If the Russians have placed tactical nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, it would violate their pledge that they were removing nuclear weapons from the Baltics, and that the Baltics should be nuclear-free.
—Pentagon Spokesman Kenneth Bacon
When the Washington Times published a report suggesting that Russia has moved tactical nuclear weapons into Kaliningrad, naturally the Baltic states—especially Lithuania, which shares a border with Russia's Baltic exclave—were especially concerned.
The unnamed US intelligence official, quoted as saying there was "some movement of tactical nuclear weapons into Kaliningrad," sent shivers down the spines of Balts less than two weeks before the tenth anniversary of the bloody Soviet attacks in Vilnius and Riga.
This is probably the worst "Not-In-My-Back-Yard" (NIMBY) situation possible for the Baltic states, as the alleged deployment of the tactical arms—which, if the reported specific armament details are true—would directly threaten parts of Poland and Lithuania. Reuters quoted another US official with a dire and frightening suggestion: "If you are worried about deterrence and your forces are deteriorating, nukes do wonders for your self-confidence."
Immediately after the report hit the wires, Russian officials activated their denial machine. The newly elected Kaliningrad governor and head of the Baltic Fleet, Admiral Vladimir Yegorov, said that the nuclear-free status of the exclave remains intact and called the report "a dangerous joke," according to Reuters, quoting the RIA news agency. Similar statements were made by officials in Moscow, including President Vladimir Putin, who called the allegations "rubbish."
The Balts react
Politicians and national defence officials in all three Baltic countries reacted at first with extreme caution, and many appeared stunned by the news. Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves said, "We don't know whether it's true or not," adding that if the reports are true, "it is regretful, because it decreases the stability of the region." Lithuanian Defence Minister Linas Linkevičius called the report "alarming" but cautioned that he sees "no reason Russia should try to escalate the situation in Baltic region."
Analysts quickly came up with several scenarios that could have led to the nukes being moved in, ranging from Governor Yegorov asserting his new office and the strength of the military in Kaliningrad to Moscow's continual reliance on tactical nuclear weapons as they restructure the military.
Former Estonian Defence Forces Chief-of-Staff Major General Ants Laaneots, now an instructor at the Baltic Defence College, linked the move to Russian President Putin's new military doctrine on first-use of nuclear weapons. Some even suggested this was Moscow's welcoming gift for incoming US President George W Bush. However, one of the most likely scenarios for the move appears to be the continuous campaign by Moscow to derail the NATO integration aspirations of the Baltic states.
However, a vast majority of officials chose to remain cautious in their response, making little or no comment. Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga said it was "premature" to respond, while new Lithuanian Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis came up with yet another own-goal: "Similar reports have been appearing several times a year, but, after raising public concern, they are usually forgotten soon."
The US Congress reacts
On Capitol Hill in Washington, the report evoked memories of the Cold War, as members of the US Congress voiced very strong opinions on the possible nuclear build-up in Kaliningrad. Two issues dear to Washington—Russian military build-up and nuclear proliferation—returned in one stroke, invoking some of the strongest language offered by prominent congressmen about Kaliningrad, the Baltic Sea region and the NATO aspirations of the Baltic states.
The strongest of all comments came from the outgoing chairman of the International Relations Committee, Representative Benjamin Gilman (R-NY). Gilman told the Washington Times, "If Russia has, in fact, transferred tactical nuclear weapons to Kaliningrad, we would have to view that as an alarming development that threatens the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe." Gilman, though grandfathered out of the Committee's chairmanship by chair term-limit rules imposed during the Newt Gingrich "Contract with America," remains one of the most influential foreign policy voices in Washington.
Most significantly for the Baltics, Gilman said in the same statement, "These reports underscore the need to promptly enlarge the NATO alliance to include the previously captive nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia." Gilman, always a Baltics supporter during his many years in Congress, issued this sharp statement at a time when others would argue for caution in US policy towards the Baltic states.
If the intended outcome of the reported move was to derail the NATO aspirations of the Baltic states, especially in the eyes of the 16 NATO capitals, Representative Gilman provided a solid answer in rebuff.
Other prominent congressmen also commented on the report of the Kaliningrad nuclear build-up. Representative Curt Weldon (R-PA)—best known for his work to help free American Edmund Pope from his Russian prison sentence—told the Washington Times that international inspection in Kaliningrad, as suggested also by Poland and the Baltic states, should be a "minimum requirement," adding that Russia "should have nothing to hide."
Representative Weldon continued, saying that the movement "sends a very bad signal" and that he is "very troubled by the movement of these nuclear arms to the Baltics that the Russians had said they would not move forward on."
It is clear that, if the report is true and the move is an attempt to sway momentum away from Baltic integration into NATO, it may be backfiring—especially in Washington, where many Cold War warriors remain in prominent offices and many more are returning with the incoming Bush administration.
It is hard to predict what will happen next, as the United States is embroiled in the difficult process of transition between administrations. Cabinet members will still need to be confirmed, while many top national security-related officials will still need to be appointed.
On the issue of missile defence there have been enough indications that relations with Russia will be difficult in the coming years—although the implications and effects of US-Russian relations on the Baltics will be much harder to assess until the actions of the Bush administration towards the Baltic countries become apparent. That could still be months away.
In any case, the calls for a verification process will continue from Capitol Hill, Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn and many other capitals. However, like in any realistic scenario, if any verification proceeds, there is absolutely no chance Russia would be caught red-handed in Kaliningrad.
Russian military build-up and nuclear proliferation will always be headline-making issues in Washington. The longer suspicion looms on this issue, the more congressmen will be likely to make strong statements of alarm at the build-up and, in turn, statements of support for the Baltics. After all, the alleged nuclear deployment is now at NATO's border again, bringing memories of the Cold War to the fore once more.
If the election of George W Bush was a shot in the arm for Cold War warriors, this report is the Viagra.
Mel Huang, 15 January 2001
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