Kaliningrad—A Key Factor in the Kremlin’s Calculations on Belarus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 122

Navy Day parade in Baltiysk, Kaliningrad (Source: mil.ru)

Commentators in Russia and the West have often focused on the geopolitics of the Belarusian situation, arguing that Moscow wants a friendly regime in Belarus in order to expand its military presence there and thus be in a position to project power into Central Europe and deeper westward. Moreover, the Kremlin allegedly fears that the establishment of a pro-Western regime in Minsk would have the effect of pushing Russia further to the east, further isolating the latter from the outside world (see EDM, October 23, 2018 and May 3, 2016).

Those are entirely reasonable inferences given what President Vladimir Putin and others in Moscow have said and done over the last several years, let alone in recent weeks; but they are inherently longer-term considerations and more global in scope than the factors Moscow is thinking about in the short term, according to Russian analyst Vadim Avva. Writing in Svobodnaya Pressa, Avva argues bluntly that, at the moment, the Kremlin is primarily worried about what a regime change in Belarus would mean for Moscow’s control of Kaliningrad. If Russia “loses” the battle for Minsk, the commentator says, the Russian government would “automatically hand over [that Russian exclave] to the enemy” (Svobodnaya Pressa, August 30, 2020).

Among the reasons why Kaliningrad’s role in Russian thinking about Belarus has been neglected is that Belarus lacks a common border with the exclave. The only land routes, via Belarusian territory, that Moscow has to its major naval base on the Baltic go through Poland and Lithuania, both of which are North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. So based upon such a superficial examination, it might seem that regime change in Belarus would not significantly affect Kaliningrad. But Avva suggests that is not how Moscow sees things. In Russia’s view, without a pro-Moscow Minsk, Kaliningrad would be even more isolated and become a problem either in both war and peacetime.

In the event of war, Moscow would no longer be able to exploit the threat of seizing what has come to be known as “the Suwałki corridor,” the 100-kilometer gap between Belarus and Kaliningrad that connects Poland with Lithuania. Both Russian and Western military analysts have predicted in the past that Moscow would attempt to shut down this NATO bottleneck in the event of war (see Eastern Approaches, July 17, 2020; see EDM, September 14, 2017; The Baltic Times, November 9, 2015). By seizing that corridor, Russian forces would be able to block the movement of men and materiel from Poland to the three Baltic States, isolating the latter and opening the way for a Russian thrust against them. Because that scenario would represent such a danger to the Alliance and because of the analogies many in NATO make between the Suwałki corridor and the Cold War–era Fulda Gap (the area in West Germany many assumed a Soviet move against the West would begin in the event of war), NATO military exercises in this region have routinely focused on the defense and holding of this portion of Poland against any Russian onslaught. Were the government in Minsk to change its orientation, Moscow would be deprived of a beachhead (or at least the appearance of one) from which it has evidently planned to move. Indeed, Russian, Western and Chinese analysts alike have argued that without Russian control of the Suwałki corridor, Moscow would lose Kaliningrad in the first 48 hours (Lenta, September 20, 2019). Even less optimistic Western experts have suggested that if NATO’s control of the Suwałki corridor can be safeguarded, Moscow would lose its Baltic exclave in two weeks (Lenta, October 27, 2019). For that reason—and regardless of whether it succeeds in deploying any additional military facilities to Belarus—the Russian government has to care about the direction of any post-Lukashenka Belarus.

But even short of the start of a major war, Moscow has real concerns about what the loss of its position in Belarus would mean for Russia’s regional position in general and its control of Kaliningrad in particular. To give just one example, Minsk’s reorientation away from Moscow would make it much more difficult (if not impossible) for Russia to block the construction of the E40, a north-south waterway between the Black Sea and the Baltic that would link Ukraine, Belarus and Poland into an economic and political zone at odds with Russia’s promotion of east-west routes (see EDM, April 28, May 4, 13, 2020).

And a shift in Belarus would mean that Moscow would almost certainly face more separatist demands in Kaliningrad itself. Regionalist and separatist demands in Kaliningrad were rife in the 1990s and the first decade of this century, but Putin has worked hard to repress them (Afterempire.info, November 8, 2018; Icds.ee, August 27, 2018). Last spring, however, a military court in the exclave sentenced some of the most prominent leaders of the movement who have not yet emigrated or already been put behind bars to lengthy prison sentence—an indication of the latent support for secession there (Severreal.org, April 17, 2020).

The Baltic Republic Party (BRP), as the backers of independent Kaliningrad style themselves, has long supported the anti-Lukashenka movement in Belarus. In the words of Vadim Petrov, a BRP member now in exile, “We do not want Belarus to become a larger version of Kaliningrad”—that is, a Moscow colony without basic rights that the Kremlin has militarized to threaten the countries of Europe. Petrov added that residents of Koenigsberg (which Moscow renamed Kaliningrad after the end of World War II) have a great deal in common with Belarusians. “Together we act against the imperial policy of the Kremlin” (Region.expert, December 9, 2019). Undoubtedly, he and other residents of the exclave would read a shift in Minsk’s orientation away from Moscow as a signal that they should step up their own efforts in that regard as well.

Moscow is fully aware of those risks. Consequently, there is no question that the Kremlin, in its deliberations about Belarus, is factoring in what could happen in its Baltic exclave in war or peace. And because Moscow is doing so, Western analysts must do so as well because this hitherto often-neglected factor could play a far larger role in the coming weeks than many currently assume.