By John Helmer, the longest continuously serving foreign correspondent in Russia, and the only western journalist to direct his own bureau independent of single national or commercial ties. Helmer has also been a professor of political science, and an advisor to government heads in Greece, the United States, and Asia. He is the first and only member of a US presidential administration (Jimmy Carter) to establish himself in Russia. Originally published at Dances with Bears
Listeners to US Government radio and readers of the London papers are being told that Kaliningrad is a Russian dagger pointed at the soft underbelly of the NATO alliance in central Europe. According to NATO sources, the dagger must be reversed so that it threatens the Kremlin instead.
Officials in the German Chancellery in Berlin and in the Polish government in Warsaw have begun asking their intelligence chiefs to prepare memoranda on how vulnerable the Russian outpost, formerly Königsberg in German East Prussia, is to a campaign of economic pressure and political subversion. Does this make Kaliningrad a potential flashpoint on the eastern war front, the next Crimea?
In June NATO forces simulated an air, sea and land attack on a Polish beach less than 100 miles west of Kaliningrad. Preceded by press briefings by US officers and NATO handouts, Operation Baltops deployed “a total of 49 ships, 61 aircraft, one submarine, and a combined amphibious landing force of 700 U.S. Finnish and Swedish troops… Fourteen NATO Allies are joined this year by NATO partners Finland, Georgia and Sweden. Overall, 5,600 troops will be involved.” Rehearsing the beach landing at Ustka, Poland, on June 17, a landing on a Swedish beach was attempted on June 13. The two operations omitted to include or simulate opposition forces defending the beachhead. Still, a Polish amphibious transporter sank, obliging the troops to wade ashore. Noone shot himself or drowned; several caught colds.
The London Guardian called the Ustka beach attack “a major show of strength.” A US Naval Institute report said “it serves as a crucial reminder that while much of the U.S. and NATO reassurance measures in Europe to date have been ground based (with U.S. and European units fanning out across the Baltic States, Poland, Romania, and elsewhere), an effective response to Russia’s new aggressiveness must also come with effective and credible maritime components.”
Lieutenant General Ben Hodges (right), commander of the US Army Europe, told journalists assembled to watch Baltops: “Nato is not threatening anyone. Nato has no quarrel with the Russian people. We do have a quarrel with Putin, or Russia, trying to change borders by force…One of the things that concerns me is the amount of capability that the Russians have put into Kaliningrad. They have the ability to deny access up into the Baltic Sea through anti-ship missiles. They recently did an exercise where they put in an Iskander missile there. That is a range of 300km, a nuclear-capable system which could easily range Riga.”
Hodges claimed Baltops was intended to demonstrate NATO’s capability to attack Kaliningrad and bottle up the Russian Navy further east in the Baltic at St. Petersburg. For more on NATO’s strategy to block the opposite, western end of the Baltic at the Danish Straits, and the Russian response, read this.
The US Government organ, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reported the day after the NATO landing that “Russia is pouring troops and weapons — including missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads — into its western exclave of Kaliningrad at such a rate that the region is now one of Europe’s most militarized places.” RFE also reported “a NATO official writing to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity [to claim] that Moscow is stationing ‘thousands of troops, including mechanized and naval infantry brigades, military aircraft, modern long-range air defense units and hundreds of armored vehicles in the territory.’ A Pentagon think-tank expert was quoted as saying: “From Kaliningrad you can just go right out and you’re there; there’s Sweden, Poland, Germany’s not that far away. So, it’s almost like you can set it up as a forward-operating base without leaving your own country’s territory.”
For a US-sponsored comparison of scale and purpose, consider this assessment of the 70,000-man Russian military exercise Zapad-2013, launched from Kaliningrad and other points in Russia’s Western Military District. According to Pauli Järvenpää (below, left), a Finnish military planner, for the Kalinigrad part of the exercise “the major troop formations involved the 79th Detached Guards Motor Rifle Brigade, the 7th Detached Guards Motor Rifle Regiment, and the 336th Detached Guards Naval Infantry Brigade. Also during this phase of the exercise, a major amphibious landing took place… To support the exercise in Kaliningrad, there were naval maneuvers and live missile firings from ships in the Baltic Sea to block off the terrorist elements and their reinforcements. The Russian naval elements were also active in the Barents Sea, practicing “wolf-pack” salvos of missiles by ships and submarines against the enemy. An interesting detail is that there was a small exercise on September 26 in Kaliningrad depicting combat in urban environment.”
Glen Howard (above, right), president of the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, claimed “the very same troops that took part in the Zapad-2013 exercise just a few months before—according to Russian sources, roughly 150,000 of them—were put on a high alert in a ‘snap combat Exercise’ while the Ukrainian crisis was first developing. Russia’s annexation of Crimea earlier this year and the forces Moscow used in its operations across southeastern Ukraine possessed the same sets of capabilities and skills practiced in the Zapad-2013 exercises.”
Influential German sources claim there is fresh interest on the staffs of Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in whether the Kremlin is planning to use Kaliningrad as a springboard for launching Crimean-type green men or Donbass-type volunteers across the Polish and Lithuanian borders; and if so, how to combat them. For the time being, the Germans are keeping shtum, compared to the Americans.
Last May a Pentagon-backed study by CNA analysed the script for “ambiguous warfare.. this brand of warfare involves rapidly generating highly trained and disciplined forces who enter the battle space out of uniform and, in coordination with local supporters, utilize psychological operations, intimidation, and bribery to undermine resistance.” According to CNA, “the three small Baltic Republics, formerly part of the Soviet Union and home to sizable populations of Russian speakers, are potential next targets.”
The Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) has been writing scripts of its own along similar lines, publishing them to catch Swedish media attention, along with requests for state money to produce more. According to an FOI paper of June 2014, “one country at a time is likely [to be targeted], since top-level political and military coordination is needed. Furthermore, any on-going operation absorbs DIME-resources [DIME = diplomatic, intelligence, military, economic] that cannot be used elsewhere. Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan and mainland Ukraine—all bordering Russia—risk (partial) illegal annexation.” Kaliningrad and its immediate neighbours, Poland and Lithuania, weren’t mentioned by the Swedes.
To the Russian ear this sounds exactly like the script followed by US forces in Kiev, when President Victor Yanukovich was toppled in February 2014. At present, when Russian military analysts in Moscow predict where they expect the war over Ukraine between the US, NATO, and Russia to move next, they point westwards, to Transnistria and Moldova on the Black Sea. What are the Kremlin’s new red lines in the post-Soviet space? — asks one of the Moscow analysts, Sergei Markedonov. In his answer he ignores Kaliningrad and the Baltic states.
In Warsaw, Polish politicians – now campaigning for the October 25 election – are in two minds. Radoslaw Sikorski took an active role in the overthrow of the Ukrainian government in 2014, and in subsequent efforts to escalate military confrontation along Russia’s borders. But he has been sacked from his posts as foreign minister, speaker of the Sejm (parliament), and front-runner on his party’s election ticket. By contrast, since his ouster, the newly elected President Andrzej Duda has appeared to backtrack on Sikorski’s adventurism, while calling for NATO investment on Poland’s eastern frontier.
“We do not want to be the buffer zone”, Duda (right) told the Financial Times in mid-August. “We want to be the real eastern flank of the alliance. Today, when we look at the dispersion of bases . . . then the borderline is Germany. Nato has not yet taken note of the shift of Poland from the east to the west. Nato is supposed to be here to protect the alliance. If Poland and other central European countries constitute the real flank of Nato, then it seems natural to me, a logical conclusion, that bases should be placed in those countries.”
The Financial Times has kept repeating its interpretation that Duda wants NATO bases on the eastern front. But Duda himself hasn’t said so. He evaded the issue during his state visit to Germany last week, and in Estonia a few days earlier. In Berlin he rebuffed a German proposal that Poland take in more of the African and Middle Eastern refugees now pouring into Germany. Duda reminded the Chancellery that the war with Ukraine has already triggered a larger refugee flow than Poland can accommodate. “The Polish president explained that his country had taken in ‘thousands’ of people fleeing the conflict in eastern Ukraine: He added that any escalation in that conflict could cause a ‘large number’ of others to head west from Ukraine.”
Duda has also been reported on Polish state radio as recommending that Europe demand that Russia return Crimea to Ukraine. He’s not saying as much for Poland. Nor has he said a word, yet, about the status of Kaliningrad, or the movement of Russians across the Kaliningrad border, within the 50-km visa free zone in Poland introduced by Sikorski in 2011.
A touchstone of Warsaw’s current thinking about Kaliningrad is the case of Victor Bogdan, the former head of the amber business in Kaliningrad and one of the region’s most influential business figures. He had crossed swords with the Governor of Kaliningrad, Nikolai Tsukanov – like Bogdan, a a Kaliningrad native, with a strong local patronage network; Tsukanov is running for re-election this month. He has arranged for Bogdan to be charged with tax fraud; ordered the police to seize his gem stockpile; and is attempting to put his own trusties into the amber business. The Kremlin has also taken against Bogdan in circumstances at least as corrupt as those alleged against Bogdan. For details, read this report.
Bogdan’s Polish lawyer, Jacek Potulski, said this week that he and Bogdan are waiting on a decision by the Polish Justice Minister on whether to accept the lower and appellate courts’ agreement to a Russian extradition request. “Generally [the minister’s decision] takes about a year. That would be June 2016. It doesn’t depend on the [Poilish] election”. He added that Bogdan will decide shortly whether to file a fresh challenge to the Kaliningrad prosecutor;s charges in the European Court of Human Rights.
Until the Kiev putsch of February 2014, followed the next month by the Crimean accession, transformed US and EU thinking towards Russia, the most constant indicator of “western” strategy towards Kaliningrad has come from the Warsaw think-tank, the Centre for Eastern Studies (right) – in Polish, Ośrodek Studiów Wschodnich ( OSW). This is funded by the Polish state budget and directed from the Polish intelligence services. The catalogue of OSW public-access reporting on Kaliningrad can be read here. The dossier reveals just one attempt at a comprehensive analysis of Kaliningrad’s situation. Published in July 2012, there has been no follow-up — no attempt by OSW to bring the political, economic or military issues up to date.
The tone of the 77-page report was conciliatory, cooperative, flexible towards Russian rule in Kaliningrad. For example: “This region will remain surrounded by the EU, and it will still share numerous practical issues with its neighbours which need to be resolved together, for example in the area of ecology. Developing the oblast and bringing it up to living standards similar to those in the neighbouring EU member states would contribute to building a stable and safe neighbourhood for the EU, something which is especially important.” As a measure of Polish strategic thinking at the time, the OSW report is noteworthy for what it doesn’t do – it doesn’t promote the idea of Kaliningrad as a “dagger”, let alone a security threat to Poland.
The OSW report is also clear that the public demonstrations in Kaliningrad of 2009-2010, leading to the ouster of Governor Georgy Boos (below, left), were limited in their ambitions, non-separatist in character, and well handled by the Kremlin and the successor governor, Tsukanov (right).
“As a consequence of the higher social activity of Kaliningrad’s residents and their aspirations inspired by contacts with the international environment, the significant deterioration of the living standards in this region in 2009 gave rise to public protests. The direct catalyst for the protests were Governor Boos’s decisions, for example increasing the rate of the transport tax several times, which adversely affected most people in this region. The protest consolidated the regional political and business elites and the public. At that time, they were the most numerous protests on the scale of Russia as a whole in a decade (up to 10,000 people participated in them). Their participants were the first to use anti-Putin slogans (for example, they appealed for the dismissal of Vladimir Putin’s government). However, it turned out later that the residents’ dissatisfaction was fuelled mainly by local problems.”
If OSW can be taken as a guide to current thinking towards Kaliningrad in the Polish security establishment, there is no appetite in Warsaw for schemes to stir internal opposition in Kaliningrad, let alone deploy troops in the border zone, or launch agents provocateurs of the type Sikorski and the Polish secret services were training for Ukraine for at least a year before the Kiev coup. Also, Polish strategy currently accepts Kaliningrad’s Russian status as legitimate, and is wary of destabilizing the frontier area, turning it into a Ukrainian-type flashpoint.
The concentration in Warsaw is on defensive measures to be taken on Polish territory. For example, from this March report from OSW: “The concept of so-called ‘hybrid conflict’ is a combination of conventional warfare using state-of-the-art technology (e.g. precision strikes against critical infrastructures, special forces operations) and indirect/non-military actions (no declaration of war, the use of armed civilians, avoiding clashes with the opponent’s regular armed forces, information warfare). Russia might use the presence of large Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic states as a pretext to interfere with their internal affairs, which increases the possibility of hybrid conflict in Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania. Russia could initiate such a conflict by instigating separatism, supporting protests staged by sections of the Russian-speaking community (e.g. over the status of the Russian language), sending groups of armed individuals wearing unmarked uniforms across the border, organising acts of sabotage against critical infrastructures, staging provocations with an ethnic or cultural background, undertaking actions aimed at disrupting the operation of public administration (e.g. cyber-attacks on government servers) and conducting disinformation campaigns. It is increasingly likely that Territorial Defence Forces could serve as an element in in preventing hybrid conflicts. The Swedish model is a classic example …”
Warsaw political analyst Stanislas Balcerac comments: “Poles appear to be more concerned about the autonomous movement in Silesia [western Poland] than they are about Kaliningrad being either Russian or German. Sometimes I have the feeling that Poles do not realize that they have a direct 200 kilometre (or more) border with Russia. They seem to be more concerned with the economic power of Germany, and with the fact that a significant chunk of the Polish press is already in German hands.”
German sources concede that as a legacy of World War II, the status of the former German province of East Prussia is as sensitive to the Poles as it is to the Russians. Some Germans believe that if tension with Russia can be reduced, the Kremlin might be willing to trade Kaliningrad back to Germany. The idea that the Russian military have regarded (and may still regard) Kaliningrad as a non-strategic bargaining chip is based on the so-called Batelin “offer”. First reported by Der Spiegel in May of 2010, then amplified by US Government media outlets, the notion is that in July 1990 General Geli Batenin (then a missile specialist on the Soviet General Staff) told a German diplomat in Moscow that the Soviet Government might be willing to discuss a change of status for Kaliningrad. There have been interpretations in the west that this was a type of “Alaska sale offer” on the part of the desperate, cash-short Politburo. But Soviet officials, including Mikhail Gorbachev, have categorically denied it.
The German assessment at the time was that the Batenin offer was a ploy, and perhaps a trap for splitting German from American and from European Union (EU) tactics for dealing with Moscow. What’s more certain now is that Kaliningrad is viewed by both Russia and the EU as a touchstone – also weathervane – of the larger Russia-Europe relationship. If there is a benign relationship and flexibility, then there can be concomitant flexibility in the cross-border relationships between the Kaliningrad, its EU neighbours, and its Baltic neighbours, especially Poland, Germany and Sweden. Common-focus problems can then be considered cooperatively, such as pollution of the Baltic Sea; visas and visa-free travel; electricity transmission, etc. But if there is tension, then Kaliningrad will reflect it with increased militarization. If the Batenin “offer” had been a genuine one, not a ploy, then there would have been far more attention in both the US and European strategy-making towards Kaliningrad in the years which followed. This did not happen.
There is no reference to Kaliningrad in Zbigniew Brzezinski’s (right) blueprint for American global dominance titled The Grand Chessboard. On his map of Europe, Brzezinski calls Russia a “black hole” between Germany and China. On the Russian side there was comparable silence and disinterest during the 1990s. In Jonathan Haslam’s history of Soviet strategic thinking, Kaliningrad fails to draw a single mention. Not even during the strategic debate in the 1980s over intermediate range nuclear weapons in Europe, the so-called SS-20 versus Pershing contest, was Kaliningrad regarded by either side as a strategically significant point on the map for projecting the kind of Soviet threat against Europe which the missiles represented; or the kind of defence and retaliation now attributed to the basing of mobile Iskander missile units at Chernyakovsk, in the Kaliningrad region.
That leaves the US and NATO to promote subversion inside Kaliningrad. The first deployments are of the green men and volunteers known by their western cover as investigative journalists. In Kaliningrad’s case, it has been targeted by SCOOP, a journalism centre funded by the Danish and Swedish governments and by the Soros foundation, based in Copenhagen. Here’s SCOOP’s funding. And here’s the SCOOP dossier on Kaliningrad, most of written by Nikita Kuzmin. Note that SCOOP is currently advertising for more Russian reporters to work on this region. What SCOOP is doing is to finance Russian reporters like Kuzmin, then translate their stories from their Russian outlets into English, and ensure that they receive amplified attention. This is coming principally from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the US propaganda outlet, and from individuals who worked in Russia under press cover. Typical of the exaggerated mix of rumour, false-flagging, and fabrication which the RFE/RL dossier compiles on Kaliningrad is this claim that NATO military exercises in the region are testing schemes for capture of Kaliningrad. “Childish pranks and petty vandalism to be sure, but also signs of our dangerous times,” reports Brian Whitmore, a former reporter for the Moscow Times. “We’re certain to see more of this kind of thing for a while — as well as more menacing gestures.” Whitmore is also predicting that Kaliningrad is the place to test whether “the regime is on the rocks… last weekend’s vote in Kaliningrad shows that they are far from invincible.”
There have been other attempts, also confined to US outlets, which pinpoint Kaliningrad as the source of Russian fleet deployments to Syria; maritime espionage, as well as sewerage, aimed at Sweden; kidnapping in Estonia; gun-running to Iran and other anti-western groups in the Middle East, and so on.