John Bell and John Zada are co-founders of The Conciliators Guild, an international conflict resolution organization based in Oxford, U.K.
Kaliningrad is an isolated Russian province and enclave, nestled between the Baltic states and Poland in the heart of NATO territory. As such, it can be viewed as a great vulnerability for Russia, easily cut off from the homeland. It might also be seen as, or transform suddenly into, a Russian forward guard already deep inside Europe, a locus for disruption and escalation.
As the war over Ukraine intensifies, and the West becomes more deeply embroiled, the risk of new zones of conflict also grows. The looming question of NATO accession for Sweden and Finland also raises the geopolitical stakes, specifically in the Baltic Sea region – making Kaliningrad a critical focal point.
The city, formerly Prussian Königsberg, and its province are an accident of history, awarded to Stalin after the Second World War. Today, this strategic ice-free northern port hosts Russia’s Baltic Fleet, advanced air defences and mobile nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles. Vladimir Putin may increase activities in this militarized enclave and along Russia’s Baltic borders as a weapon of intimidation against Baltic NATO-members Poland and Germany.
There have already been hints of a willingness to move in this direction. In April, Kaliningrad found itself in the news when Russia said it was ready to deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles to the enclave if Sweden and Finland joined NATO (Lithuania, however, claims Moscow already keeps nuclear weapons in the Baltics). Mr. Putin’s subsequent threats about a possible “lightning fast” response to continued Western intervention in Ukraine might be inferred to involve Kaliningrad given its forward position and proximity to some nearby capitals.
Another considered scenario among military planners involves a possible Russian move on the Suwalki Gap. This is a 100-kilometre stretch of undulating rural borderland shared by Poland and Lithuania that separates Kaliningrad and Moscow’s ally Belarus. The corridor is considered NATO’s Achilles’ heel. If any hostility were to erupt between East and West, or if Mr. Putin simply wanted to throw a wrench into the works, the corridor could be seized by Russian forces, cutting the Baltic states off from neighbouring NATO-ally Poland.
Such a move would not only aim to connect Kaliningrad to Belarus and therefore Russia, but also block military and other assistance by land from NATO to the Baltic states. This would also signify war between Russia and NATO, which so far, despite all words and actions, has been avoided by both sides.
Both NATO and Russia have held military exercises practising for this contingency. A slight strengthening of NATO forces in the area since the invasion of Ukraine undoubtedly takes this scenario into account.
In the short-term NATO must walk a fine line. Not only does it need to further bolster its strength and posture around the Suwalki Gap, but it needs to do so in a manner that does not threaten Russia’s control of Kaliningrad and trigger escalation if those actions are misinterpreted in Moscow.
Fortunately, there are few indications so far that the struggle between Russia and NATO will expand beyond Ukraine. Many would argue that Mr. Putin has his hands full in Ukraine and has limited capacity, without triggering the worst scenarios, for further adventures. However, his move into Ukraine was predicted by few, and especially not by those who have focused on all sides treading the path of rational interest since the takeover of Crimea in 2014.
Whatever unfolds, Russia and NATO will at some point again have to discuss mutually suitable security arrangements or architecture that don’t lead to another war of any scale. More realistically, there may simply be a need for a “cold peace,” in which the two sides remain locked in tension but actively avoid conflict.
In either scenario, Kaliningrad, currently viewed as a point of vulnerability and potential hot spot for both sides, may also be seen as an opportunity. Like many other places in Europe, it has a complex and multi-layered history: once Baltic, then Prussian and German, and finally today Russian. Its geography and the weakness it signifies for both NATO and Russia would make it a focal point to rapidly develop new security understandings on critical interests.
Defusing the risks above may involve both sides agreeing again to make Kaliningrad, as well as Poland and the Baltic states, non-nuclear entities. Kaliningrad today presents a dual challenge for both Russia and NATO where primitive reflexes may tragically abound. When calmer minds prevail, or the imperatives of mutual destruction shock all parties into common sense, Kaliningrad could be a necessary starting point for de-escalation and devising mutual security in the rest of Europe.
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