Grace Buchholz is a Research Fellow in history at Sproglit, an educational software company, has contributed to the History News Network, and is working on a book about strongman leaders from Edward IV to Vladimir Putin.
Watch Kaliningrad. This oft-forgotten Russian enclave, squeezed between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea, may be the focal point for a dangerous economic and military conflict between Russia and NATO.
In April 2017 a battalion of NATO troops marched up to Poland’s Kaliningrad border, to demonstrate to Russia that NATO is alert to the risk. In September, Russia will amass 13,000 troops for war games in neighboring Belarus. But why should a small place like Kaliningrad, about the size of Trinidad and Tobago, matter? The answer is found in Russia’s 300-year quest for warm-water ports, and the lethal action it has often taken to secure them.
Kaliningrad gives Russia its only port on the Baltic coast that does not freeze during the winter. But President Vladimir Putin has a problem. Kaliningrad is cut off from Russian control by hundreds of miles of Latvian and Lithuanian terrain. This problem should sound familiar. From 1991-2014 Crimea, another warm-water region, was cut off from Russia. Russia’s 2014 march through Ukraine to Crimea gave it swift access to the Mediterranean. Today Vladimir Putin plots to link Kaliningrad to the heart of Mother Russia, provoking shivers in NATO generals. At the G20 Summit on July 6th, 2017 President Donald Trump did pledge to uphold NATO’s Article 5, mutual protection clause. But Kaliningrad is a long way from the concerns of the Oval Office.
Putin’s ambition to link Russia’s vast landmass to warm water is not a newfound passion; past Russian strongmen and strongwomen have shared his thirst for warm water. When Peter the Great ascended to czardom in 1682, he studied the West and soon realized that Russia’s icy waters and frozen docks retarded its naval and maritime dexterity. While Portugal could devote twelve months a year to seafaring, Russian merchants were incapacitated by the winter and hibernated alongside the country’s brown bears.