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The FIFA World Cup in Kaliningrad: Football and the “New Cold War” in the Baltic

The choice of Kaliningrad as one of the venues hosting the World Cup was carefully thought through by the organising country. Is it another show of force in the Baltic region or an attempt to normalise and calm tensions?

June 28, 2018 - Cyrille Bret - Articles and Commentary

FIFA World Cup 2018 poster of the host city of Kaliningrad.

Kaliningrad is to host four matches of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Is it like any of the other 10 host cities? Far from it: Kaliningrad is synonymous with war and peace in Europe. A Russian enclave in the middle of the European Union, between Poland and Lithuania, it has always been subject to secular rivalries between Germany, Poland, Sweden, the Soviet Union, etc. In recent years, this territory and its military bases have been the centre of the “new Cold War” that NATO and Russia are engaged in regionally.
The choice of this host city raises the traditional question: can international sport pave the way for peace? Or is it irremediably an instrument of power and influence? The matches in Kaliningrad will be a good test: either they will show Russia’s desire for openness towards Europe or they will reassert Russian power over the Baltic area.

Sports, War and Peace

Opening up Kaliningrad through the tournament could contribute to the lowering of tensions in several ways. On the one hand, the Russian territory is, like the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games site in South Korea, close to an important strategic friction zone. The Korean winter sports resort chosen for the Olympic Games in February 2018 was about fifty kilometres from the intra-Korean cease-fire line. Likewise, the Kaliningrad territory is a contact zone between Russia and NATO, expanded to the Baltic States since 2004 and to Poland since 1999. The territory is at the centre of the concerns of both parties, at least since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Could the FIFA World Cup renew dialogue in the region as the “spirit of Pyeongchang”  became a catalyst for the Singapore summit between Kim and Trump?
When Kaliningrad’s renovated 35 thousand-seater stadium is hosting the Croatia-Nigeria matches on June 16, Serbia-Switzerland on June 22, Spain-Morocco on June 25 and England-Belgium on June 28, it is opening an area long which was inaccessible to Westerners during the Soviet era and which, in the recent period, has no longer been accessible to cross-border visa-free travel. Football will no doubt attract supporters from Poland, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Lithuania to a territory that raises a variety of concerns in neighbouring countries because of the strengthening of naval and air bases. In this case, it is not so much the protagonists as the decor that counts in this area: Russia can make this enclave a showcase intended to dispel its threatening image.
Kaliningrad can highlight the efforts made by the Russian authorities to promote the reception of foreigners during the competition: in addition to the special identity document provided for the entry of the territory, the supporter ID, the authorities have organised a match of “legends of football” and developed the tourist infrastructure in the city.
Everything is done to present Kaliningrad as an attractive territory and not as the source of threats as it is often perceived in the region.
In a word, can football transform a bastion into an antechamber?

The new great game in the Baltic

Four matches won’t be enough to stop the “new Cold War” in the region. The tensions around Kaliningrad have much deeper structural reasons.
The city falls victim to its strategic interest: founded in the 13th century by the Teutonic Knights, the former Königsberg of East Prussia and Kant’s birthplace, is located at the edge of year round ice-free waters and sheltered by a tounge of land, the Curonian Spit. A fantasy geopolitician and a dream strategist, its history shows it was the site of multiple battles, fights and rivalries over the Baltic space. At the end of the Second World War, it was attached to the Soviet Republic of Russia within the USSR.

Today, in the Russian strategic plan in the Baltic, Kaliningrad and its military bases, including naval and naval air, are a key element for the Baltic Fleet stationed between St. Petersburg and the enclave. Recently war ships equipped with cruise missiles have laid anchor there. Russia has placed the famous S400 anti-aircraft missiles batteries there as well as Iskander and Kalibr missilles. It claims it is done to ensure the safety of the World Cup and, more generally, Russian territorial waters. But it is perceived as a threat in Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn, Helsinki and Warsaw. On the NATO side, NATO exercises BALTOPS, Anaconda and Saber Strike, held on a regular basis since the 1970s, have been gaining momentum since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. And following the NATO summit in Warsaw in July 2016, Western troops were deployed in rotation in the three Baltic States and in Poland. NATO regularly points to Kaliningrad as the source of submarine, naval, air and cyber incursions in the national space of the Baltic States.

The power of sport

When it comes to high-profile international competitions, all hopes are focused on the peace-making function of sport: rapprochement of peoples, communion of supporters or sublimation of military competition, all these phenomena can be highlighted. The summit between Kim and Trump underlines it, after the “ping-pong diplomacy” used by Nixon to get closer to China and after the results obtained by the exclusion of South Africa from international competitions to pressure through the end of Apartheid. Sport can contribute to peace.
But let us bear in mind the other functions of international sport: nation branding and display of power. Sports competitions aim to transform the image of the host country in the eyes of the world. Just as sports competitions can exacerbate tensions, they can lower and soothe them as well. For example, South Korea presented itself as a democratic society and market economy following the Seoul Games in 1988. Likewise, today, organising parts of the tournament in Kaliningrad is a good communication tool intended to mitigate the impression of a cold war in the Baltic.
Just as the Beijing Olympic Summer Games in 2008, showed a worrying display of Chinese power to its neighbours, Kaliningrad could also serve as a reminder of the Cold War in the Baltic. It remains to be seen.

Cyrille Bret is an associate professor at the National Institute of Political Science. He teaches geopolitics of Europe and the post-Soviet space.

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