president Andrzej Duda noted that today, the Kaliningrad Oblast is one of the most fortified regions in Europe. In addition,  the New York Times recently reported that by 2019, Russia might have deployed nuclear weapons in the Kaliningrad Oblast in response to the construction of the anti-missile shields in Poland and Romania.

At the same time, a serious reshuffling in the armed forces in Kaliningrad have taken place. The Russian media reported in the last days of June on the unprecedented decision of Russia’s Minister of Defence, Sergey Shoigu, to change the leadership of the Baltic Fleet. After the release of information about the dismissal of head commander vice-admiral Victor Kravchuk, and chief of staff counter admiral Sergey Popov for serious infringement, the media reported on the dismissal of the following 50 (sic!) high rank commanders and Baltic Fleet’s members of staff. It is worth noting that the Russian media highlighted that in previous similar situations, the Ministry of Defence did not inform the public about the reasons for such dismissals, instead running standards lines about medical problems or retirement. The Russian media also cited an excerpt from the statement published on the Ministry of Defence’s website, stating that the officials were not only dismissed from their positions, but dishonorably discharged for “serious infringement in the area of combat readiness” and “misrepresentation of the factual state” in reports on the condition and operation of the Baltic Fleet.

The decision was made after the Council of Military Agencies’ session, headed by the Minister of Defence Sergey Shoigu. He justified the “purges” in the Baltic Fleet with the imperative to implement changes in light of the “unstable political and military situation in the western borders of the Russian Federation” and “the NATO-supported strengthening of the military potential of countries neighbouring Russia”. The atmosphere of scandal that accompanied the dismissals indicates that the Kaliningrad Oblast and its military potential is an important strategic area in case of confrontation with NATO. Moreover, Sergey Shoigu’s decision suggested that Russia’s armed forces might have entered the stage of crisis management, and that actions taken on the central level aim to consolidate control over the armed forces by replacing the military personnel with people trusted by the Kremlin.

It may be a coincidence, but in recent weeks the attention of observers and analysts alike has been focused on Moscow’s increased interest in the Kaliningrad’s Oblast. Recently Nikolay Patrushev, the secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, visited Svetlogorsk on the Baltic Sea to discuss regional challenges to national security related to transport, energy, logistics and economy.

Kaliningrad was a Prussian “fortress city”. In 1968 Soviet authorities decided to destroy the ruins of Kaliningrad castle, calling it a symbol of Prussian militarism. In an irony of history, they subsequently built a fortress city in the very same place to checkmate NATO during the Cold War. Today, the Kaliningrad Oblast, like East Prussia in the past, may become a security threat for its neighbours and the wider region. Given the increased tensions between Russia and the West, often likened to the Cold War, there is a lack of options as to how to resolve the issue. Certainly, there is a lack of will on Russia’s part to relinquish an attractive, strategic bridgehead between two NATO member states, as the situation around the Baltic Fleet and the Kremlin’s recent rhetoric demonstrate. 

Paulina Siegień is an ethnographer, Russian philologist and translator. She is a graduate of the Centre for East European Studies at the University of Warsaw and is currently doing her PhD at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdańsk. She reports from the Kaliningrad Oblast for Gazeta Wyborcza Trójmiasto and other media. 

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