Russia, Kaliningrad and NATO

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

Judging by the recent spate of fiery proclamations from Moscow and Brussels, transit rights to and from the Kaliningrad exclave are the most contentious issue in Russia's relations with the West. Both the Russians and the Europeans are sticking to their guns, and the negotiations appear to be getting nowhere fast.

Rhetoric aside, it is unlikely that the Kaliningrad-EU visa spat will go unresolved for long. It is hard to imagine that the Russians and the Europeans will be unable to reach a compromise, given that regional destabilization is in neither side's interest. Plausible solutions, such as heavily subsidized, frequent air and ferry service, or special provisions for Kaliningrad residents within the Schengen visa regime, do exist.

But the visa dispute threatens regional stability in a potentially more pernicious way: The deafening volume of the spat has drowned out desperately needed discussion on the future of Kaliningrad-NATO military relations. Indeed, there has been practically no discussion of late on how that other international institution based in Brussels will manage its future relations with Kaliningrad.

At the Prague summit in November, NATO will likely expand to include the three Baltic states, thus surrounding Kaliningrad with allied countries. Essentially, a post-Cold War Russian West Berlin will have been created in the heart of the NATO security zone. Though the utter lack of dialogue would seem to indicate otherwise, this aspect of the Kaliningrad issue has vast implications that make the visa dispute seem trivial in comparison.

The bottom line is that neither Russia, NATO, nor the aspirant Baltic states have adequately prepared for the prospects and pitfalls of post-enlargement Kaliningrad-NATO relations.

Kaliningrad, one of the principal bases of the Russian Baltic Fleet, is a hugely important military asset. When Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania join NATO, Russian and NATO armed forces will be operating in closer proximity than they ever have before.

Yet with no one in Moscow or Brussels, let alone Baltiisk or Klaipeda (the naval bases in Kaliningrad and Lithuania, respectively), contemplating the future of the Kaliningrad-NATO nexus, it remains unclear what this unprecedented closeness will entail. The Baltic Fleet could become the vanguard of NATO-Russian cooperation. Or, conversely, with warships traversing the same small patch of sea, NATO expansion could destabilize the Baltic region.

Baltops -- a series of joint naval exercises held since 1993 under the aegis of NATO's Partnership for Peace -- is an exception to the continuing pattern of mistrust and suspicion resulting from the Baltic states' desperate desire for NATO admission and their traditional wariness of any cooperation with Russia. That is not to say that the Russian military has wholeheartedly embraced cooperation, although the Baltic Fleet does demonstrate some willingness to work with its neighbors.

Baltops notwithstanding, there is little precedent for substantive military cooperation in the region.

While NATO ships regularly conduct research and training exercises with the Baltic navies, the Russians have never been invited to participate. Not one Lithuanian naval ship has visited Kaliningrad, nor has a Russian naval vessel docked in Lithuania. Until 2001, Russia was not permitted to participate in the second, "offensive," part of the Baltops exercises. During this year's Baltops, a meeting of defense ministers from the Baltic states, Northern Europe and the United States was held in Tallinn to discuss the security of the Baltic Sea region and plans for regional cooperation after enlargement. Russia was not invited.

The exclusion of the Russians from a meeting on Baltic regional security on the eve of enlargement underscores the lack of constructive thinking on the Kaliningrad-NATO issue. The future of security in the region depends on cooperation between the Russian forces based in Kaliningrad and the aspirant Baltic states. But NATO and the aspirant countries alike have largely treated enlargement as an end in and of itself, thus preventing the development of a framework for productive cooperation between Russia, its Baltic neighbors and the alliance itself.

Moreover, neither NATO nor the Baltic states have adequately addressed the Kremlin's concerns over the future of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, or CFE, which the Baltic states have not signed. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov recently dubbed the situation a "legal black hole."

The lack of dialogue has only roused the suspicions of Russian generals, who recently conducted a series of large-scale war games in Kaliningrad. The commanders of the Northern, Pacific, Black Sea and Caspian Fleets joined the Baltic Fleet commander to oversee plans for defense against an attack from a not-so-virtual enemy. Clearly, top military brass are convinced that NATO will expand eastward, but remain extremely skeptical that expansion will entail anything other than increased regional tension.

Yet given geographical realities, and the history of NATO-led exercises in the area, as well as the stated determination of Kaliningrad Governor Vladimir Yegorov and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to transform the region into a bridge to Europe, Kaliningrad could become a staging ground for NATO-Russian cooperation after enlargement.

In July, search-and-rescue exercises (called RESCUER-MEDCEUR) were held simultaneously in all three Baltic states under the aegis of Partnership for Peace with funding from the United States. Russia, Ukraine and Belarus all participated. More work needs to be done to ensure that these sorts of activities continue and that the mutual suspicion ends -- both before and after Prague. The dialogue on Kaliningrad between Russia and the West needs to be about more than just visas.

Samuel Charap, a Fulbright scholar studying Russian foreign policy at MGIMO, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.