Amid Kremlin-NATO tensions, what mood in Russia's European 'spearhead'?

The Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad is home to a major naval base that weighs heavily in both Russian and Western military thinking.

Fred Weir
The Russian landing ship Kaliningrad sits at anchor in the port of Baltiysk, in the enclave of Kaliningrad, Russia. Baltiysk hosts a major Russian naval base just miles from NATO states Poland and Lithuania, but locals dismiss Russian-NATO tensions as 'gunboat diplomacy.'

If the tensions between Russia and the West should escalate into full-fledged confrontation, it is this former Prussian town – home to a huge military base in the heart of NATO country – that is going to be right at the center of things.

Here, at the westernmost point of the Connecticut-sized enclave of Kaliningrad, the port bristles with warships, the streets are filled with uniforms, and there is a constant stream of naval vessels in the channel, heading out to sea to conduct patrols or war games.

Even now, unseen just over the horizon, the Russian navy is conducting  major anti-submarine exercises in the Baltic Sea, the latest in a year-long series of war games designed to display Russia's defiance in the face of Western sanctions and political pressure, as well as its military readiness if worst comes to worst.

But while the growing crisis may be focusing minds in Moscow, Brussels, and Washington, people on the streets of Baltiysk seem almost oblivious to it.

Locals seem relaxed and say they worry more about inflation and the region's falling living standards than they do about the threat of war. Remarkably, for anyone who remembers the official paranoia of Soviet times, even a foreigner snapping pictures of warships in Baltiysk's military harbor doesn't seem to attract police attention.

"We see in the mass media that NATO's actions in our neighborhood are growing, and of course this causes concern," says Nikolai Plyugin, acting head of the district government in Baltiysk. "But it hasn't changed our lives. Things are normal, stable, people are just getting on with their daily affairs."

The front line

Outside of military planners, few people in the West seem to give much thought to, or even know about, Russia's odd Baltic enclave.

This region was German East Prussia until the USSR annexed it after World War II, deported its population, and replaced them with Russians. Kaliningrad was a closed military zone during the entire cold war, and even Soviet citizens who wanted to visit Baltiysk needed to obtain a special permit.

That has certainly changed. Now a trickle of tourists come each year, mainly Germans who want to visit ancient cemeteries, admire the old Prussian architecture – a good deal of which survives in towns like Baltiysk – or ramble along the seacoast, which is still dotted with Nazi-era coastal installations, pillboxes, and artillery emplacements. Baltiysk itself, then called Pillau, was a U-boat base during the war.

That history caused few voices, amid all the acrimony over the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea last year, to rhetorically argue that if Moscow could cite historical links to seize a territory, then why shouldn't Germany reclaim its former East Prussian lands?

But 90 percent of Kaliningrad's population today are ethnic Russians, and opinion polls suggest they are in step with other Russians in their strong support for Vladimir Putin. "The majority of our population identifies itself with 'mainland' Russia," says Mr. Plyugin. "Other ideas are not accepted here."

Still, the region's residents remain mostly unmoved by the current East-West tensions swirling around Kaliningrad, which some Russian military experts say that they are right to be.

"I think this is a virtual panic, that exists mostly in people's heads," says Vladimir Dvorkin, an expert with the Center for International Security at the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. "There is no script in which Kaliningrad could actually be threatened by NATO. What's going on is just gunboat diplomacy, without any shooting."

'A burden and an asset'

But if the crisis grows worse, things could change again. And Kaliningrad, by strategic necessity, would be center stage.

Over the past several months, NATO has been shifting troops and hardware eastward into the neighboring former Soviet Baltic states and Poland, which completely surround Kaliningrad, and holding its own massive military maneuvers on the very doorstep of the tiny Russian enclave.

For NATO, the buildup is seen as necessary to counter what it sees as Russia's newly aggressive posture in Ukraine, and to reassure nervous east European allies who themselves escaped from Moscow's control barely a quarter century ago. A leading NATO official warned recently that Russia could occupy the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia "within two days" by striking out from its stronghold in Kaliningrad.

In response, the Kremlin is threatening to counter NATO's forward deployments  by bolstering its own forces, especially in Kaliningrad. The entire post-cold war balance could be upended if Moscow follows through on oft-repeated warnings that it might station nuclear-capable, short-range Iskander-M missiles in the enclave, from where they could easily strike Berlin, Warsaw, or Copenhagen.

Russian strategists are reportedly pondering the problem of how to resupply Kaliningrad if Western sanctions escalate to the point of completely cutting it off. At present, land access to the enclave from "mainland" Russia must pass through NATO-allied Lithuania or Poland. The only other way is a roundabout sea journey from Russia's other Baltic port of St. Petersburg.

In strategic terms, Kaliningrad "is both a burden and an asset, though primarily an asset," says Dmitry Gorenburg, a Russian military expert at the Center for Naval Analysis in Arlington, Virginia.

"It's like a forward operating base, but without the expense and complications of maintaining troops on foreign soil. The burden is if NATO actually wanted to attack it, it's even less defensible for Russia than the Baltic States are for NATO. But since it's pretty clear that NATO states have no desire to annex a piece of Russian territory, that burden isn't really felt."

A closing 'window'?

Though Kaliningraders are no strangers to militarization, they have gotten used to some of the benefits of their proximity to Europe, which include a project that allows them visa-free travel to neighboring Poland. Hopeful efforts to make the region Russia's new "window on Europe" has brought a bit of foreign investment, tourism, and cheaper access to Western consumer goods than 'mainland' Russians enjoy.

Some locals fear that escalating tensions could bring an end to all that.

"There's a big risk that Kaliningrad could revert to being a closed military zone again, as it was in Soviet times," says Mikhail Berendeyev, a professor at Baltic Federal University in Kaliningrad. "Nobody here would like to see this happen. But the way things are going, it's a growing possibility."

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