The Belarus Factor in Kaliningrad’s Security Lifeline to Russia

Executive Summary

Three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, security ties between the Republic of Belarus and Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast exclave remain linked in important ways, even as economic, transit and energy infrastructure connections have withered away over time. But since the disputed August 9, 2020, Belarusian presidential elections, demonstrations and instability inside Belarus have sparked anxiety and concern in both Moscow and Western capitals over the future geopolitical orientation of this East European country wedged between Russia and NATO’s Baltic flank. Hypothetical dramatic political changes inside Belarus that deeply and profoundly alter Minsk’s foreign policy and geopolitical alignment would force Russia to introduce major revisions to military-strategic planning on its western flank. Undoubtedly, under such a scenario, Kaliningrad, the Russian Federation’s westernmost province, would be adversely affected. And though some implications—especially in the realms of bilateral trade, food and energy security—would have only marginal bearing on the oblast, at least at first, the military-political ramifications would bring profound medium- to long-term changes to Russia’s position in Kaliningrad. Indeed, the impact of Belarus on the Russian strategic situation in Kaliningrad has often been neglected, if not completely ignored, by Western experts.

Any sudden reorientation of Belarus away from Russia would drastically transform Kaliningrad’s military capabilities and marginalize many of the efforts undertaken by Moscow (especially since 2014) to restore the oblast’s military potential. In terms of the transportation sector, the impact could derail Kaliningrad’s economic model, which is heavily reliant on exports of manufactured goods to Russia that primarily ship via overland routes across Belarus, rather than by sea. And in the scope of information-ideology, one likely consequence could be the emergence and growth of separatist trends in Kaliningrad that could uproot its Russia-tied mooring—arguably Moscow’s main fear regarding its Baltic exclave.

Following the 2004 Belarus-Russia natural gas dispute, Kaliningrad-bound supplies of gas through Belarus were suspended, creating a panic in Moscow over the energy vulnerability of its Baltic exclave and setting in motion a series of long-term plans to insulate the oblast from any future supply disruptions via Belarusian territory. Over the next decade, Moscow began the delicate task of trying to bolster Kaliningrad’s economic and transportation security in order to offset these perceived vulnerabilities. While Russia has managed to work out some solutions to mitigate the consequences of possible negative scenarios (such as, for example, a potential energy blockade of the oblast by its European neighbors), other strategic liabilities, including second- or third-order effects on Kaliningrad Oblast’s local economy, remain unaddressed.

A potential break or revision of existing ties between Belarus and Kaliningrad could also bring about important external changes. Namely, for Western actors (NATO members), Kaliningrad’s offensive potential—profoundly damaged after 1991, but partially restored after 2014—would be greatly diminished. Kaliningrad would effectively transform from a forward Russian outpost in the Baltic to an isolated enclave devoid of any overland ties to Russia. At the same time, however, the prospect of worsening economic conditions in the oblast could result in growing anti-Moscow moods akin to the developments that occurred in Kaliningrad years earlier and resembling ongoing regionalist-minded protests in the Russian Far East. Arguably, this possibility constitutes a much greater and more likely challenge to the Kremlin than the threat of direct military engagement with NATO in the Baltic theater and/or the weakening military capabilities of Kaliningrad.

 

Introduction

Few experts in the West recognize the impact that Belarus has on the Baltic-littoral Russian exclave of Kaliningrad—an entity separated from Russia proper by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union members Lithuania and Poland. Yet Russia-leaning Belarus is the nearest regional ally that Kaliningrad Oblast (KO) could look to for reprieve in the event of a conflict with any of its NATO neighbors. Moreover, in the event of such a conflict, Russian access to Belarus would be important beyond as a critical relief point for Kaliningrad: the country could additionally serve as a launching pad for a Russian invasion of neighboring Baltic adversaries such as Poland or Lithuania.

Given the ongoing turmoil in Belarus since the disputed presidential elections of August 9, 2020, Moscow can no longer be assured of a stable (and predictable) Minsk despite their current close bilateral ties. Specifically, in the military political domain, any changes to Belarus’s foreign policy or geopolitical orientation would downgrade Kaliningrad’s military capabilities and marginalize many of the efforts taken by Russian since 2009, aimed at restoring some of the oblast’s military potential. The preservation of stable transportation, food security and energy ties to Belarus are important but not critical to Kaliningrad’s security under peaceful conditions. However, in the event of a conflict with the North Atlantic Alliance and a naval embargo of KO, Belarus would become a highly important—if not crucial—lifeline. The loss of Belarus as an overland link, whether because of Minsk’s reorientation away from Moscow or due to sudden and prolonged upheaval in that country, would put Russia’s hold on KO in long-term jeopardy.

 

Kaliningrad and Belarus: A Controversial Partnership

By virtue of history, since 1945, Kaliningrad and Belarus have been connected by a myriad of ties. One of the most direct was the massive flow of ethnic Belarusians pouring into the captured Baltic-littoral territory from the most war-destroyed areas of Belarus.[1] After the collapse of the Soviet Union, links between Belarus and Kaliningrad Oblast—still populated by a robust Belarusian diaspora that currently stands at 3.8 percent of the total population[2]—have remained strong. In his speeches, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has repeatedly pointed out that during the Soviet era, discussions and plans for various forms of incorporation or integration of Kaliningrad into the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) were quite common.[3] Moreover, in 2014 and again in 2019, Lukashenka, to the great surprise and irritation of conservative Russian politicians, promised to turn Kaliningrad into a “thriving land” (tsvetushii krai) were the territory to be ceded to Belarus.[4] With those aspects in mind, it is important to chart the actual state of relations between Kaliningrad and Belarus today as well as to analyze the main strengths and weakness of this partnership.

 

Economic and Business Ties: Cooperation and Disagreements

The economic relationship between KO and Belarus is premised on two central pillars: an inter-governmental agreement (1999) that specifically addresses the issue of Kaliningrad[5]; and inter-regional agreements signed between KO and Belarus’s Grodno and Minsk (1996), Brest (2004) and Gomel (2009) oblasts.[6] On the surface, official contacts (economic and political) between KO and Belarus are thriving; in reality, however, this image may be misleading.

First, bilateral economic ties are actually quite feeble compared to official rhetoric on the matter. In 2018, Belarus occupied merely 1 percent of Kaliningrad’s foreign trade.[7] The bilateral trade balance has also been decreasing since 2014 (in 2015, it collapsed by 40 percent).[8] On top of that, Kaliningrad has a disproportionately large (and growing) trade deficit with Belarus—in 2019, the latter’s exports to the oblast stood at $210 million, whereas KO’s exports to Belarus were worth only $150 million.[9]

Second, long-running discord stems from Belarus’s refusal to utilize KO-based transportation and logistics infrastructure (ports and railway) for Belarusian international trade. The issue of switching from Klaipeda (Lithuania) and Ventspils (Latvia) to KO-based seaports was first proposed (at a serious level) by the Russian side in 2004[10]; yet despite repeated promises, Minsk never took any concrete steps in this direction. Local Governor Anton Alikhanov recently admitted the near-complete lack of reciprocity in transportation ties between Kaliningrad and Belarus: while “nearly all goods from Russia [to KO] are transported through Belarus [and subsequently Lithuania] by rail, Minsk does not use any of the KO-based infrastructure, causing serious economic losses for the oblast.”[11] Incidentally, in his recent public statements, Alikhanov has been increasingly critical of Belarus’s “discriminatory policies,” which he implicitly likened to Lithuania’s[12]—viewed in Kaliningrad as an overtly anti-Russian player. Despite vigorous attempts to boost cargo flows along the Ust-Luga–Baltiysk sea-based transportation corridor (these attempts were first articulated in 2017),[13] Russian sources confirm that, in 2020, “practically all Russian transit to Kaliningrad goes [overland] via Lithuania [mainly through Belarus or, to a much more limited extent, Latvia], which approximates to almost 6 million tons per annum.”[14] However, given mounting pressure applied by EU member states on Belarus’s political leadership, cargo flows to Kaliningrad via Belarus–Lithuania could end up being drastically reduced.

The third problematic area comes in the form of mutual competition. In 2014, Belarusian customs authorities confiscated a large quantity of KO-assembled electronics classified as “counterfeit products.” But allegedly, these products later ended up being sold in Belarusian stores anyway.[15] The incident resulted in a surge of discontent in both Moscow and Kaliningrad[16] but went well beyond KO-Belarusian relations, ultimately ending up before the Court of the Eurasian Economic Union, which ruled in Russia’s favor (although the court order was never satisfied).[17] This scandal vividly demonstrated that Belarusian-based producers—the issue, in fact, goes well beyond electronics, covering such industries as construction and agriculture—view KO not as an economic partner but as an unwelcome competitor.

Indeed, Kaliningrad-based experts admit that, when it comes to economic/business ties, KO and Belarus have yet to expand the currently meager relationship into a genuine, sustainable one.[18]

 

Energy-Related Ties

Throughout the 1990s–mid 2000s, energy security was one of the most acute issues faced by KO, which at that point completely depended on the uninterrupted import of natural gas via the Minsk–Vilnius–Kaunas–Kaliningrad pipeline traversing Belarus and Lithuania. Local power plants, meanwhile, remained underdeveloped (the need to build a modern power-generating facility was voiced as early as 1990) and could not satisfy local electricity needs. This left the oblast extremely vulnerable to external fluctuations and the will of neighboring transit states.

A broadly repeated view among Russian analysts suggests that local energy security was under jeopardy because of Lithuania’s assertive actions, which ultimately spurned Russia into taking decisive steps. In fact, however, Moscow’s sudden focus on improving Kaliningrad’s energy security was related to a “gas dispute” between Moscow and Minsk in February 2004, when Russia temporarily halted supplies of this resource to Belarus. As a result, KO was cut off from gas supplies for 19 hours, which “put the entire local energy sector on the brink of collapse.”[19] To remedy this systemic vulnerability, between 2005 and 2019, Russia launched an ambitious (and quite costly) program specifically designed for Kaliningrad to be able to achieve energy autarky, minimizing dependence on third parties. Incidentally, this strategic priority became one of the key objectives spelled out in the Russian Doctrine of Energy Security, adopted in 2019. Specifically, Article 27 (point A) states that the “development of energy infrastructure in Eastern Siberia, the Arctic region, the Far East, the North Caucasus, Crimea and Kaliningrad Oblast” was to become a central priority for Russia’s energy policy.[20] During the same period (2005–2019), Moscow pursued and successfully implemented (based on information acquired from open sources) three strategic policies:[21]

  1. Electrification, which included launching the 900-megawatt (MW) Kaliningradskaya Thermal Power Plant 2 (TPP-2), Talakhovskaya TPP (159 MW), Mayakovskaya TPP (157.3 MW) and Pregolskaya TPP (455.2 MW). These four plants’ combined generating capacity enables KO to fully satisfy its annual electricity consumption.
  2. Gasification that includes launching the Floating Storage Regasification Unit (FSRU) Marshal Vasilevskiy, procured in South Korea at Hyundai Heavy Industries ($295 million), as well as the construction of an underground gas storage facility. Thanks to these investments, Russia is now able to transport liquefied natural gas (LNG) from its territory via the Baltic Sea and re-gasify it in KO as an alternative to shipping dry gas volumes overland via the above-mentioned Minsk–Vilnius–Kaunas–Kaliningrad pipeline.
  3. Digitalization, which is to modernize the local power grid into the most up-to-date system in Russia. For this purpose, the Public Joint Stock Company (PJSC) ROSSETI—fully in charge of this strategic initiative—has diverted approximately $285 million (between 2015 and 2020) from a number of separate regional projects.

It would be fair to say that in the domain of energy, KO-Belarus contacts could be minimized (or discontinued completely) in case of emergency without significant negative fallout for Kaliningrad. For now, Russia continues using the Minsk–Vilnius–Kaunas–Kaliningrad pipeline to supply the oblast with natural gas, since completely switching to the alternative mode of supply—LNG shipments by sea—would be extremely costly. Nevertheless, if circumstances required it, such a transition could be accomplished almost instantly.

 

Military-Political Cooperation

Arguably, the strongest area of partnership between KO and Belarus is in the realm of military cooperation. The importance of Belarus—the strongest Russian military-political treaty ally in the region and more generally—for Russia’s national security[22] cannot be overestimated: in addition to other elements, it is located on the Great European Plain, which has served as a key invasion route from the West for centuries. Moreover, Russia and Belarus are connected by strong ties in the realm of technical-military cooperation, with the Belarusian defense-industrial complex producing indispensable parts/components for many types of weaponry and military equipment[23] vital to Russia’s national security.

Referring specifically to KO-Belarus military ties, two essential aspects need to be highlighted. First, Belarus has a key meaning for Kaliningrad’s aerospace security. Concluded on February 3, 2009, the Agreement Between the Republic of Belarus and the Russian Federation on Joint Efforts in Protection of the External Border of the Union State[24] became a stepping stone toward the creation of the Unified Regional System (EPS) of anti-aircraft/missile defense, de facto finalized in 2016. This system—consisting, among other elements, of S-400 (located in Kaliningrad) and S-300 (Belarus) divisions—ensures aerial security of the area between Kaliningrad and Belarus and, at the same time, is capable of denying entry to NATO aviation seeking to access the three Baltic States.[25] According to Russian sources, the creation of the EPS increased the “general effectiveness of anti-missile/aircraft defense for Belarus by 1.4–1.6 times and for Russia [in this region] by 1.7 times.”[26]

Second, Belarus is a potential game-changer in NATO’s “Suwałki Corridor dilemma.” The Suwałki Corridor, the short stretch of Polish-Lithuanian border (65–104 kilometers across, depending on the method of measurement) between Kaliningrad and Belarus—is viewed in the West as potentially one of the most vulnerable areas on NATO’s eastern flank.[27] Russia sees it from a diametrically opposite prospective: in case of hostilities, Russian forces could rapidly cut off the Baltic States and block Poland’s eastern border, at the same time establishing naval superiority in the eastern part of the Baltic Sea (secured by naval forces located in Kronstadt and Baltiysk) with a prospect of further gains. Yet this scenario would be feasible only if Belarus allows Russian forces to traverse its territory from east to west.[28] Speaking on this subject, however, Lukashenka has repeatedly made clear that Belarus would only allow Russian forces to move through its territory if NATO commits aggression against Russia.[29] The bottom line is that in the event of a conflict with the North Atlantic Alliance but absent Belarus’s assistance, KO would not only be incapable of (counter)offensive operations, it would also be difficult for the oblast (which would be de facto isolated) to defend itself against much stronger (in conventional terms) NATO forces without Russian use of nuclear weapons.

 

Kaliningrad in Transition (1991–2020): Social, Economic, Military Pillars

From Oblivion to ‘Vanguard’ of Russian World

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1991), Kaliningrad Oblast—wedged between independent Poland and Lithuania—found itself completely cut off from the Russian mainland. For KO, the first post-Soviet decade was dominated by socio-economic and political disturbances, including a dramatic plummeting of living standards and flourishing of various social malaises such as smuggling, criminality, prostitution and drug dealing/abuse (two main causes of surging HIV/AIDS cases in the oblast). Consequently, KO was dubbed the “black hole of Europe” and a “double periphery”—an entity feared in the European Union and ignored by Russia.[30] Surprisingly, however, during these tumultuous times, the oblast’s population maintained a steadfast loyalty to Moscow, never demonstrating any serious secessionist sentiments[31]—a reality that remains equally true today. Sociological research conducted in Russia in 2018 clearly demonstrated that in comparison with the residents of other surveyed federal entities (occupied Crimea, Murmansk, Kostroma Oblast, Chuvashia and Primorski Krai), Kaliningraders are more likely to identify themselves with Russia.[32]

Beginning with the turn of the 21st century, the Kremlin’s heretofore standoffish attitude toward KO began to rapidly evolve, fueled by the Russian leadership’s concerns over the ongoing integration of Poland and Lithuania into Euro-Atlantic structures. During the early 2000s, Moscow managed to minimize the nascent links between KO and its two European neighbors by actively relying on three main tools: economic subsidies (to destroy the local entrepreneurial spirit and minimize business contacts with Poland and Lithuania), information operations/propaganda (promoted by civilian authorities and the Russian Orthodox Church),[33] and the re-militarization of the exclave. Thus, hopes shared by many Western experts regarding the prospect of a full demilitarization and subsequent transformation of Kaliningrad into a “Baltic Hong Kong”[34] never materialized. Instead, Kaliningrad effectively became the “vanguard of the Russian World” and “Russia’s outpost in the West.”[35] In the context of this time period, it is important to note that, from a socio-economic point of view, Kaliningrad successfully managed to overcome the hardships of the 1990s–early 2000s and stabilize its macro-economic situation. This progress, however, was not premised on principles of economic sustainability and free trade; instead, it relied entirely on massive federal subsidies and preferential access to the mainland Russian market.

 

A ‘Military Bastion 2.0’?

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin clearly articulated his strategic interest in acquiring Konigsberg (and other portions of East Prussia) from Nazi Germany in 1941 (Moscow summit)[36] and 1943 (Tehran Conference).[37] Once captured by the Red Army as a result of the East Prussian Offensive (January 13–April 25, 1945), Moscow split up the German exclave between the Soviet Union and Poland. The majority of the Soviet-annexed lands became re-designated Kaliningrad Oblast and quickly transformed into one of the most militarized places in the world. Moscow’s military planners saw the oblast in offensive terms—as a potential base from which to attack NATO forces in the Baltic theater as well as, specifically, to capture the Danish Straits.[38]

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, KO underwent drastic de-militarization in virtually all strategic areas.[39] Nevertheless, the newly exposed oblast’s military potential was never entirely nullified. Notably, military (including retired) personnel inhabiting the region continued playing an important role in virtually all spheres of public life. Moreover, the Zapad-99 strategic military exercises—meant to check the combat readiness of the recently founded Union State with Belarus[40]—pointedly re-articulated the military-political importance of Russia’s Baltic exclave. Incidentally, the exercises became the first post-Soviet rehearsal for joint forces of Belarus and Russia to practice warding off a mock aggressive enemy action against Kaliningrad.[41]

Starting from 2014 onward, Russia increased its efforts to partially re-militarize KO.[42] Aside from increasing the number of small-scale drills and snap exercises, the oblast became an integral part (together with Belarus) of the Zapad strategic-operational exercises in 2013 and 2017. An intermediary zenith of this policy was reached in 2018, when nuclear-capable Iskander-M mobile ballistic missile systems were deployed to KO on a permeant basis.[43] Although Russia has vigorously sought to restore Kaliningrad’s military capabilities[44] in order to respond to current geopolitical and military-strategic realities, Russian strategists admit the oblast continues to suffer from inherent weaknesses and vulnerabilities that would become obvious in a potential military confrontation in the Baltic Sea region. For instance, a report by Jamestown Foundation Senior Fellow Richard Hooker[45] on a hypothetical regional military clash triggered a wave of alarmism among Russian military experts, many of whom (tacitly) noted the serious difficulties Moscow would have defending the exclave by conventional means.[46] And upbeat rhetoric coming out of the Russian Ministry of Defense[47] notwithstanding, the country’s military strategists have serious concerns about the ability of locally stationed air-defense and anti-aircraft systems—S-300/400s, modified Pantsirs, and Ball and Bastion complexes—to effectively withstand a massive attack by NATO forces utilizing the whole spectrum of the latest means of warfare, including unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV).[48]

With all the above in mind, it must be underlined that, unlike in Soviet times, KO is today primarily viewed by Moscow’s military-political leadership in defensive (rather than offensive) terms—as a force tasked with withstanding an initial enemy attack. This is corroborated by the nature of contemporary exercises conducted on the oblast’s territory that, among other elements, strongly prioritize A2/AD-related capabilities.[49]

 

A Belarusian Reorientation Away From Russia and Implications for Kaliningrad

Considering the crucial security links between Kaliningrad and Belarus, the hypothetical prospect of Minsk geopolitically reorienting away from Russia would represent a nightmare scenario for the Kremlin. Such an outcome would have negative implications for KO in multiple areas.

 

Ramifications for the Civilian Realm

In terms of energy security, the hypothetical loss of Belarus as a military-political ally and overland transit corridor would be unlikely to result in major new challenges for Kaliningrad in the short term. During the 1990s–2000s, the oblast’s dependency on neighboring states (in terms of transportation) was, in fact, overwhelming. But since then, Russia has managed to achieve essentially complete energy autarky for the isolated oblast, at the cost of over $1 billion in direct investments during the past decade.[50] Nevertheless, this energy independence suffers from a significant liability: In the event that traditional, overland pipeline gas delivery methods from Russia proper to Kaliningrad across Belarus (and Lithuania) were to suddenly become unavailable, Moscow’s contingency plan would be to ship in LNG volumes across the Baltic Sea. This would be a truly costly operation. But even more importantly, the maritime route is itself highly vulnerable to being obstructed (particularly by Finland and Estonia), leaving the oblast entirely cut off from its most important energy source. That said, the declared capacity of the recently constructed Kaliningrad gas storage facility equals 2.7 billion cubic meters, which is more than the oblast consumes per annum (2.5 billion).[51] So while KO seems well prepared for a negative scenario in which it is cut off for up to a year, that is also presumably long enough for Russia to try to resolve such a blockade using a variety of “hybrid” and/or hard military methods.

Second, in the domain of food security—one of the main inherent weaknesses of the oblast in the pre-sanctions period (1991–2014)—KO is today capable of covering all its basic needs in strategic commodities. However, the oblast still has relatively underdeveloped storage capacities (granaries and elevators), and it continues to be heavily dependent on food imports from Belarus and other foreign countries that did not introduce anti-Russian economic sanctions. As a result, some problems in this area might be expected if Belarus were to suddenly turn sharply against Russia.

Third, when it comes to transportation and regional trade, noted Eurasia expert Paul Goble expects that “Minsk’s reorientation away from Moscow would make it much more difficult (if not impossible) for Russia to block the construction of the [Poland–Belarus–Ukraine] E40 north-south waterway between the Black Sea and the Baltic.”[52] This prospect, although undoubtedly highly undesirable for Russia politically and economically,[53] would have limited direct impact on Kaliningrad itself. What presents a much greater challenge for the exclave would be the sudden hardships associated with transporting locally assembled/produced goods (ranging from electronics and appliances to automobiles) to Russia without free access to Belarusian overland transit networks. Similarly, the oblast would not be able to receive strategic raw materials/components from Russia to maintain its industrial output. Taken together, this would have devastating consequences for the local economy and key branches of KO industry.

 

Implications in the Military-Political Domain

Aside from the already-discussed “Suwałki dilemma” to Kaliningrad/Russia that would arise if Belarus were to deny entry to Russian troops in the event of a conflict with NATO, there is yet another important aspect worth considering. Namely, Russia’s capabilities in the realm of radio-electronic warfare in the Western strategic direction could also be seriously undermined if Belarus suddenly turned away from Moscow. Specifically, on June 6, 2021, the bilateral agreement (established in 1995) [54] that allows the Russian side to lease immovable property and land in Belarus expires. Unless the issue is settled on terms favorable to Russia soon, the status of two important military facilities could be jeopardized:

  • The 43rd Communications Center of the Russian Navy (Minsk oblast) with the Vileyka VLF transmitter (10,000-kilometer range), which, in fact, is useful to various branches of the Russian Armed Forces, including the Strategic Missile Forces (RVSN) and Aerospace Forces (VKS).[55]
  • The 474th Communication Center Baranavichy (Brest oblast) with a locally stationed Volga early-warning radar station (RLS). Thanks to its maximum detection range of 4,800 kilometers, the Volga is considered to be crucial for defending central Russia and portions of its northwestern regions.[56]

It appears Moscow has, indeed, been considering the implications of a failure to extend the 1995 treaty (or other circumstances that might affect the status of the Russian communication centers in Belarus). The media has increasingly carried commentary calling for the deployment of the Konteiner-type over-the-horizon radar (which underwent combat duty for the first time in Mordovia on December 1, 2019) in Kaliningrad[57] as a substitute to the facilities located in Belarus. According to Russian sources, the Konteiner radar is capable of tracking mass takeoffs of aircraft (including jets, helicopters, UAVs) and cruise missile/hypersonic weapon launches at a distance of up to 3,000 kilometers. Some experts have suggested that simply voicing these plans sends an unequivocal message to Minsk that the Russian facilities on Belarusian territory can be easily replaced.[58] But that point of view is not shared by all military analysts: in effect, the contrarian argument points out that due to the technical differences between the Volga and Konteiner radar systems, the latter should not be seen as an identical substitute to the former.[59] Moreover, beyond the military-related aspects, Russian sources assert that a potential withdrawal of communications facilities from Belarus—as a “result of a hypothetical advent of anti-Russian forces” there—would severely undermine the alliance between the two countries, resulting in an explicit victory of NATO and the US in the post-Soviet space.[60] As noted by conservative military expert and member of the Presidium of Russian Officers Andrey Golovatiuk, “Belarus is Russia’s strategic partner in the scope of the Union State. We [Russia] would not want it to drastically step sideways from our common political course, as happened with Ukraine. This would compel us to change our whole national defense strategy, including not only the anti-missile/aircraft defense strategy but other directions as well.”[61]

 

Implications in the Information-Ideological Domain

Unlike some other Russian regions, KO has never experienced strong separatist trends. Even the often mentioned regionalist Baltic Republican Party (active between 1993 and 2003) saw Kaliningrad as Russia’s “bridge” to the EU, but remaining squarely under Moscow’s sovereignty; and, in fact, its total number of active members never exceeded fifty.[62] Subsequently, the “Tangerine Spring” (2009–2010)—a series of public protests that broke out in Kaliningrad over subsiding living standards and some unpopular reforms, resulting in the eviction of Vladimir Putin’s handpicked local governor, Georgy Boos—was also bereft of separatist under/overtones, although anti-governmental (anti-Putin) sentiments were widespread within the movement.[63]

Several years later, developments in Ukraine translated into an unprecedented consolidation of Russia’s domestic audience around an anti-Western ideological narrative. In this regard, KO experienced a massive information-propagandist campaign carried out by federal and local media as well as public figures (including the then-governor Nikolay Tsukanov and his team). The thrust of the message—explicitly anti-Western in general and anti-Ukrainian, -Polish and -Lithuanian in particular—aimed to form/boost the image of Kaliningrad as increasingly surrounded by adverse powers. The policy has, indeed, yielded the desired effect. However, in case of potential drastic transformations in Belarus, two serious repercussions might ensue.

First, it will be significantly more difficult for local and federal propagandists to convince the oblast’s audience that Belarus—traditionally viewed in much more amicable terms than Ukraine—is an adverse power. That is not to say, of course, that such a task would be impossible: in fact, some Kaliningrad-based policymakers are already reviving themes of “Belarusian nationalism” and “neo-Nazism” that were “strangulated by Lukashenka”[64] in the 1990s, thus implying their imminent return. Second, developments in Belarus, primarily stemming from public discontent with an aging autocrat, could potentially become a serious challenge to the Russian system. Leading Russian conservative intellectuals, such as Sergey Karaganov, have already admitted as much.[65] In effect, developments in Belarus could feasibly trigger the revival of anti-Putin and anti-system sentiments in Russia’s westernmost region reminiscent of the Tangerine Spring protests of the 2009–2010 period or the regionalist rallies that broke out in the Russian Far East in mid-2020.

 

Conclusion

When considering any potential future dramatic changes in Belarus and their likely impact on Kaliningrad, two major aspects should be underscored.

On the one hand, the “loss” of Belarus would have relatively little negative effect on the socio-economic conditions in Kaliningrad Oblast itself in the short term. At first, the most harmful ramifications would primarily be associated with heavier federal outlays to KO to compensate for the latter’s increased energy costs, deficits in some categories of foodstuff, as well as likely problems in industrial production due to shortages of strategic resources/raw materials in the oblast and a (temporary) inability to export finished goods to end users in Russia. Such vital domains as energy security (the complete re-orientation from gas supplies via Belarus is now possible) and local defense capabilities (Belarus does not share actual borders with KO) would also not be overly affected at first; but they could be more vulnerable to disruption over time, especially in the event of a NATO naval blockade of Kaliningrad. That situation could begin to grow more dire if Russia is unable to break KO’s isolation after about a year or so.

Yet on the other hand, a reorientation of Belarus away from Russia might yield far more visible and far-reaching consequences at the strategic level. These would include the military-strategic impact of transforming Kaliningrad from an “amber pistol”[66] at the temple of the EU/NATO into an isolated target for the transatlantic alliance—one that Moscow would have a significantly harder time relieving and supplying without a forward position in Belarus. But perhaps even more importantly, plummeting living standards in a more cut-off KO (held on life support by a cash-strapped Moscow) would, over time, likely trigger growing discontent among the local population. In contrast to the 1990s—when information could be not transmitted as immediately or easily as today, the popular mobilization potential was incomparably lower due to the absence of social media—the next socio-economic crisis could far outstrip the “Tangerine Spring” in terms of its magnitude. Under such a scenario, secessionist voices could also grow more audible inside Kaliningrad. And the problem of a separatist-minded KO would be by a far more dangerous (not to mention more realistic) challenge for Moscow than any potential threat of a regional military encounter with NATO.

 

Notes

[1] Yuri Kostiashov, Izgnaniye prusskogo dukkha: kak formirovalos istoricheskoye soznaniya naseleniya Kaliningradskoii oblasti v poslevoyennie gody, Kaliningrad: Kaliningrad State University, 2003. In 1988, the share of ethnic Belarusians in KO reached almost 9 percent. For more information see: http://www.demoscope.ru/weekly/ssp/rus_nac_89.php?reg=7.

[2] “Kaliningradskaya oblast,” Export.by, accessed October 10, 2020, https://export.by/kaliningrad.

[3] “Lukashenko nazval Kaliningrad ‘svoyey oblasti,’ ” RIA Novosti, November 25, 2019, https://ria.ru/20191125/1561564114.html.

[4] “Lukashenko gotov sdelat iz Kaliningradskoy oblasti ‘tsvetushchiy sad,’ ” Novyy Kaliningrad, October 11, 2013, https://www.newkaliningrad.ru/news/politics/2599866-lukashenko-gotov-sdelat-iz-kaliningradskoy-oblasti-tsvetushchiy-ray.html.

[5] “O sotrudnichestva Kaliningradskoy oblasti s Respublikoy Belarus,” Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, April 3, 2018, https://www.mid.ru/ru/vnesneekonomiceskie-svazi-sub-ektov-rossijskoj-federacii/-/asset_publisher/ykggrK2nCl8c/content/id/3152683.

[6] “Slova Lukashenko o ‘nashem’ Kaliningrade poschitali signalom NATO,” Kgd.ru, November 26, 2019, https://kgd.ru/news/policy/item/86087-slova-lukashenko-o-nashem-kaliningrade-poschitali-signalom-nato.

[7] Darya Khaspekova, “Prirastat regionami. Kak ukrepit predprinimatelskie svyazi mezhdu Rossiyey i Belarusyu,” Eurasia Expert, May 31, 2018, https://eurasia.expert/regionami-ukrepit-predprinimatelskie-svyazi-rossiey-belarusyu/?sphrase_id=21367.

[8] “Tovarooborot Belorussii i Kaliningradskoy oblasti sokratilsya na tret,” Kgd.ru, May 31, 2016, https://kgd.ru/news/economy/item/54285-tovarooborot-belorussii-i-kaliningradskoj-oblasti-sokratilsya-na-tret.

[9] “Tovarooborot Belarusi s Kaliningradskoy oblastyu byet recordy,” Voyenno-Politicheskoye Obozreniye, August 6, 2019, https://www.belvpo.com/105688.html/.

[10] “Kaliningrad i Belorussiay menyayut principy sotrudnichestva,” Novyy Kaliningrad, August 27, 2004, https://www.newkaliningrad.ru/news/economy/10243-.html.

[11] Aleksandr Gamov, Aleksey Denisenkov, “Glava Kaliningradskoy oblasti Anton Alikhanov – o sotrudnichestve s Belarusyu: Minskie ‘kuznechiki’ preobrazili gorod,” Soyuznoye Veche, February 15, 2017, https://www.souzveche.ru/articles/economy/35634/.

[12] Konstantin Amozov, “Alikhanov: Kaliningradskiy biznes zavisit ot prikhoti zheleznodorozhnykh vlastey Litvy i Belorussii,” Kgd.ru, September 1, 2019, https://kgd.ru/news/economy/item/84342-alihanov-kaliningradskij-biznes-zavisit-ot-prihoti-zheleznodorozhnyh-vlastej-litvy-i-belorussii.

[13] “RF do 2020 goda otkazhetsia ot z/d transita mnogikh gruzov cherez Belarus,” Sputnik, June 17, 2017, https://sputnik.by/economy/20170617/1029350369/RFdo2020godaotkazhetsyaotzhdtranzitamnogihgruzovcherezBelarus.html.

[14] “Na tranzitnyje gruzi w region predlagajut stavit elektronnije plombi,” RBK, November 23, 2020, https://kaliningrad.rbc.ru/kaliningrad/23/11/2020/5fbb9f559a79478587acebb3.

[15] Yelena Kalugina, “ ‘Telebalt’: Belorusy konfiskovali nashu tekhniku i prodayut ee v magazinakh Minska,” Kgd.ru, January 19, 2015, https://kgd.ru/news/economy/item/40956-telebalt-belorusy-konfiskovali-nashu-tehniku-i-prodayut-ejo-v-magazinah-minska.

[16] Yelena Kalugina, “Tsukanov o deystviyakh belorusskoy tamozhni: Eto pokhozhe na devyanostye,” Kgd.ru, February 5, 2015, https://kgd.ru/news/economy/item/41352-cukanov-o-dejstviyah-belorusskoj-tamozhni-jeto-pohozhe-na-devyanostye-gody.

[17] “V Belorussii ne soglasny s resheniyem EAEC po delu o kaliningradskom tranzite,” RIA Novosti, March 3, 2020, https://ria.ru/20170301/1489012406.html.

[18] “O sotrudnichestve Kaliningradskoy oblasti s Respublikoy Belarus,” Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, April 3, 2018, https://www.mid.ru/ru/vnesneekonomiceskie-svazi-sub-ektov-rossijskoj-federacii/-/asset_publisher/ykggrK2nCl8c/content/id/3152683.

[19] Artur Usanov, Alexander Kharin, “Energeticheskaya bezopasnost Kaliningradskoy oblasti: kluchevyye problem i puti ih resheniya,” Regionalnaya Ekonomika, 2015, https://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/energeticheskaya-bezopasnost-kaliningradskoy-oblasti-klyuchevye-problemy-i-puti-ih-resheniya.

[20] “Ukaz Prezidenta RF ot 13 maya 2019 № 216 ‘Ob utverzhdenii Doktriny energeticheskoy bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsii,’ ” Garant.ru, May 14, 2019, https://www.garant.ru/products/ipo/prime/doc/72140884/.

[21] Sergey Sukhankin, “Kaliningrad Oblast and the ‘Sanctions War’: Genuine Progress or Avoidable Stagnation?” Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume 17, Issue 140, The Jamestown Foundation, October 7, 2020, https://jamestown.org/program/kaliningrad-oblast-and-the-sanctions-war-genuine-progress-or-avoidable-stagnation-part-one/.

[22] Glen E. Howard, “The Growing Importance of Belarus on NATO’s Baltic Flank,” September, 2019 https://jamestown.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Howard-Why-Belarus-Matters-web.pdf.

[23] Yuriy Zverev, “ ‘Strategicheskoye podpolye’: Kak Belarus pomogayet obespechivat voyennuyu bezopasnost Rossii,” Eurasia Expert, November 11, 2018, https://eurasia.expert/strategicheskoe-predpole-kak-belarus-pomogaet-obespechivat-voennuyu-bezopasnost-rossii-/.

[24] “Soglasheniye mezhdu Rossiyskoy Federatsiyey i Respublikoy Belarus o sovmestnoy okhrane vneshney granitsy Soyuznogo gosudarstva v vozdushnom prostranstve i sozdanii Yediniy regionalnoy sistemy protivovozdushnoy oborony Rossiyskoy Federatsii i Respubliki Belarus,” Conventions.ru, February 3, 2009, http://www.conventions.ru/view_base.php?id=1426.

[25] Yuriy Zverev, “ ‘Strategicheskoye podpolye’: Kak Belarus pomogayet obespechivat voyennuyu bezopasnost Rossii,” Eurasia Expert, November 11, 2018, https://eurasia.expert/strategicheskoe-predpole-kak-belarus-pomogaet-obespechivat-voennuyu-bezopasnost-rossii-/.

[26] Yuriy Zverev, “Zachem Belarusi i Rossii yedinaya Sistema PVO,” Eurasia Expert, September 20, 2016, https://eurasia.expert/zachem-belarusi-i-rossii-edinaya-sistema-pvo/?sphrase_id=21367.

[27] “NATO repetiruyet blokadu Kaliningradskoy oblasti,” Komsomolskaya Pravda Kaliningrad, June 28, 2017, https://www.kaliningrad.kp.ru/daily/26698.4/3722201/.

[28] Ivan Gog, “Chto takoye ‘Suvalskiy koridor’?” Klaipedskaya assotsiatsiya rossiyskikh grazhdan, July 7, 2016, http://www.klaipeda1945.org/konsuljtatsii/chto-takoe-suvalkskij-koridor/.

[29] “Lukashenko rasschityvayet na rossiyskuyu armiyu v sluchaye napadeniya NATO,” NTV, October 17, 2014, https://www.ntv.ru/novosti/1243698/.

[30] Sergey Sukhankin, “Kaliningrad in the “Mirror World”: From Soviet ‘Bastion’ to Russian ‘Fortress,’ ” Notes Internacionals 151, CIDOB, Barcelona, June 2016, https://www.cidob.org/en/publications/publication_series/notes_internacionals/n1_151/kaliningrad_in_the_mirror_world_from_soviet_bastion_to_russian_fortress.

[31] Sergey Sukhankin, “Bridge to Nowhere: Kaliningrad on Geopolitical Map between Russia and Europe,” PhD thesis, Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), Barcelona, 2018, https://ddd.uab.cat/pub/tesis/2018/hdl_10803_663980/sesu1de1.pdf.

[32] Igor Zadorin, Regiony “ ‘Rubezha’: Territorialnaya Identichnost i Vospriyatiye ‘Osobennosti,’ ” Politiya, № 2 (89), 2018.

[33] Sergey Sukhankin, “The “Russkiy Mir” as Mission: Kaliningrad between the ‘Altar’ and the ‘Throne’ 2009–2015,” Ortodoxia (56), University of Eastern Finland, 2016.

[34] Christian Wellmann, “The problem with Kaliningrad,” The Baltic Review (1994): 34.

[35] “Vystupleniye Svyateyshego Patriarkha Kirill ana I Kaliningradskom forume Vsemirnogo russkogo narodnogo sobora,” Patriarchia.ru, March 14, 2015, http://www.patriarchia.ru/db/text/4013160.html.

[36] Oleg Rzheshevsky, “Vizit A. Idena v Moskvu v dekabre 1941. Peregovory s I.V. Stalinym I V.M. Molotovym,” Novaya I novejshaya istoriya, No.2, (1994): 91–95.

[37] Sovetskii Soyuz na mezdunarodnykh konferentsiyakh perioda Velikoii Otechestvennoy voyni, 1941–1945, Moscow: Politizdat, 1984, 150.

[38] “ ‘Zapad-81’: kakimi byli samiye mashtabnuye ucheniya Sovietskogo Soyuza” [“ ‘West-81’: what were the most large-scale exercises of the Soviet Union”], TV Zvezda, September 19, 2017, https://tvzvezda.ru/news/forces/content/201709192226-zlk6.htm.

[39] Andrey Rezchikov, “Vosstanovit voyenny potencial Kaliningrada budet krayne slozhno,” Vzglyad, October 19, 2017, https://vz.ru/politics/2017/10/19/139608.html.

[40] Vasiliy Izgarshev, “ZAPAD-99,” Pravda.ru, June 24, 1999, https://www.pravda.ru/news/world/903671-zapad99/.

[41] Konstantin George, “Russia resumes big military exercises,” Executive Intelligence Review, Volume 26, Number 27, (July 2, 1999), https://larouchepub.com/eiw/public/1999/eirv26n27-19990702/eirv26n27-19990702_070-russia_resumes_big_military_exer.pdf.

[42] Given Russia’s significantly lower economic potential compared to the Soviet Union, Moscow is not planning (and is incapable) to re-establish the extreme level of militarization that had existed in Kaliningrad before 1991.

[43] Sergey Sukhankin, “The End of ‘Hide and Seek’: Russian Iskanders Permanently in Kaliningrad,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume 15, Issue 28, The Jamestown Foundation, February 23, 2018, https://jamestown.org/program/end-hide-seek-russian-iskanders-permanently-kaliningrad/.

[44] For more detailed analysis related to the remilitarization of KO, see: Nicholas J. Myers, “Russia’s Western High Command and the Role of Belarus in Russian Strategic Planning,” The Jamestown Foundation, August 31, 2020, https://jamestown.org/program/russias-western-high-command-and-the-role-of-belarus-in-russian-strategic-planning/.

[45] Richard D. Hooker, “How to Defend the Baltic States,” The Jamestown Foundation, October 2019, https://jamestown.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/How-to-Defend-the-Baltic-States-full-web4.pdf?x52810.

[46] “Opublikovan plan zakhvata Kaliningradskoy oblasti Polshey i SShA,” Lenta.ru, October 27, 2019, https://lenta.ru/news/2019/10/27/force/.

[47] Ivan Abakumov, Nikita Golobkov, “Pochemu NATO ugrozhayet napast na Kaliningrad,” Vzglyad, September 20, 2019, https://vz.ru/world/2019/9/20/998833.html.

[48] Despite rhetorical bravado coming from some (ultra)conservative Russian military experts and analysts, a general sense of uneasiness can be perceived when it comes to the actual level of Russian capabilities to defend against the most modern weapons systems. These doubts have particularly crept in following evidence of the mixed record of Russian private military contractors engaged in Syria and especially Libya against opponents armed with newly developed “killer drones” supplied by Turkey.

[49] Sergey Sukhankin, “From ‘Bridge of Cooperation’ to A2/AD ‘Bubble’: The Dangerous Transformation of Kaliningrad Oblast,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, Volume 31 (2018): 15–36.

[50] Prospectively, costs are likely to increase dramatically.

[51] “V Kaliningradskoy oblasti rasskazali, chto zhdet transit gaza cherez Litvu,” Sputniknews.ru, January 10, 2019, https://lt.sputniknews.ru/economy/20190110/8028258/V–Kaliningradskoy-oblasti-rasskazali-chto-zhdet-tranzit-gaza-cherez-Lithuania.html.

[52] Paul Goble, “Kaliningrad—A Key Factor in the Kremlin’s Calculations on Belarus,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume 17, Issue 122, The Jamestown Foundation September 8, 2020, https://jamestown.org/program/kaliningrad-a-key-factor-in-the-kremlins-calculations-on-belarus/.

[53] Alla Hurska, “E40 Waterway: Economic and Geopolitical Implications for Ukraine and the Wider Region,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume 17, Issue 67, The Jamestown Foundation May 15, 2020, https://jamestown.org/program/the-e40-waterway-economic-and-geopolitical-implications-for-ukraine-and-the-wider-region/.

[54]“Soglasheniye mezhdu pravitelstvom RF i pravitelstvom Respubliki Belarus o poryadke ispolzovaniya i soderzhaniya radiostantsii Vileyka, raspolozhennoy na territorii Respubliki Belarus (zaklyucheno v Minske),” Pravovaya Rossiya, January 6, 1995, http://laws-russia.narod.ru/fed1995/data04/tex17172.htm.

[55] Vadim Udmantsev, “Flotskiye pozyvnyye iz partizanskogo lesa,” Voyenno-Promeshlennyy Kuryer, July 26, 2006, https://vpk-news.ru/articles/4597.

[56] Sergey Ostryna, “Yeshche raz o sudbe rossiyskikh voyennykh obyektov v Belarusi,” Novosti VPK, December 24, 2019, https://vpk.name/news/359262_eshe_raz_o_sudbe_rossiiskih_voennyh_obektov_v_belarusi.html.

[57] “Russia’s advanced radar in Kaliningrad to monitor entire territory of Europe — source,” TASS, March 18, 2019, https://tass.com/defense/1132191.

[58] Kirill Ryabov, “RLS ‘Konteyner’: polgoda do boyevogo dezhurstva,” Armeyskiy Vestnik, December 5, 2018, https://army-news.org/2018/12/rls-kontejner-polgoda-do-boevogo-dezhurstva/.

[59] Aleksandr Alesin, “Risknet li Minsk potrepat nervy Moskvy za ‘eti dve bazy’v Belarusi?” Naviny, April 28, 2020, https://naviny.by/article/20200428/1588059825-risknet-li-minsk-potrepat-nervy-moskve-za-eti-dve-bazy-v-belarusi.

[60] Aleksandr Elesin, “Sistema preduprezhdeniya o raketnom napadenii: ‘Volga’ okazalas vazhneye ‘Dnepra’ i ‘Daryala,’ ” Belrynok, August 6, 2020, https://www.belrynok.by/2020/08/06/sistema-preduprezhdeniya-o-raketnom-napadenii-volga-okazalas-vazhnee-dnepra-i-daryala/.

[61] Lyubov Stepushkova, “Belorussiya ukhodit na Zapad. Chto budet s oboronosposobnostyu Rossii?” Pravda.ru, August 17, 2020, https://military.pravda.ru/1521607-russia_belarus/.

[62] “Politicheskiye partii,” Obshchestvo.ru, accessed October 17, 2020, http://socarchive.narod.ru/bibl/polros/Kaliningr/partii-kalin.htm; “Predsedatelyu obshchestvenno-politicheskoy organizatsii Kalinigradskoy oblasti’ Baltiyskaya respublikanskaya partiya,’ ” Delovaya Zhyzn, August 23, 2002, http://enet.ru/~baltia/bl020829.html.

[63] Sergey Sukhankin, “Special no more: Kaliningrad on life support,” European Council on Foreign Relations (London), November 7, 2016, https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_special_no_more_kaliningrad_on_life_support_7169.

[64] Aleksandr Katerusha, Viktor Sergeyev, “Chem grozyat Kaliningradu protest v Belorussii,” Komsomolskaya Pravda Kaliningrad, August 19, 2020, https://www.kaliningrad.kp.ru/daily/217170/4272813/.

[65] Sergey Karaganov, “Pravo znat!” YouTube, October 10, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmzebWwi3Gk.

[66] Vladimir Abramov, “Yantarnyy pistolet, on zhe mishen,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 14, 2011, https://www.ng.ru/regions/2011-11-14/100_oborona.html.