As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” continues its downward spiral in Ukraine, the future of Russian-occupied or dominated territories is becoming a topic of interest, starting with Kaliningrad.
Slowly but surely, Russian influence is being wiped out in the Baltic region, and this trend has the potential to snowball under the right circumstances. Poland announced on May 10 through the Polish Commission for the Standardization of Geographical Names that it would no longer refer to Kaliningrad by its Russian name, but would opt to use Królewiec, the Polish translation for Königsberg, which is the former region of eastern called Prussia. before the end of World War II.
Their timing, the day after Putin’s disappointing Victory Day parade in Moscow, was clearly deliberate. The now-defunct Soviet Union changed its name after taking administrative control under the terms of the Potsdam Agreement of 1945. The Baltic harbor and surrounding area were renamed after Mikhail Kalinin, one of the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution .
Little remains of Kaliningrad’s original German heritage, except for some surviving architecture. The entire German population was forcibly expelled in 1947 by then-Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and replaced by hundreds of thousands of new settlers, mostly from Russia and Belarus. Warsaw’s return to calling it Królewiec was a deliberate rejection not only of Putin, but also of Stalin and decades of Soviet rule.
And it’s not just Poland. On 12 May, Lithuanian MPs Vilius Semeška and Paulė Kuzmickienė followed suit and appealed to the State Committee on the Lithuanian Language to rename Kaliningrad Oblast and the city of Kaliningrad as Karaliaučiaus. “We stand in solidarity with our Polish neighbors and urge you not to use the artificial names imposed on us in Lithuanian,” they argued.
On May 16, Latvia announced that it would officially refer to the Kaliningrad exclave as Königsberg after the Latvian State Language Center recommended the name change.
This is just a name change for now, but it could be a harbinger of the near future for several Russian-held territories should the war in Ukraine end in resounding defeat. As the weight of Russian oppression diminishes, Crimea, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria may press for reunification with their motherland, allowing Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova to reunite.
Moldova took what could be the first step on May 15, when Igor Grosu, Speaker of the Parliament of the Republic of Moldova, announced that Moldova was formally withdrawing from the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of the Commonwealth of Independent States – the Russian equivalent of the British Commonwealth .
“After 30 years,” Grosu stated, “it became clear that the presence of the Republic of Moldova in the structures of the CIS did not help us remove the Russian army from the territory of the Republic of Moldova, to resolve the conflict in Transnistria. . Being in the CIS did not protect us from blackmail in the middle of winter. Withdrawal from the CIS Assembly is a first step. Ukraine left this organization. The Republic of Moldova is a free country to make sovereign decisions. We showed that we want democracy, freedom at home.”
At worst, if you overlapped the domino theory of US Cold War policy, replacing “coming out from under Russian oppression” with “the spread of communism, Russia could experience another event similar to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. That original event led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. If Russia cannot keep its occupied territories in line, what would that mean for the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, currently White -Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Tajikistan Will these other peripheral countries, feeling weakness due to Russia’s failure in Ukraine, continue to support the Kremlin?
Russia cannot afford to let Poland’s seemingly minor announcement build any momentum. But based on the actions of Lithuania, Latvia and Moldova, that is already the case. The announcement clearly came from Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who angrily declared the decision “bordering on madness” and “a hostile act”. He grumpily stated that ‘the official place name is Kaliningrad’.
If Russia lost control of Kaliningrad, it would be akin to losing Crimea in terms of strategic importance. Kaliningrad, wedged between the NATO countries of Lithuania and Poland, is the headquarters of the Russian Baltic Fleet. The seaport allows Russia to influence commercial and military traffic in the Baltic Sea from the Baltiysk naval base. It is also home to the 152nd Guard Missile Brigade, which has a dozen forward Iskander-M ballistic missile systems and nuclear weapons in caches.
In addition, Kaliningrad also allows Russia to threaten the Suwalki Gap, a 40-mile stretch of border between Poland and Lithuania. The two highways running through this divide are the only viable land and military supply routes between the Baltic States and Finland in the northeast and the rest of NATO in the southwest. If Russian and Belarusian forces acted together to close the gap, it would essentially cut off those NATO allies from the rest of the alliance.
The Kremlin cannot risk losing Kaliningrad. While this may seem like a simple Polish name change, it is likely intended as a strategic check by Warsaw as Russia continues to struggle in Ukraine. Finland’s admission to NATO, combined with Sweden’s eventual admission, strengthens the noose around Kaliningrad and Russia’s influence in the Baltic region. Acknowledging and approving this name change, along with Moldova’s withdrawal from the CIS, creates a non-kinetic distraction that Putin and Peskov must address to mask Russia’s declining ability to project influence beyond its borders.
Jonathan Sweet, a retired army colonel and 30-year-old military intelligence officer, led the US European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012 to 2014, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltic regions. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022.
Mark Toth, a retired economist and entrepreneur, is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL.
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