Russian territory in Europe that may be “surrounded” by NATO countries

Russian territory in Europe that may be “surrounded” by NATO countries

After the Russian military invasion of Ukraine, two traditionally neutral Nordic countries reversed their policies and asked to join NATO, the western military alliance: Finland and Sweden.

Some analysts believe the decision is a “disaster” for Moscow, which has always viewed the alliance’s expansion as a threat to its security.

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But Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised many in May 2022 by claiming that as long as new NATO members do not harbor military infrastructure on their territory, particularly nuclear weapons, there is “no problem”.

What has become clear is that the strategic map of the region will be completely different when Finland and Sweden join NATO.

1 of 4 photo of the missile system in Kaliningrad, Russia on March 11th. — Photo: Vitaly Never/Reuters

Photo of the missile system in Kaliningrad, Russia, on March 11. — Photo: Vitaly Never/Reuters

“The Baltic Sea is effectively being turned into a NATO lake,” said recently Andrey Kortunov, head of the Russian Council for International Affairs, a Moscowbased think tank affiliated with Russia’s foreign ministry.

In fact, with Sweden and Finland joining NATO, Russia will keep about 200 km along the coast of the Baltic Sea. Alliance countries will occupy 90% of the other 8,000 km of coastline: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Denmark and new members Sweden and Finland.

But between Poland and Lithuania lies Kaliningrad Oblast an enclave or administrative region of Russia with no land border to the country’s territory. With a population of just under a million, Kaliningrad has become a strategic point in the deepening divide between the West and Russia.

There are analysts who guarantee that this small territory is essential both for Moscow’s offensive against Ukraine and for its defense against possible hostilities from NATO countries. And there are even reports that Russia has already installed nuclear weapons there.

From Koenigsberg to Kaliningrad

Kaliningrad is currently one of Russia’s 46 oblasts, but it is the only one that does not share a land border with the country. In addition to its strategic and military importance, Kaliningrad has great historical importance for both Europe and Russia.

The historical origins of the territory go far back and are closely linked to the fate of East Prussia and its capital, Koenigsberg. The ancient city was founded in 1255 by the Teutonic Knights a Germanborn Catholic crusade that ruled Prussia.

When East Prussia separated from Germany after World War I, the area remained part of Germany until early 1945. At the end of World War II, it was captured by the Soviet Union’s Red Army.

2 of 4 The “Big Three” monument was dedicated this Thursday (5) in Yalta, Crimea, in honor of the meeting of leaders Joseph Stalin, Frenklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill — Photo: AP Photo/Alexander Polegenko

The “Big Three” monument was unveiled this Thursday (5) in Yalta, Crimea, in honor of the meeting of leaders Joseph Stalin, Frenklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

The Yalta Conference defined the territorial division between Poland and the USSR, which was formalized in Potsdam in 1945. The union between 1922 and 1946.

Between Russia and the West

Kaliningrad is the only port on the Baltic Sea that is icefree all year round. For this reason, the port city is essential for both Russia and the Baltic States to ensure transport and trade throughout the region, where temperatures often remain below freezing for much of the winter.

But transport and trade aside, Kaliningrad is a strategically important region for Russia due to its geographical location on the Baltic Sea and its proximity to NATO. It is home to Russia’s Baltic Fleet and Moscow’s westernmost territory, close to the heart of Europe.

3 of 4 Swedish military planes and tanks on the island of Gotland, a tourist destination in the country where the government has announced an increase in the army’s presence in response to threats from Russia in the Baltic Sea — Photo: Associated Press

Swedish military plane and tank on the island of Gotland, a tourist destination in the country where the government has announced an increase in the army’s presence in response to threats from Russia in the Baltic Sea (Photo: Associated Press)

In May 2022, the Baltic Fleet announced it would conduct a series of simulated missile strikes from its nuclearcapable Iskander system. The Iskander missile system was first deployed in the region in 2016 and upgraded in 2018 as part of a Russian strategy to offset NATO’s development of a ballistic missile defense shield in Europe.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, regular military exercises have been held in Kaliningrad with the participation of the Baltic Fleet.

“Kaliningrad has been at the center of Russia’s security concerns since the announcement of the first wave of NATO enlargement in the 1990s,” said Ruth Deyermond, professor of postSoviet security in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.

“At a time when tensions between Russia and NATO are rising, concerns about Kaliningrad are bound to increase,” she told BBC News Mundo, the BBC’s Spanishlanguage service.

Kaliningrad has been heavily militarized for years, but Russia’s military presence in the region was boosted after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

“It is not surprising that this region, which is probably the part of Europe with the highest concentration of Russian and NATO troops, is now the focus of the greatest security concerns on both sides,” says Deyermond.

Russia does not deny or acknowledge having installed nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad and often uses vague language on these allegations.

“The installation of this or that weapon, the deployment of military units, etc. on Russian territory are exclusively matters of the sovereignty of the Russian Federation,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in 2018.

But some officials, like Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda, say Moscow has already installed nuclear weapons in this strategic Baltic region.

Military analysts believe Kaliningrad could be a launch pad for a Russian attack on these countries if NATO intervened in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine or if Moscow turned its guns on other former Soviet republics like Lithuania.

However, Stefan Wolff, a professor of international security at the University of Birmingham in the UK, doesn’t think that’s a likely scenario at this time.

“I don’t get the impression that Russia is seriously considering escalation or that it has the resources to do so at the moment,” he told BBC News Mundo. “But it’s a longterm possibility. Therefore, it would be important to strengthen NATO’s defense capabilities now to deter any Russian move in the future.”

4 out of 4 signs on the FinnishRussian border — Photo: Essi Lehto/REUTERS

Signs on the border between Finland and Russia — Photo: Essi Lehto/REUTERS

Experts agree that if Sweden and Finland join the alliance, Russia is likely to strengthen its military position in Kaliningrad. But that, according to Ruth Deyermond, “is probably more of a defensive thing. Russia will protect its territory from NATO, not prepare to attack Poland or the Baltic States.”

It is not known how long the ratification process for admitting Sweden and Finland to NATO will take. Normally, such a process takes less than a year, but it has already been said that some members of the coalition, such as the United States, could push for the process to be speeded up in this case.

Meanwhile, experts assume that the heavily militarized Kaliningrad territory could become the lynchpin of the Russian offensive against Ukraine.

“It is not fundamental yet, but it could become more important if there is an escalation between Russia and NATO or if Russia starts destabilization operations in the Baltic States or in Poland,” emphasizes Stefan Wolff.

For Ruth Deyermond, the greatest risk is neither a deliberate invasion nor the deliberate use of nuclear weapons. “The biggest risk in the Baltics is a miscalculation or a misunderstanding that leads to an escalation that nobody wants.”

“The region is small, the terrain does not present any significant natural barriers and there are many military personnel in close proximity to each other. This provides favorable conditions for an accident to spiral out of control,” she explains.

“But as long as all parties are aware of this possibility, I believe the risk is manageable,” said the King’s College expert.

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