A report last week by The Washington Times that Russia was moving tactical nuclear weapons into the Kaliningrad enclave prompted protests in neighboring Poland and raised the specter of increased East-West tensions. The United States says that if confirmed, the deployment would violate Russia's pledge to remove nuclear weapons from the Baltic region.
Prague, 11 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kaliningrad enclave has found itself detached from the rest of Russia -- a Cold War orphan uneasily sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland.
Poland realized its ambition of joining the NATO military alliance in 1999 and Lithuania hopes that it will not be far behind.
In June 1998, Russian military officials warned that if the Baltic states joined NATO Moscow would base tactical nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad. In an article published last week, The Washington Times cited unidentified U.S. intelligence officials who said Moscow had already followed through on that threat. The article raised hackles in Poland. Some officials in Warsaw last week, including President Aleksander Kwasniewski, called for an international inspection of the territory to verify the report.
Those statements were later tempered. Speaking to RFE/RL this week, a spokesman for the Polish Foreign Ministry, Grzegorz Dziemidowicz, said Polish-Russian relations are what he called "normal." He added that no alarm was warranted.
"In our opinion, Polish-Russian relations are absolutely normal and very good."
Russia has categorically denied the charge and the United States has declined to comment on the alleged intelligence report. But the Pentagon, through its spokesman Kenneth Bacon, said this week that if the reports were indeed true, it would mean Russia was violating a pledge made in the early 1990s to remove nuclear weapons from the Baltic region
In a valedictory speech yesterday that reviewed American-Russian relations, outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen said the U.S. would have to examine "whether Russia is going to pursue a course which is one of seeking cooperation and full integration in European affairs and a better relation with the United States, or whether it's going to revert to the past." Cohen's question raised the possibility of the deterioration of Russia's relations with the West.
Timothy Garden, a European defense-policy expert and former director of the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, says the latest controversy demonstrates that despite improved East/West ties the balance is never far from tipping back.
"The worry is that this is getting us a bit back into a sort of Cold War confrontational style of relationships, when we thought that had all disappeared."
The allegations regarding the placing of weapons in Kalinigrad have not been proven, but Garden notes that tactical nuclear weapons have begun to play a more prominent part in Russia's military strategy.
"What has happened is that there's been a sort of swap-over of military doctrine in as much as when NATO saw itself as the weaker power in the Cold War, it relied very much on an early escalation or threat...in order to deter the Warsaw Pact from attacking. Now that Russia sees itself as the weaker military side, it is, in its new doctrine, putting more emphasis on the likelihood that if it were attacked, it would have to go nuclear early."
Garden notes from a military standpoint, Russian missiles in Kaliningrad would be insignificant. Both Washington and Moscow have so many intercontinental, air, and submarine-based weapons aimed directly at each other that a few more short-range weapons would hardly tip the military balance.
"The question of where they [missiles] happen to be based -- in military terms -- is pretty much irrelevant. There are so many missiles still available to Russia and America of every conceivable range, that it almost doesn't matter where they are placed. It's a political symbol rather than a military utility."
For that reason, some analysts have suggested that Russia might move tactical nuclear weapons into Kaliningrad, as a political warning to NATO not to expand to the Baltic states, as the alliance prepares to consider a second wave of expansion.
It is still too early to tell whether the Kaliningrad controversy will help or hurt NATO aspirants in the Baltics. Garden says the administration of U.S. President-elect George Bush is likely to take a harder line on military issues with Moscow and might favor including the Baltics in the alliance, especially if Moscow is perceived once again as a military threat. But NATO's European members have indicated they would be less willing to risk Russia's ire.
Nevertheless, Garden says that if proven true, the reports of Russia's new deployment in Kaliningrad would usher in a new atmosphere of distrust, and Moscow's new relationship with both Europe and the United States could wind up a casualty.
"If it proved to be true, this would call into question the integrity of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin because he has categorically denied this when Schroeder was on his visit to him. So he has told the German chancellor that there is no truth in this."
How the issue is resolved could portend the fate of East-West relations -- at least in the near term. Indications from Germany and Sweden, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, are that Europe hopes this will turn out to be no more than a tempest in a teapot.