Maybe Two Can Play at Putin’s Game

“Irredentism” is the philosophy by which a state advocates the annexation of another state’s territory because of a common ethnicity or because of former possession of that territory. Perhaps its most infamous instance, albeit by no means its most recent, was Adolf Hitler’s use of it to justify his invasion of Poland as a way to reclaim the Baltic seaport of Danzig with its majority German population.

More recently we saw it in former Yugoslavia. Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic had used Serbian nationalism to both attain and hold power. So when the South Slav republic began breaking up into its constituent parts (largely out of resentment at Serbian dominance), the presence of Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina was used as justification for Serbian support of militia groups in those states — particularly that of Dr. Radovan Karadzic in Bosnia — to literally fight for a possible reunification with Serbia

Not since Milosevic and Karadzic has the West been treated to such a skillful use of nationalist irredentist politics as we are witnessing with Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. Moving to the military option faster than even I anticipated, Putin has claimed the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine as historically Russian territory — the Crimean Tatar people might disagree — that was wrongfully given to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev, and, in what might be called a plebiscite, secured a vote to return it to Russian rule.

Putin has established a pattern in the Crimea. Masked gunmen dressed in green and called, curiously enough, “Green Men,” appear on the scene and start trouble. Putin claims that the trouble threatens local Russians, so he needs to send troops in to protect them. Of course, those Russians were basically colonists from the Soviet era, and the Green Men are actually Russian troops in disguise, which somehow does not make it into Putin’s propaganda.

Now those Green Men are appearing in eastern Ukraine — and Latvia.

The U.S. response has ranged from the serious (sending troops to the Baltic states and Poland) to the naïve (economic sanctions) to the embarrassing (Twitter hashtag #UnitedForUkraine; yes, highly-paid, professional foreign policy people are actually doing this).

But perhaps there is another option, one that turns Putin’s irredentist policies against him.

Wedged on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania is a rather curious, isolated corner of Russia called the Kaliningrad Oblast. Geographically cut off from Russia, Kaliningrad Oblast is the northern half of the old German province of East Prussia, awarded to the Soviet Union after World War II — the southern half going to Poland. Kaliningrad is actually the old Prussian capital of Königsberg.

You may not have heard of Kaliningrad Oblast, but Poland and Lithuania are very aware of it — and its potential as a staging area for Russian troops. But it could be a double-edged sword for Russia.

The Moscow Times explains:

Germany does not make claims on Kaliningrad, formerly known as Konigsberg, but some consider its status as a Russian territory erroneous, just as many Russians viewed Crimea’s status as part of Ukraine. Inesis Feldmanis, head of the Faculty of History and Philosophy at the University of Latvia, said he believed Kaliningrad’s annexation by the Soviet Union was, similarly, “an error in history.”

 

So, what is the difference between Crimea and Kaliningrad?

 

The German region of Konigsberg was decimated during World War II, and in 1941 Stalin ordered the deportation of 800,000 Germans from western Russia to Siberia and Kazakhstan, fearing they would be disloyal in the war against Nazi Germany. Most of the remaining Germans in Konigsberg fled or were deported after the war, while Soviet immigration and Russification quickly transformed the cultural landscape of the 15,100-square-kilometer exclave.

 

Kaliningrad, which as Konigsberg served as the capital of Prussia in the 1500s and 1600s and was home to German philosopher Immanuel Kant, still exudes Germanic history, despite having served as a closed military area in Soviet times. But today, Germans make up a mere 0.8 percent of the Russian exclave’s population of 940,000 — a far cry from Crimea’s significant ethnic Russian population and majority of Russian speakers.

 

That may partly explain why Germany has never attempted to play the “historical error” card to make a claim on Kaliningrad, in the way Russia justified its annexation of Crimea. Worldwide sensitivity to German aggression after the horrors of the Third Reich in World War II likely also plays a role in Berlin’s lack of interest in the region.

 

“I do not think Germany would ever propose such an idea [to make a claim on Kalingrad], or that it would ever become a topic of discussion,” said David Ziblatt, a professor of government at Harvard University’s Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, in a telephone interview.

Think so, huh?

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Credit: Jeff Cox

When I flew to Rome three years ago, I went through Düsseldorf, Germany. I took the chance to explore the airport a bit, examining the lists of arrivals and departures to places we do not normally see mentioned in U.S. airports. In the list of departures I found two rather curious entries.

It all comes back to Danzig and its role in the start of World War II. The city is now called by its Polish name, Gdańsk. Less well-known in the U.S. is Breslau.

Breslau was the provincial capital of German Silesia, a longtime part of Prussia. When the Polish border was moved west to the Oder-Neiβe river line after World War II, Silesia became part of Poland and Breslau was given its Polish name, Wrocław.

Sometimes little things can actually say a lot. Like entries for “Danzig/Gdańsk” and “Breslau/Wrocław.” Like the fact that the German names were listed first.

Now, why would they do that?

After almost 70 years, the number of people who would remember Danzig and Breslau as such is miniscule by now, so eliminating their possible confusion is not an explanation.

The only explanation is that the Germans remember Danzig and Breslau and likely Königsberg and Stettin as well. They are keeping the memory of these cities as German alive. Intentionally. Actively.

So there are very few Germans left in Kaliningrad Oblast. So what? Irredentism does not require an ethnic claim, just a historic claim. There are few Serbs left in Kosovo, the site of their defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1389. Yet Serbia considers Kosovo the cradle of Serbian civilization and an eternal part of Serbia, despite the fact that the vast majority of Kosovo’s population is Albanian.

Two can play at this game of nationalism. Perhaps it is time Putin learned that lesson.

Photo Credit:Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters