The collapse of Russian influence is widening

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As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” continues its downward spiral in Ukraine, the future of Russian-occupied or dominated territories is becoming a subject of interest, beginning with Kaliningrad.

Slowly but surely, Russian influence is being whittled away in the Baltic region, and this trend has the potential to snowball under the right circumstances. Poland, via the Polish Commission on the Standardization of Geographical Names, announced on May 10 that it would no longer refer to Kaliningrad by its Russian name, opting instead to use Królewiec, the Polish translation for Königsberg, which the former East Prussia region was called prior to the end of World War II.

Their timing, the day after Putin’s underwhelming Victory Day parade in Moscow, was obviously deliberate. The now-defunct Soviet Union changed the name after assuming administrative control under the terms of the 1945 Potsdam Agreement. The Baltic port and surrounding area was renamed after Mikhail Kalinin, one of the leaders of the Bolshevik revolution.

Little remains of Kaliningrad’s original German heritage, save for some surviving architecture. The entire German population was forcibly evicted in 1947 by then-Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and replaced with hundreds of thousands of new settlers, brought in primarily from Russia and Belarus. Warsaw’s reversion to calling it Królewiec was not only a purposeful repudiation of Putin, but also of Stalin and decades of Soviet domination.

And it is not just Poland. On May 12, Lithuanian members of parliament Vilius Semeška and Paulė Kuzmickienė followed suit and appealed to the State Commission for the Lithuanian Language to rename the Kaliningrad Oblast and the city of Kaliningrad to Karaliaučiaus. “We stand in solidarity with our Polish neighbors and urge you not to use the artificial names imposed on us in Lithuanian,” they argued.

On May 16, Latvia announced it would officially refer to the Kaliningrad exclave as Königsberg after the Latvian State Language Center recommended the name change.

This is only a change of name for now, but it could foreshadow the near future for several Russian-occupied territories, should the war in Ukraine end in a resounding defeat. As the weight of Russian oppression diminishes, Crimea, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria may press for reunification with their motherlands, allowing Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova to become whole again.

Moldova took what could be the first step on May 15, when Igor Grosu, President of the Parliament of the Republic of Moldova, announced Moldova was formally withdrawing from the Commonwealth of Independent States interparliamentary assembly — the Russian equivalent of the British Commonwealth.

“After 30 years,” Grosu stated, “it became clear that the presence of the Republic of Moldova in the structures of the CIS did not help us to remove the Russian army from the territory of the Republic of Moldova, to resolve the Transnistrian conflict. Being in the CIS did not protect us from blackmail in the middle of winter. Withdrawal from the CIS Assembly is a first step. Ukraine left this organization. The Republic of Moldova is a free country to make sovereign decisions. We demonstrated that we want democracy, freedom at home.”

In a worst-case scenario, if you were to overlay the domino theory of U.S. Cold War policy, substituting “getting out from underneath Russian oppression” for “the spread of communism, Russia could experience another event akin to the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. That original event led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. If Russia cannot keep its occupied territories in line, what would it mean for the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, which currently includes Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, and Tajikistan? Sensing weakness as a result of Russia’s failures in Ukraine, will these other peripheral countries continue to stand by the Kremlin?

Russia can ill-afford to let Poland’s seemingly minor announcement build any momentum. But based on the actions of Lithuania, Latvia, and Moldova, it already has. The announcement clearly got under the skin of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who angrily declared the decision was “bordering on madness” and “a hostile act.” He went on state, peevishly, that “the official place name is Kaliningrad.”

If Russia were to lose control of Kaliningrad, it would be akin to losing Crimea in terms of strategic importance. Sandwiched between the NATO countries of Lithuania and Poland, Kaliningrad is the headquarters for the Russian Baltic Fleet. The seaport enables Russia to influence commercial and military traffic in the Baltic Sea from its Baltiysk Naval Base. It is also home to the 152nd Guard Missile Brigade, which has a dozen forward-positioned Iskander-M ballistic missile systems and nuclear weapons in storage sites.

Furthermore, Kaliningrad also allows Russia to threaten the Suwalki Gap, a 40-mile-wide stretch of border between Poland and Lithuania. The two highways running through this gap are the only viable land and military supply routes between the Baltic States and Finland to the northeast, and the rest of NATO to the southwest. If Russian and Belarusian forces were to act in concert to seize the gap, it would essentially cut off those NATO allies from the rest of the alliance.

The Kremlin cannot risk losing Kaliningrad. While this might seem like just a simple Polish name change, it is likely intended as a strategic check by Warsaw as Russia continues to struggle in Ukraine. The admission of Finland into NATO, coupled with Sweden’s eventual admission, tightens the noose around Kaliningrad and Russia’s influence in the Baltic Sea region. Acknowledging and endorsing this name change, along with Moldova’s withdrawal from the CIS, produces a non-kinetic distraction that Putin and Peskov are compelled to address to mask Russia’s fading ability to project influence beyond its borders.

Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel and 30-year military intelligence officer, led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltic regions. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022.

Mark Toth, a retired economist and entrepreneur, is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL.

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