Watch Kaliningrad. This oft-forgotten Russian exclave, squeezed between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea, may be the focal point for a dangerous economic and military conflict between Russia and NATO. In April 2017 a battalion of NATO troops marched up to Poland’s Kaliningrad border, to demonstrate to Russia that NATO is alert to the risk. In September, Russia will amass 13,000 troops for war games in neighboring Belarus. But why should a small place like Kaliningrad, about the size of Trinidad and Tobago, matter? The answer is found in Russia’s 300-year quest for warm-water ports, and the lethal action it has often taken to secure them.
Kaliningrad gives Russia its only port on the Baltic coast that does not freeze during the winter. But President Vladimir Putin has a problem. Kaliningrad is cut off from Russian control by hundreds of miles of Latvian and Lithuanian terrain. This problem should sound familiar. From 1991-2014 Crimea, another warm-water region, was cut off from Russia. Russia’s 2014 march through Ukraine to Crimea gave it swift access to the Mediterranean. Today Vladimir Putin plots to link Kaliningrad to the heart of Mother Russia, provoking shivers in NATO generals. At the G20 Summit on July 6th, 2017 President Donald Trump did pledge to uphold NATO’s Article 5, mutual protection clause. But Kaliningrad is a long way from the concerns of the Oval Office.
Putin’s ambition to link Russia’s vast landmass to warm water is not a newfound passion; past Russian strongmen and strongwomen have shared his thirst for warm water. When Peter the Great ascended to czardom in 1682, he studied the West and soon realized that Russia’s icy waters and frozen docks retarded its naval and maritime dexterity. While Portugal could devote twelve months a year to seafaring, Russian merchants were incapacitated by the winter and hibernated alongside the country’s brown bears.
In response, Peter expanded Russia’s naval might and fought for access to the Baltics, winning Swedish territory. But Peter’s immediate heirs failed to preserve his holdings. Russian influence in the region waned until Catherine II’s reign.
Catherine the Great earned her moniker in part by reinvigorating Russian sea power. She decisively defeated her cousin Gustav III in the Russo-Swedish war (1788-1790), and then looked South. Though she failed in the Mediterranean, she accumulated ports along the northern Black Sea, which had been Ottoman domain. This launched a century-long rivalry between the Ottomans and Russians for control.
Like Peter, Catherine begat successors who were lazy about oceanic exhibition and lost hard-gained territories. Finally, when Nicholas I came to power in 1825, the Ottoman Empire was beginning to crumble, and Nicholas famously called his rival the “sick man” of Europe. Boldly, naively, and expecting to conquer the Black Sea and adjoining Ottoman territory, Nicholas charged into the Crimean War. But Western Europe feared Russian expansion, and aided the Ottomans to secure a balance of powers. The war made a hero of Florence Nightingale and a fool of Nicholas. Once Russia lost these rigged war games, the Black Sea was divided into a polycentric economy benefitting the West, and Russia was forced to demilitarize the Baltics. A half-century later, Nicholas II sought to redeem Russia’s naval failures and link together Russia’s remaining ports, often with terrible results. Vladivostok, on Russia’s Eastern fringe by Korea, was a gateway to Asian markets. Hoping to connect to this vital port, Nicholas II completed the Trans-Siberian railway, helping to spark the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, which he lost decisively. This humiliation humbled the Russian empire and kindled Japanese nationalism. Losing the war spurred mutinies across the country, and fortified peasant revolutions, often led by communists who would later have Nicholas’s head. The Czar’s naval maneuvers created only one winner, and that was director Sergei Eisenstein, whose tale of mutiny, The Battleship Potemkin, would win plaudits in 1925.
Today Vladimir Putin faces challenges similar to the royals before him. How to connect Kaliningrad, his only warm water port on the Baltic, to the Russian mainland for economic and military purposes? Kaliningrad has flourished in the past decade, and Putin desires its dynamism to spill into the motherland. Just as Vladivostok served as a gateway to Pacific markets, Kaliningrad could play a similar role to the Atlantic. Kaliningrad’s industry is booming, and it is home to 90% of the world’s amber deposits. Further, Kaliningrad offers the highest marine economy potential in Russia (including fishing and transportation).
With its strategic location, Kaliningrad could utterly confound the European component of the U.S. defense system. With worsening tensions between Russia and Latvia and Lithuania, the scene looks combustible. If Putin can figure out how to connect his Baltic port to the mainland without relying on his hostile neighbors, he could freely send missiles, weapons, and military personnel.
The answer most likely lies in Belarus, with whom Putin enjoys a friendly border and railroads that link together. Separating Belarus and Kaliningrad is a narrow 60-mile Polish/Lithuanian border. In other words, Putin is a mere 60 miles from mastery of the Baltics and substantial control of Eastern Europe for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union. Linking Belarus to Kaliningrad could simultaneously isolate Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania; spread Russian influence, and improve the Russian economy. NATO’s military understands this, but there is a disconnect between military and political intelligence. How many advisors to Donald Trump, Theresa May, or Justin Trudeau could identify Kaliningrad on a map?
After the 2014 invasion of Crimea, Russia won easy access to the Black Sea. Shocked politicians in the West then discovered that their militaries had been concerned about the threat for years. Of course, historians had been watching for centuries.
Like Peter the Great, Putin recognizes the importance of warm-water ports for amiable trade, as well as for not-so-amiable hegemony. Like Catherine, he has opened his way to the Black Sea by stomping through Crimea. Like Nicholas II, he currently struggles to connect a key port to his homeland. He may yet fulfill a Russian legacy that has guided Russian politics since the late seventeenth century – winning unfettered access to ports in the Pacific, Black Sea, Mediterranean, and Baltics. His ambition forces the West to reconsider its own military might, the resolve of its political leaders, and its fears of Russian expansion. Two questions cannot be avoided: Are Putin’s aspirations an economic and military enterprise for naval security – or a rapacious thirst for land and power? And what can and will the West – and East – do?
Grace Buchholz is a Research Fellow in history at Sproglit, an educational software company, has contributed to the History News Network, and is working on a book about strongman leaders from Edward IV to Vladimir Putin.