Over the past twenty-five years, the Kaliningrad exclave has been a thorn in NATO’s side. A Russian military outpost wedged between Lithuania and Poland, it is a critical element of Russian military planning, especially when it comes to anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) systems over the Baltic Sea and Moscow’s ability to project power in the Nordic and Baltic regions.
Since Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea and subsequent escalation of the war in Ukraine, Moscow has been pouring troops and weapons into Kaliningrad, most recently nuclear-capable Iskander missiles and S-400 surface-to-air batteries. Kaliningrad’s primary rail link to the Russian mainland runs through Lithuania, raising fears in Vilnius that Russia may leverage this vulnerability to create a confrontation at will.
The range of weapons deployed in Kaliningrad—the long-range systems there could now reach into the core of NATO—coupled with massive Russian snap exercises in the Baltics and frequent violations of the airspace and territorial waters of NATO and neutral Sweden and Finland has fed an escalatory spiral. Today, the risk is real and growing that a miscalculation on either side may trigger a crisis or spin out of control into a military conflict between NATO and Russia.
At its July 2016 summit in Warsaw, NATO vowed to respond to Russia’s military buildup along the alliance’s northeastern flank with planned deployments of four multinational battalions in the Baltics and Poland; a new regime of persistent military exercises; and the rotational deployment of a U.S. brigade to Europe, with its headquarters in Poland.
An arms race is on the way in the Baltics, one that is centered on Kaliningrad and plays out against the backdrop of a potentially devastating nuclear escalation. The Russians continue to up the ante by putting additional hardware into Kaliningrad and conducting more exercises. Such moves send a political message and test NATO’s response time. Meanwhile, NATO allies along the flank are frantically looking for ways to increase deterrence. To counter the increased Russian militarization of Kaliningrad, the Baltic states have accelerated their military modernization programs, including by acquiring antitank missiles. Reflecting a deepening concern about Russian deployments in Kaliningrad and along NATO’s Eastern flank, the U.S. government has agreed to consider supplying Poland with the JASSM-ER missile, a standoff weapon that can be launched from the F-16 fighter aircraft and has a range of up to 1,000 kilometers (621 miles).
There can be no resolution of the deepening polarization and strategic asymmetries in the Baltic region without the status of Kaliningrad being addressed head-on. Simply put, now is the time for the West to engage frankly and directly with Russia on the future status of the exclave.
At this point in NATO’s tense relations with Russia, any talk about demilitarizing Kaliningrad is a pipe dream. But the alliance and Russia urgently need a set of negotiated rules on notification, exercises, and operations in the Baltic Sea and along the littoral. The current escalatory pattern has acquired a disturbing rhythm of its own, with a tit-for-tat series of moves becoming the norm: each side claims to be simply responding to the actions of the other. Considering how narrow the risk margins have become over the past year in particular, this pattern is no longer acceptable.
There is another dimension to the Kaliningrad question that needs to be put squarely on the table: the situation in Ukraine cannot be settled unless NATO addresses the larger issue of military balance along its Eastern flank. Here, a resolution to Kaliningrad (and, increasingly, the growing militarization of Crimea) is the prerequisite for any comprehensive solution to the war in Ukraine. This is an ever more urgent issue, as the war in Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk is anything but a frozen conflict.
Since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, there has been a lot of speculation about what the priorities of Donald Trump’s administration should be come January. But considering the rapidly shifting balance in the Baltics and the potentially devastating implications of a miscalculation, the West may not have the luxury of time to engage in a long-term strategic reflection. The situation in the Baltics should be at the top of the U.S. foreign and security policy agenda—especially given the level of disarray in the EU following Britain’s vote to leave the bloc and NATO’s fragmentation over defense spending.
As in the Cold War years, the West needs to look for points where its interests correspond with Russia’s, and finding a path to de-escalation in the Baltics is one of the items on which Western and Russian interests coalesce. It is premature to talk about a larger U.S.-Russian strategy, and the West should not waste its time and energy on another reset that would allegedly solve it all. Rather, engagement on the concrete matter of the escalatory spiral in Kaliningrad and the Baltics, where both sides are deeply invested, should be a starting point for a frank discussion with Russia. The aim should be to find a solution to a risk level that has become unacceptably high.
Andrew A. Michta is the dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. Views expressed here are his own.