Friday, November 14, 2008

City From an Alternate History

Dmitry Medvedev, perhaps the most transparently irrelevant figure in international politics, recently announced that Russia would station medium-range Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad to counter the proposed U.S. missile defense sheild. Kaliningrad, a Russian fortress on the Baltic, is a city lost in history, a potent symbol of Russian ambitions, and a living monument to the brutality of Clausewitzian civilization.

Kaliningrad was once Konigsberg. The Teutonic Knights, a military brotherhood of fanatical German crusaders who dominated the Baltic while waging genocidal war against pagan Slavs, built their operational headquarters there. Even after the order's fall, Konigsberg thrived as an outpost of German civilization, the seat of government for Prussia. It was the Texas of Germany, if you will.

The separation of this region from the rest of Germany following The First World War, in part to give the Polish people a homeland, was one of the great insufferable humiliations that led Germany to launch the Second World War. Romanticized Teutonic imagery and rhetoric was central to Nazi propaganda. The battle for Konigsberg, which was home to almost 400,000 Germans before the war, was bitterly fought and old-testament in its outcome: the Russians levelled it. The 50,000 Germans left were removed, all the buildings were destroyed. Konigsberg literally ceased to exist.

The Soviet Union established Kaliningrad in its place. The city and region were renamed just as St. Petersberg was renamed Leningrad to honor Lenin. Kaliningrad honored Kalinin, a high-ranking party officer and one of the original Bolshevik revolutionaries. The Soviets, supposedly idealistic socialist revolutionaries above Russian ethnocentrism, shipped in hundreds of thousands of Russian settlers. The once German city was now peopled entirely with ethnic Russians speaking Russian. The 'University of Konigsberg' was rebuilt as the 'Immanuel Kant State University of Russia.'

Though geographically separated from the rest of Russia, Kaliningrad is an incredibly important part of Russia -- more important, arguably, to Russia now than Konigberg was to Germany: the port of Kaliningrad is an invaluable trade and manufacturing hub, but it is also a Russian fortress which has housed a growing number of tactical nuclear weapons.

Trumpeting the placement of Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad which will presumably be aimed directly at the missile defense stations, is an escalation which must be seen in its broader context to be appreciated. Recent Russian moves have played into the hands of U.S. grand strategy when it comes to finding places to plant our missile shield. Local populations across Europe are opposed to hosting the sites, but politicians from those countries are willing to play ball as long as the price is right and they don't look weak. No government in Eastern Europe was in a hurry to do a deal.

The invasion of Georgia, largely accomplished through insinuation and bullying before the Georgians ever stumbled into the trap, exposed the vulnerability of the pipelines that feed the European economy which run through the Caucasus. The Russians proved that they could cut the pipeline whenever they wished, and even now they are essentially holding a knife to Europe's fuel artery.

There was a new sense of purpose injected into the horse trading when Russia -- which brutally smothered Poland for centuries -- invaded Georgia: the highest officers of Polish security, in a fit of stick-it-to-'em nationalism decided in hours what they had stalled on for years and agreed to host the U.S. Missile Shield. In a counter-move, the Russians announced that they would be moving Iskander missiles into Kaliningrad.

Whoever or whatever runs Russia -- is it even Putin? when he came onto the scene people snorted that he was a puppet of an FSB Cabal, Medvedev has visible strings that turn his head and lift his arms -- has made a series of much bruited moves designed to snap U.S.-E.U. connections at their weakest point: where Russian energy enters Europe.

This very vulnerability previously led to a rift between Germany, France, and the U.S.: the French and Germans did not want to antagonize Russia, and therefore did not want to spread NATO into the Ukraine or Georgia. Sarkozy recently called for the U.S. to cancel the missile shield, and for Russia to stand down.

Like Kaliningrad itself, this struggle is deeply rooted in centuries of territorialism and intractable conflict. Kaliningrad is a potent reminder of how Russians have solved such problems.

(image: Old Konigsberg in modern Kaliningrad, from