Guest Post: Bill Knightly on “Russia’s Baltic Fortress”

Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

In today’s post retired Army colonel turned historian Bill Knightly treats us to a brief tutorial on Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on NATO’s eastern flank.  Notwithstanding all the media discourse about Russia’s threats to the Ukraine, Kaliningrad is rarely mentioned despite its relevance.  Frankly, its immense strategic implications for NATO (and by extension to the U.S.) are almost unknown to the American public.

Bill helps to address that deficiency by walking us through Kaliningrad’s history, and by providing an update on its startling militarization.  I think you’ll agree that no discussion of the Ukraine crisis – not to mention NATO and the future of European security – is complete without taking into account “oblast” Kaliningrad.

Russia’s Baltic Fortress

by William Knightly

Ukraine is Not the Only Threatened Area in Europe

The crisis on the Russia-Ukraine border currently dominates the political and military and attention of the West.  NATO planners and decisionmakers continue to debate strategic options and possible responses to potential Russian military aggression in Ukraine. The crisis occupies the undivided attention of global media and the world at large, generating endless analysis and speculation.

Meanwhile, in an obscure enclave on another European front, Russia continues an impressive decade long build-up of air, ground and naval capabilities. This aggregation of military may actually dwarf Russia’s current assembly of forces along the Ukraine border.  The Russian enclave lies squarely within NATO’s geographic and strategic area of interest; yet aside from professional NATO military planners it attracts little attention and few headlines.  

Largely unknown to most in the West, the area bristles with modern weaponry, including nuclear capable missiles, squarely intended to intimidate and threaten NATO’s eastern flank members. 

Hiding in Plain Sight 

The Russian oblast of Kaliningrad, today sits physically disconnected from the Russian Federation amid NATOs Eastern flank. Most Americans are likely acquainted with Europe’s Baltic states from their days in high school geography class.  The names Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have a familiar if somewhat distant ring to them.

However, a closer look at the Baltic region of northern Europe reveals a fourth contiguous Baltic “state” hiding in plain sight. Kaliningrad actually lies further west than all three of the NATO member Baltic states and parts of Poland. This 5,800 hundred square mile outpost is little known or understood, yet it carries massive strategic significance.

What’s in a Name? 

Russia uses the term oblast to define its administrative regions. These entities’ function much like a Canadian province or an American state. Currently there are 46 oblasts in the Russian Federation. What distinguishes the Kaliningrad oblast is its 300-mile physical separation from Russia.

Kaliningrad is about the size of Wales in the United Kingdom or Connecticut in the United States. Its ice- free Baltic ports, significant size and geographic position make Kaliningrad a strategic multiplier for Russia and serious challenge for NATO. Kaliningrad is a modern-day military fortress sitting inside the gates of NATO. Without having to maneuver, Russia has strategically flanked the alliance by sheer coincidence history and geography.

A Most Complicated Place 

How did Russia come to possess a land enclave so far west? Why does the oblast not share a common border with Russia? How does Kaliningrad threaten the security interests of NATO and other regional states?  The consequences of World I, World War II, and the Cold War provide answers to these questions. All had a direct role in birthing Kaliningrad, one of the most complicated and extraordinary political entities in Europe.

Kaliningrad and the Legacy of East Prussia 

Kaliningrad is partly the remnant of a Teutonic lost world.  It’s a Frankenstein state assembled from the body parts of nine centuries of defunct empires, provinces and kingdoms. Descendant from the former German city of Konigsberg, the oblast traces its origins more generally to the former German state of East Prussia.

Occupying the eastern most frontier of greater Germany, East Prussia was founded by the Teutonic knights of the 13th century. It has long been associated with German militarism, the Junkers, landed estates, and Prussian farming aristocracy .  Its population for most of the 19th and 20th centuries was a mix of Poles, Lithuanians and Prussians (Germans). As a matter of geographic perspective, East Prussia’s capital Konigsberg was a distant 414 miles east of Berlin.

Two World Wars Muddle the Region 

At the conclusion of World War I, the Treaty of Versailles re-established an independent Poland after 123 years of partition.  In order to give Poland land access to the Baltic Sea, a “Polish Corridor” (sometimes called the Danzig Corridor) was created, effectively cleaving East Prussia from the rest of Germany.

Further complicating the geographic and political landscape, the majority German city of Danzig (present day Gadansk, Poland) was designated  a “Free city” under League of Nations authority. This status insured Danzig’s independence from Germany and Poland, although Poland administered its customs affairs.  The region became a cauldron of mixed populations, arbitrary boundaries and divided loyalties.

In January of 1945, the final year of World War II, Russian forces entered East Prussia and began one of the most brutal conquests in the 20th century. The Russians, seeking revenge for Hitler’s atrocities in Russia, brutalized the population in unspeakable ways.  Peter Clark’s comprehensive history details the utter destruction of East Prussia.

East Prussia is Erased; Kaliningrad is Born 

At the end of the World War II, East Prussia ceased to exist. Its territory was divided among Russia, Poland and Lithuania. In 1946, Konigsberg was renamed Kaliningrad, a name applied to the entire oblast.

The Soviet Union then commenced a campaign of German ethnic cleansing, Russian resettlement and physical destruction. This was designed to erase eight centuries of German culture, language and influence. As late as 1968, this campaign of destruction was still underway.

In that year, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev ordered the demolition of the 13th century Konigsberg castle, the cultural heart of the city.   Relocation of Russian speaking populations to Kaliningrad has been so effective that 95% of the residents now speak Russian.  Today, only a tiny ethnic German population remains, representing less than one per cent of the oblast’s population of approximately 900,000.

Since the Baltic States were subordinate republics of the former Soviet Union, Kaliningrad was geographically contiguous with the Russian state. In 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in independence and ultimately NATO membership for the Baltic states and Poland. As a result, Kaliningrad was physically separated from Russia.  Today it is a fortress perched on the eastern flank of NATO.

Fortress Kaliningrad

Russia has significantly increased its military footprint in Kaliningrad in recent years. Western experts estimate that the total military garrison in Kaliningrad could be as high as 200,000. This is an astounding figure given the total population of 900,000. If accurate, this figure dwarfs the Russian forces now massed on the Ukraine frontier (estimated at 100,000 +)

Iskandar missile system

The Kaliningrad garrison includes the headquarters of the Baltic fleet with access to 55 warships and naval infantry. Ground forces grouped under the 11th Army Corps include 850 tanks , 550 multiple rocket launchers, 350 artillery pieces, and surface to surface missiles and surface to air missiles. There are also 195 combat aircraft based in the oblast. Of particular concern is the presence of the Iskandar ballistic missile which threaten the Baltic states, Poland and non-NATO member Sweden.

A Threat to NATO 

Kaliningrad represents one side of a geographic coin. Although it is cut off from direct links to Russia, it also serves to achieve the same end with respect to the Baltic states, isolating them from NATO, save a small border area with Poland. Recent Western think tanks have indicated that the Baltic states could be overrun in a matter of hours.

Accordingly, Kaliningrad’s manifests a more direct threat to NATO members than the does current Russia-Ukraine crisis in Ukraine. While war in Ukraine could generate a massive refugee flow into eastern and central Europe, a spill-over of hostilities from the crisis area to NATO is not likely. The Kaliningrad arsenal poses a direct military threat to NATO members in eastern Europe.

In the Shadow of the Bear 

The Russia-Ukraine border crisis is currently the primary security focus of the West. The crisis has generated renewed debate about NATO’s strategic priorities, the commitment of member states and its future. NATO’s Baltic flank lies every bit as much in the shadow of Russian military power as does Ukraine.

The threat is not limited to NATO members. Russian militarization also threatens the non-NATO Baltic countries of Sweden and Finland.  Sweden, feeling threatened by Russian actions has recently reinforced its military garrison on Gotland Island just 200 miles north of Kaliningrad.

Sweden’s Supreme Military Commander has stated that: Russia is ready to use military power to reach its political aims.”  Finland, which has an historically complicated relationship with Russia, has made known that it reserves the right to join NATO. Russia has countered by threatening serious consequences.


Russia’s military buildup in the region is alarming and threatening. Whatever the outcome of the crisis along the Ukraine border, the future security of NATO’s Baltic flank will have to be addressed. In another age, Napoleon is credited with having said that “Prussia is the key to everything.” Today’s Russian’s military planners might agree. From a forgotten corner of Europe, Fortress Kaliningrad remains squarely at the center of the strategic challenge.

About the author

Bill Knightly retired from the U.S. Army after a career of 30 years. His service world-wide spanned 23 different countries including multiple tours with units assigned to NATO. Among these assignments was a three-year stint as chief of the war plans division for the U.S. Army V Corps in Frankfurt, Germany during the height of the Cold War.  Bill is a graduate of the U.S Army Command and General Staff College, The U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies and the U.S. Army War College Advanced Operational Fellowship Program.

After retiring from the Army as a Colonel, Bill worked as a civilian for the United States Southern Command (Miami, FL), where his duties took him throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean basin.   He has also worked in private industry and has run his own small business. He now lives in Delaware where he lectures, writes and delivers podcasts on the history of northern Delaware and the surrounding region during the American Revolution.


The views expressed herein are those of the author. They do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army,  or any other governmental or non-governmental agency.

The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.  

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!




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