Back to Baltics

I first saw Kaliningrad almost exactly 10 years ago, just after it ceased to be a closed city, and just before the Soviet Union ceased to exist. I arrived by sea, on a clapped-out ferry from Gdansk, which was perhaps appropriate. For centuries, Kaliningrad was called Konigsberg, and under that name it had been one of the great German trading ports on the Baltic Sea. In the second half of the 20th century—after it had been burned, occupied, and cleansed of Germans at the end of the war—the Kaliningrad district, formerly East Prussia, became one of the Soviet Union’s most important naval and military bases. Sailing into the city’s port in 1991, I had a good look at the home of the Baltic Fleet, once intended to carry invading soldiers to the shores of Denmark and northern Germany. It wasn’t exactly an impressive sight. As far as the eye could see, there were dozens and dozens of empty boats, literally rusting away in the polluted water.

The memory of those listing hulls came back to me this past week. While most normal people were recovering from their New Year’s Eve parties, I started tracking the course of a little-noticed diplomatic spat in the press. On Jan. 3, the Washington Times reported that the Russian army had moved tactical (short-range) nuclear weapons to Kaliningrad. On Jan. 4, the Russian navy, speaking to TASS, denied it—while on the same day, two Clinton administration officials, speaking to the Associated Press, confirmed it. On Jan. 6, Russian President Vladimir Putin denied it again. On Jan. 7, the Polish president, Alexander Kwasniewski, called for an international inspection of the Baltic port. Today, the Polish press is still full of hints, rumors, and confirmations from local sources (click here for a collection of articles on the subject, in Polish). Because some have noted that Kaliningrad-based tactical nukes—which don’t require the same elaborate launching codes as long-range weapons—could annihilate Vilnius, Gdansk, and possibly Riga, the Polish foreign minister even had to issue a soothing statement: “We see no potential threat to Poland at the moment.”

Between you and me, however, if there are nukes in Kaliningrad—and quite a lot of trustworthy people think it perfectly plausible—there is a threat, although the threat isn’t really directed at the populations of Vilnius, Gdansk, and Riga. In fact, putting nukes on the Baltic coast wouldn’t enable the Russians to hit anything that they can’t hit already with the longer-range missiles they have stationed on their western frontier. But it would certainly confirm that several hitherto unfocused trends in Russia are starting to solidify.

The first is the just-below-the-surface resentment of NATO expansion, coupled with an increasingly bitter determination to block NATO’s further expansion, both of which are spoiling everybody’s moods in the Baltic states, who are theoretically among the next NATO candidates. Russia wouldn’t, in fact, be breaking any international treaties by moving nukes into Kaliningrad, but it would be violating promises, made back in the halcyon days of 1991-92, to remove tactical nuclear weapons from Eastern Europe and to demilitarize the Baltic region. Clearly, some people in Russia think that retreat went too far too fast. The Lithuanians got very nervous a year or two ago when Russian military exercises simulated an attack on Lithuania, with troops coming from Kaliningrad and Belarus. Putting tactical nukes next door to them may be an attempt to make the Balts even more anxious.

The second is an uncomfortable, generalized uncertainty about the new American administration (not unique to Russia) and a desire (more notable in Russia) to look tough from the start. Over the next four years, we’re almost certainly going to come into conflict with Russia, perhaps over their old/new friends in Iraq and Cuba, perhaps over the anti-ballistic missile treaty. This may be the first move of the new chess game. Someone in Russia wants someone in America to know, at this particular moment, that they mean business (and someone in America wanted the Washington Times to let the Russians know that we know).

The third trend is the re-Sovietization of public life. Look at a map (or click here  if you don’t have one at hand): The Kaliningrad district is cut off from the main part of Russia, instead sharing borders with Poland and Lithuania. It was never, historically, part of Russia. After the war, the region was settled almost exclusively by military personnel. As a result, its population—mostly Russian, but also Ukrainian, Belorussian, Azeri, Armenian, and Uzbek—is a denationalized microcosm of the old Soviet Union. Because of this weird geography and weirder demographics, Kaliningrad’s role in post-Soviet Russia has always been up for grabs. Ten years ago, there was much talk of free trade zones, of a new “Baltic Russian” spirit, of Kaliningrad as Europe’s Hong Kong. Since then, the pendulum appears to have swung in the other direction. Although no one except Poles and Balts talk about it (all right, I suppose at NATO headquarters the subject comes up), the region is still the most heavily militarized territory in Europe, and its leadership is hardly packed with bright-eyed reformers. Kaliningrad’s recently elected governor, Adm. Vladimir Yegorov, is also the commander of the region’s armed forces. Much of the economic activity in the area appears to be generated by the military. According to one report, Adm. Yegorov is himself the head of a company that sells former military property.

In fact, what is really bothersome about the whole affair is the deep sense of déjà vu that I feel while writing about it. Putting Kaliningrad back on the trouble-spots-of-the-world map is rather like starting to worry again about the Sudetenland. It’s the sort of place that attracted rumors and counter-rumors, accusations and public denials, tales of troop concentrations and speculations about invasion routes 60 years ago. And it’s an ill omen for the new millennium—which starts this year—that it still does. It bodes ill for 2001 that people have suddenly started to talk about Kaliningrad again.