By Douglas Edward Steil
President Trump promised efforts to improve US relations with Russia, yet even after his inauguration there were reports in the media, including videos, about a large buildup of NATO tanks, led by the US, at “Russia’s doorstep” (FOX News) in Poland, featuring joint military exercises (“war games”) as part of “Operation Atlantic Resolve”.
On January 31, 2017, RT (formerly Russia Today) described these maneuvers as “… the largest military buildup in Europe since the end of the Cold War…” in alarming terms without providing the appropriate historical context for its geographically-challenged readers. Lacking contextual knowledge, both those commentators from the discredited dinosaur (old legacy) media and the rapidly growing independent (new alternative) media inadvertently amplified the sense of alarmism the general public must have perceived. It ought to at least be obvious that the RT quote cited above is inherently self-contradictory and therefore misleading: If the Cold War had really already ended, then there would be no conceivable basis for the military buildup, which also included tanks from Germany (by invitation) on Polish and Lithuanian territory.
What should one make of these military maneuvers coming in the wake of Trump’s new presidency, which might appear on the surface to be hostile toward Russia?
The Kaliningrad Oblast is useful to Russia primarily as a potential staging ground for launching a quick ground invasion into Central Europe. The benefits of air rights and adjacent sea rights, featuring an ice-free port, cannot be ignored either. The countries most concerned about the potential for future Russian military adventurism are obviously Poland and Lithuania, which both formed a Commonwealth for 227 years, until the late 18th century. Though Russian’s current leadership claims to harbor no such invasive ambitions in this part of Europe, circumstances could possibly change under a different leadership. The NATO troop maneuvers a few days ago are essentially putting the future of this territory “on the table” and signaling a readiness to call Russia’s bluff, as it were. If Russia were truly sincere about not having any territorial ambitions in this region, and thus not needing to preserve this as a future option, there would really be no fundamental justification for its continued presence in this enclave. Unlike Crimea, which has historically been a part of Russia, and which legitimately broke from the Ukraine and reunified with Russia in 2014, after two public referenda (which the so-called “International Community” should finally accept and formally recognize rather than perpetuating self-destructive sanctions), the Kaliningrad Oblast should not continue to remain a part of Russia because it never “belonged” to Russia, in a historical and cultural sense. It’s continued occupation and administration merely prolongs the formal ending of the Cold War.
For the record, as cited by a Lithuanian journal and presented through Wikipedia:
“Germany… has not renounced any claims to the possibility of territory reunification.”
Technically, Russia is provisionally administering the territory until a future agreement determines its fate, which will surely involve a protracted transition period during the course of a few decades thereafter. The Russian population currently living there, who feel attached to this region, where they may have grown up and lived all their lives, would not be expelled but be given the chance to integrate into a new environment. The experiences of three Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) in accommodating Russian speakers could be used as a model for those people who wish to remain rather than seeking new life opportunities in their Russian homeland.
It is unfortunate that this issue was not settled during the first half of 1990 during the so-called “2+4 Talks” that led to German reunification on October 3rd. Though it is not widely known why settling this territorial matter was deferred, one must bear in mind that at that time, just a few months after the Berlin Wall was breached any quick German unification, as advocated by the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, was publicly opposed by Margaret Thatcher, Mikhael Gorbachev, François Mitterand, representing the European Allied victors, along with other European leaders, including those in Italy and the Netherlands, as well as the organized Jewish community in the US, whose hostile position was expressed in the nearly hysterical diatribes by the editor of the New York Times, Abe Rosenthal; even some western German leaders did not support rapid German unity in light of the pending economic burden involving the difficult task of integrating two different economies. With such determined opposition from nearly all sides, it almost seems like a miracle that unity eventually came about. Only President George H.W. Bush and the Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey were on the side of Helmut Kohl. Obviously, numerous concessions were made. It is understandable that under that negotiating constellation a German demand to reclaim Königsberg would have been going too far. Ultimately, while any future claims on territory occupied by Poland after the war were renounced by Germany in the agreement, this, however, was not the case with regard to the Königsberg region, which clearly implies an unwillingness to so. The historical city of Königsberg obviously has an important place in German culture. Its architectural splendor should be restored similar to the old towns of such Baltic cities as Tallinn, Riga, and Lubbock, now UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Serious diplomatic discussions with regard to the region will eventually have to be on the agenda anyway; better sooner than later. The upcoming annual Munich Security Conference would be an opportune forum for affirming some basic positions, if not publicly then at least in private conversations.
Foremost, it would be incumbent upon the Russian leader Vladimir Putin, representing the occupying power, to take the lead and acknowledge the unresolved status of the region and a sincere willingness (as opposed to what we are accustomed to hearing by Israelis) to conclude a final agreement in return for legitimate written assurances by NATO countries. Such assurances would necessarily include (1) acknowledging Crimea’s status as a part of Russia, (2) the legitimacy of any future attempts by the former Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk to join the Russian Federation, along with any subsequent annexation by Russia, if so desired by the population, as was the case with Crimea, (3) recognizing the independence of the former Georgian republics of Abkhasia and South Ossetia and not diplomatically impeding any future desires by the people in these republics to join Russia, if the majority of the respective population decides so in a fair referendum, (4) resolution of the Transnistria conflict, (5) pulling back all NATO troops and military equipment from eastern European regions to prior positions, in accordance with the terms of a verbal promise purportedly given by George H.W. Bush to Mikhael Gorbachev in 1990, (6) refraining to enlist Ukraine and Georgia into the NATO military territory, (7) reaching a mutual comprehensive agreement banning the placement of mid-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting Europe and western Russia, respectively, and (8) negotiated conventional forces reductions.
Both Poland and Lithuania would be entitled to rural territories of the Kaliningrad Oblast contiguous with their respective land territories, whereas Germany would regain the city of Königsberg and surrounding territory that is sufficiently large to support the city. The future borders would be a matter for these three countries to work out and decide among themselves. All three countries should then formally announce their territorial claims. The question as to whether Russia would receive financial reimbursement, or, if so, to what extent, would be subsumed in the context of forming strong economic ties, including joint business ventures.
NATO and other parties involved in this unresolved matter concerning the future of Königsberg should announce their resolve: “Let’s finally end the Cold War!” Even then, implementing the associated steps will still take many years.