Friday, July 10, 2015

Kaliningrad - Ground Zero for Armageddon?

Russia is the light colored area. Kaliningrad
is the little red spot next to Poland on the Baltic Sea
Most people, even most Americans, have no trouble pointing to Russia on a map. Russia is very big, and for those of us who lived through the cold war we know the approximate location of the line between Europe and Russia.

Or do we?

Can you point to Kaliningrad on a map? It's not where you think it is. It's not in Russia. Look to the west - you'll find it wedged in between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Seacoast. It's the only access Russia has to warm western seas. It's a key port for the Russian Navy, primarily servicing the Baltic Sea Fleet. It's incredibly vulnerable if hostilities were to heat up.

So what's the deal here, anyway? Well, for thousands of years of European history this seaport city and the surrounding region was called Königsberg, a part of East Prussia. In 1945, at the end of WWII, one of the determinations of the Potsdam Conference was to transfer "Königsberg and the area adjacent to it" to the Soviet Union. The next year it was renamed Kaliningrad and the remaining German population was expelled. In 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Poland, Lithuania and Belarussia became independent, isolating Kaliningrad as something geographers call an "exclave". Because it provides Russia with its only year round ice free western deep water port, there was never any possibility that Russia would give up its sovereign possession of the Kaliningrad Oblast.

Fast forward to today. Poland and Lithuania are members of the EU and NATO. Russia has invaded and annexed Crimea, and is fighting a ground war in Eastern Ukraine. Taking an increasingly belligerent tone, Putin's government is threatening to place theater nuclear missiles in Kaliningrad. But ultimately, it is the seaport's very vulnerability that makes it such a terrible risk. Russia has no ground access - everything must go by air or sea. At some point, if Putin does something particularly egregious, there will be a temptation within NATO to take some action against Kaliningrad. It's close, it's isolated, a blockade or even just a reduction in access, coupled with a military buildup on the border, and the Russian reaction becomes unpredictable.

It is a historical anomaly that places a critical piece of sovereign Russian territory in the midst of Europe - but that is just the kind of historical anomaly that has led, many decades later, to all sorts of unpleasant consequences.


  1. Russia has invaded and annexed Crimea, and is fighting a ground war in Eastern Ukraine.

    OR: America staged a coup in the Ukraine, and is supporting neo-Nazis in yet another neocon attempt to start World War III.

    Consider the source.

  2. Let's try to keep out of Alex Jones territory as much as possible, Thunder. We actually know a great deal about what's going on on the Russian frontier, and that's really not it...

  3. Ok. More considered thoughts.

    There was no coup. The people of Western Ukraine, particularly Kiyv, wanted to be part of Europe. The Ukraine leadership was clearly a Russian puppet. Now, did the west move too aggressively to expand NATO to the Russian border? Without a doubt. But to try to find some basis for blaming the US for events in Ukraine kind of demonstrates an irrational desire to blame EVERYTHING that ever happened anywhere on the US. This is not an uncommon option, but it's not historically or empirically supportable. The Russian army DID occupy and annex Crimea. The Russian army IS fighting in a ground war in Eastern Ukraine. The existence of neo-nazis in the Ukraine is documented, but not to anything close to the levels people like to pretend.

    Putin is the problem at this point - if you want the US to be the problem you have to decide that despite our utter incompetence throughout the rest of the globe, we're brilliantly maneuvering in Eastern Ukraine.

    Dood, you just don't get to have it both ways. Either we're blundering clowns (yes) or we're Machiavellian geniuses (show me where that was ever the case)....

  4. I don't think Putin is quite reckless enough to start a shooting war with NATO. He's a kleptocrat, to be sure, but I think that makes him less likely to risk his comfortable ass.

    Of course, I really, really hope that nobody provokes him sufficiently so that he does something stupid.

    1. I think it's actually the other way around. Sure, he'd prefer to avoid a war - particularly because he's militarily weaker - but HE'S the one that's going to keep pushing, keep probing, to prove that NATO won't respond. The risk is that eventually SOMEBODY will do something stupid - shoot down some airplanes, fire on some armor that is close to the border, etc - and then what happens?

      It's all about incremental escalation, and that's what we're seeing so far...