A Tear in the NATO Bulwark

Spiegel on Line
Walter Mayr
December 2, 2008

How should NATO approach Russia? Contrary to Germany, the Baltic countries and Poland want to enlarge the alliance to include Georgia and Ukraine. With NATO foreign ministers meeting this week, the alliance has hardly ever been so at odds.

The road from “new” to “old” Europe passes through Russia. The 1,795-kilometer (1,115-mile) drive from the Estonian city of Narva through the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and on to Berlin passes through six countries and a divided political landscape that is being resurveyed since the war in Georgia. What counts today is to distance oneself from Moscow.

In Narva, they face off like warring sisters, the medieval castles on the Russian and Estonian sides of the river marking the border between the two coun tries. On the eastern bank is the Ivangorod fortress, established by Czar Ivan II, with its defiant walls topped by battlements. Facing it on the Estonian side, under a tin weather vane, is the Hermann Castle, purchased by the Livonian Teutonic Knights order in 1346.
For the past four years, Hermann Castle has marked where NATO territory ends and that belonging to Russia begins. Moscow sees the border as the result of a broken promise. During negotiations with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in February 1990, Russia claims that then US Secretary of State James Baker said that NATO would not expand its territory eastward.

Since then, however, the Western military alliance has moved eastward by almost 1,200 kilometers (745 miles), from the German to the Russian borders. Today there are 4,100 Estonian soldiers under the supreme command of NATO stationed in the hinterlands behind Hermann Castle. But there is concern in Estonia. In August, Moscow mobilized three times that number of troops to defeat the army of NATO candidate Georgia. Some in Estonia are worried that they could be next.
When the 26 NATO foreign ministers meet this Tuesday in a large conference room in the NATO headquarters building on Boulevard Leopold III in Brussels, the Estonians will also have their say. For now, however, NATO’s policy will be to sort through the shards. At the NATO summit in Bucharest eight months ago, the ” old” and “new” Europe clashed loudly over the question as to whether NATO should make a binding commitment to membership for Georgia and Ukraine, and over the alliance’s relationship with Russia.

Germany, among others, was harshly criticized for the role it played in Bucharest. Berlin was accused of being “naïve,” and “overly trusting,” when it came to Russia, and of placating the Russians by rejecting the bids of Ukraine and Georgia to become part of NATO. Germany would not have become a NATO member in 1955, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said heatedly, if the alliance had knuckled under to Moscow at the time. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski jumped to her defense with thinly veiled threats against the Germans and the French.

Now, four months later, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier speaks of a foreign policy marked by “less partisanship,” as he sips grapefruit juice and munches cookies in front of a bust of former German Chancellor Willy Brandt. In Bucharest, says Steinmeier, there were some “rude objections,” noting that it would be absurd to imply that he or the German government are “naïve or ignorant” in their interactions with Russia. “I am and remain firmly convinced that it would be wrong to isolate Russia,” he says.

Steinmeier who, unlike his predecessor Joschka Fischer, prefers small steps over big leaps, remains steadfast in his views. He remains unswayed by recent events. And the list is long: Russia’s invasion of Georgia — though provoked by Tbilisi; Moscow’s subsequent recognition of the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states; and Russia’s threat to withdraw from the Baltic Sea pipeline project.

An “unnecessary domestic European conflict” was created, says Steinmeier, noting that newer NATO and European Union member states have contributed to this conflict by prematurely assigning all of the blame for the Georgia conflict to Russia. Channeling ex-US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, — who once blasted “Old Europe’s” vacillation as compared with the decisiveness of the formerly Communist countries in Eastern Europe — Steinmeier noted sharply that “it was Old Europe that brought reason to the proceedings.”

Estonia: The Russians of Narva

Russia’s immediate neighbors, especially Estonia, take a decidedly different view. In the city of Narva, where Stalin had apartment buildings and factories built over the ruins of blown-up Baroque houses, 96 percent of residents are ethnic Russians. Only 40 percent have an Estonian passport. To this day, almost one in five city residents have no citizenship to this day, while the rest have opted for Russian citizenship.
Is Narva home to Moscow’s “frozen and hungry fifth column,” as Mart Helme, the former Estonian ambassador to Russia, recently warned? Is it full of Kremlin spies waiting “to creep out into the streets and provoke clashes,” as Helme puts it, “because Estonia troops are incapable of staving off the Russian army as it marches into Narva?”

“Complete nonsense,” says Mikhail Stalnukhin who, as head of the city council for the past six years, manages the affairs of Narva. Stalnukhin is a stern-looking, bearded man who offers a verbose account of discrimination against Russian-speaking Estonian citizens: of their exclusion from politics and administration, Estonian nationalism in schools and the recurring agitation against all things Russian during election campaigns.

But Stalnukhin becomes taciturn as soon as the conversation turns to his ties to Moscow, or to the question of whether a “Georgian scenario” — an invasion by Russian troops, supposedly for the protection of Russian citizens in a neighboring country — could happen in Estonia. “Such a scenario can only become reality,” he says, “if people in Estonia interested in seeing it happen make the preparations. In other words, if a genocide takes place first.”

Moscow already used the accusation of genocide against Russian citizens as an excuse for its invasion of Georgia in early August. At the time, the trade union at the Narva electricity plant proclaimed its solidarity with the brothers and sisters in faraway South Ossetia — an alarming signal that prompted Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet to make a trip to Narva.

“For two hours, speaking in Russian, I attempted to explain to the angry workers why the Estonian government supported the Georgians, not the South Ossetians,” says Paet in his office in the Estonian capital Tallinn. “We have a communication problem with the ethnic Russians in our country, and that must change.”

Estonia’s foreign minister, a man with a typically Nordic mix of a gloomy and placid temperament, does not come across as someone who would choose to stir up trouble under the safe umbrella of the NATO alliance. He has enough problems already. There is still no border treaty with Russia, because Moscow refuses to accept a preamble that characterizes the years of Soviet control over Estonia as an occupation.
In addition, there are hardly any direct relations between Estonia and its neighbor to the East anymore. The Schengen Treaty has made crossing the border more difficult since late 2007. In fact, Estonians can now travel without a visa to the Canary Islands or Florida, but not across the bridge to the Russian city of Ivangorod. Trade and the flow of money between Russia and Estonia have already suffered greatly since the riots in April 2007.

Those riots were sparked by a controversy over a memorial to Soviet soldiers who died in World War II, which the Estonian government wanted to move from downtown Tallinn to a loc ation on the city’s outskirts. But there was more to it than that. The real dispute revolved around the interpretation of Estonia’s more recent history, most of it spent under Soviet control. The country, in which ethnic Russians make up a quarter of the population, experienced scenes reminiscent of civil war.
One fatality, hundreds of injured, more than 1,000 arrests and considerable looting marked the end of a violent conflict that woke many Estonians up to the realization that, even under the protective umbrella of NATO, it is not easy to live side-by-side with a Russian parallel society, one that speaks its own language and cultivates its own historical myths.

With a grumbling minority, a rapidly plunging economy and the recent revelations about a spy working in Estonia for Russian intelligence, it would seem that Estonian President Toomas Ilves had enough on his hands at home. Nevertheless, he appears to relish handing out advice to other Western partners in his capacity of leader of a country of 1.3 million people.

The EU, or at least “the old EU,” Ilves complains, has turned itself into an “accomplice to Moscow’s policy of zones of influence.” And NATO, he adds, made a “serious mistake” when it vacillated on the question of expansion at the Bucharest summit. For this reason, says Ilves, it is high time to clarify how much Article 5 of the NATO Treaty would be worth for Estonia in an emergency. Article 5 describes the obligation of alliance partners to protect a fellow NATO country in the event of an “armed attack.”

But, as even Ilves knows, NATO is not responsible for domestic conflicts within Estonia.
A Lithuanian Bottleneck in Klaipeda

There are 850 kilometers (530 miles) of asphalt between the Russian border at Narva and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. The road hugs the Baltic Sea coast southward through a region known as the “Baltics,” a region that Washington and Western Europe tend to treat as a single unit, historically and culturally. The citizens of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania do not necessarily agree with those sentiments.
Besides the shared trauma of Soviet dominance, the three countries are currently united by the strictly Atlantic orientation of their presidents. Estonia’s Toomas Ilves, like his Lithuanian counterpart Valdas Adamkus, spent most of his life in the United States, while Latvian President Valdis Zatlers spent time at Yale University and Syracuse University.

But the Lithuanians are largely alone in their current problems with Russia, as is evident in Klaipeda, known as Memel in German, once the northern-most city in the German Empire. The restored timber-framed houses and screeching gulls at the Ännchen von Tharau memorial in front of the theater in this port city create a de ceptively idyllic, picture-postcard impression in post-Soviet Lithuania.

Klaipeda faces difficult times ahead, says Judita Simonaviciute, the city’s deputy mayor and a member of the supervisory board of the local utility. “Ninety-five percent of our citizens heat with gas, which means direct dependence on Russia. And, to make matters worse, we here in Klaipeda are at the end of the pipeline. If anything happens to the pipeline, we are finished. We have reserves for exactly one month.”
It is unacceptable, says Simonaviciute, that the price of Russian gas in Klaipeda, at the Western edge of the old Soviet Union, is higher than it is in some parts of Germany. “This is war against Lithuania,” she says, noting that the situation threatens to deteriorate in the next two to three years. “We pray to God that we will have warm winters.”

Barring a miracle, Lithuania will have to import more Russian gas in the coming two to three years for power generation. The Ignalina nuclear power plant, which supplies 74 percent of the country’s electricity, will be shut down in 2009 — a condition of Lithuania’s accession to the EU, partly in response to German pressure. This means that the price of electricity will follow the price of natural gas drastically upward, presumably climbing to more than double its current level of €0.10, to at least €0.25 per kilowatt hour.

The fact that Lithuania is an “energy island” that is still not connected to the overall European power grid could have dire consequences. Russian petroleum hasn’t been flowing through the Druzhba pipeline since 2006. Only a day after Lithuania had indicated its willingness to allow the United States to place missile defense sites on its territory, the Russian pipeline operators responded by reporting an “accident.” Since then, Lithuania has had to import oil via the more costly sea route.

And natural gas? It is and remains Moscow’s strongest weapon in the struggle for influence in the former Soviet republics. The distribution station outside Klaipeda is one of the fronts in this 21st century conflict. The smell of gas hangs in the early winter air outside the station as the fuel is pumped into the city’s network of pipes. The gas arrives here all the way from fields in faraway Siberia at 55 bars of pressure. Should the stream get shut off, the lights will go out in the Baltic Sea port city of Klaipeda, at least until the completion of a planned waste incineration power plant.

If that happens, beer delivery truck driver Romas Eitavicius, in his one-room apartment, could be counted among the winners for the first time in many years. Eitavicius lives in an old railway settlement on Tilsit Street, and his building is not even connected to the town’s gas pipeline grid.

Instead, he drags 50-kil ogram (110-pound) liquefied natural gas tanks up to his apartment, and as long as he uses the gas for cooking only, one tank will last up to three months. He heats the apartment with wood in a masonry heater, and an electric pump supplies cold water for bathing. Eitavicius earns all of €400 ($500) a month, in a country with the same cost of living as in the West.

“It is the job of politicians to solve all problems for the benefit of the citizen,” says the deputy mayor of Klaipeda, who is also on the supervisory board of the local energy utility. When asked why natural gas in Klaipeda is still being purchased through profit-hungry intermediaries despite rising prices, she has no answer. “Sorry, company secret,” she says.

On the Lithuanian side, one of those intermediaries is Rimandas Stonys. He is the president of a company called Dujotekana, which sells Russian gas to Lithuanian customers at a steep markup. According to the newspaper Kauno diena, Stonys is the former Communist Party secretary for the Klaipeda district. On the Russian side, Lithuania’s direct trading partner, as of Oct. 1, is no longer the energy monopoly Gazprom, but a company called “Gas Stream,” which is registered in the Swiss tax haven of Zug.

Lithuanian state security officials have testified in the country’s parliament that middleman Stonys and his associate, KGB veteran Piotras Vojeika, used their company as a “c over for Russian intelligence services.” In Lithuania, where the foreign minister — who negotiated the country’s accession to NATO and the EU — was a reserve officer in the KGB and intelligence chief for many years, this would hardly come as a great surprise.

The Kremlin, writes Harvard Professor Margarita Balmaceda in a recent study, is trying, “through investments in the energy sector, to use Lithuania as a bridgehead in the EU, if not as a lever, to divide the EU and the post-Soviet Baltic republics.” Lithuanian politicians, according to Balmaceda, are providing valuable services in this context. “Businessmen like Rimandas Stonys,” writes Balmaceda, established the connection between the two countries’ intelligence agencies.

Stonys is now the fifth-richest man in Lithuania and the honorary consul of Ukraine in Klaipeda. He declined to comment for this story.

Russia: The Forbidden City of Baltijsk

The Lithuanians fear Moscow’s natural gas monopoly, the Estonians fear a “fifth column” in their country, and the Poles? They fear enemy fire coming from the direction of the Russian enclave Kaliningrad.
According to an announcement by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the day after Barack Obama was elected, Iskander short-range missiles will be stationed at the base of the 152nd Missile Brigade of Russia’s Baltic Fleet in Chernyakhovsk=2 0in Kaliningrad. It was Medvedev’s answer to a US plan to station defensive missiles in the Polish city of Slupsk, only 300 kilometers (186 miles) west of Chernyakhovsk.
The Russian missiles (SS-26 Stone, in NATO parlance), famous for their high degree of maneuverability, would ring in a new era in the Russian city. As in much of the Kaliningrad region, the traditional Prussian garrison city, where there are still derelict barracks left over from the German Empire, has been in obvious decline since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Very few of the city’s Russian population of more than 40,000 people are worried that they could find themselves caught between fronts in this new game of missile chess in the heart of Europe. If new missiles arrive, they say, money will return to their city — at least according to President Medvedev’s promises.
Russia’s military budget is expected to increase to €66 billion ($83 billion) next year. Although this is still less than the United States has budgeted for its 2009 campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, it does represent a 27 percent rise in Russian defense spending. Russia, under Vladimir Putin, is consistently pursuing a path designed to return it to superpower status.

The latest changes coming from the Kremlin have also made it to Baltijsk, the former East Prussian city of Pillau, which is off-limits to foreigners. Anyo ne who manages to get past the checkpoint at a green guard post a few kilometers outside the city will find himself immersed in a Russian military reservation that has been shielded from the outside world for decades.

Only about a third of the city’s 55,000 resident are civilians. The rest work directly or indirectly for the Baltic Fleet. Black, plate-shaped uniform caps are a fixture in the city, the fleet’s commander has his headquarters in the old Himmelreich neighborhood, and a monument to the glorious fleet now stands on the former Adolf Hitler Square. Russian warships are brought to the former Schichau Shipyard for repairs.

Pillau was the last city in East Prussia to fall to the Red Army, and today Baltijsk is the westernmost outpost of the giant Russian realm. The local office of the Russian domestic intelligence agency, FSB, is entrenched in the Wilhelminian southern barracks at the submarine school. The hills on the edge of town are now restricted areas covered with antennas and radio towers, as is much of the narrow peninsula known as the Vistula Spit, where only the foundation remains of the vacation house of former Nazi Gauleiter Erich Koch.

The skeletons of German Wehrmacht soldiers are still unearthed periodically from the dunes near the city’s northern jetty. But behind the dunes there is already talk that Russia will have no other choice but to defend itself with weapons. “Who n eeds the Americans’ missile defense positions in Poland?” asks Vassiliy Fedotichev, a retired colonel in the navy. “No one. That’s why your chancellor turned them down. But the Poles are in, as long as the Americans play their favorite game: ‘forcing strangers to light their fire,’ as they say in Russia.”

Retired Colonel Fedotichev was in the navy for 27 years. Because he cannot survive on his €200 ($250) monthly pension, he took a job as general manager of the Hotel Goldener Anker, a destination for German tourists nostalgic for the East Prussian past. In 1945, tens of thousands of Germans who had been forced out of the region gathered here before fleeing westward across the ice and the Vistula Spit.

“Of course we are afraid a new Cold War. After all, the missile sites have all been dismantled already,” says Colonel Fedotichev. The Baltic Fleet, he says, should be downgraded to a flotilla, and the city should be opened up to tourism. A water park is being built behind the lighthouse, and Basin 3 of the naval port has been turned into a commercial terminal. Railroad cars retooled in Germany to fit Russian tracks are unloaded from a ferry here, to avoid the cargo being taken through Poland and Lithuania first.

All of this was negotiated behind their backs or over their heads, just like the Baltic Sea gas pipeline running directly from Wyborg near St. Petersburg to Greifswald on G ermany’s Baltic Sea coast, say those from the Baltic countries as do the Poles, who characterize it as evidence of the old Axis mentality. Not playing a role between Berlin and Moscow is their trauma, their historically saturated image of the special relationship between Germany and Russia.

There are good reasons for that, says Colonel Fedotichev in Baltijsk. The Germans, he says, are dependable, World War II and Hitler notwithstanding. On the other hand, no one here trusts the Poles, he says. “They lie, cheat and sell themselves — to the Americans, most recently.”

A New Polish Front in Slupsk

“First we had the Russians, and now the Americans are coming. Why doesn’t Europe move closer together?”

Andrzej Kotlicki is standing in front of the decommissioned military airfield near Redzikowo, formerly known as Reitz, in Western Pomerania. He is outraged. Kotlicki, now retired, served in the Polish army on the same airfield. He is an affable man who has trouble understanding why US missiles should be stationed at his doorstep to protect against the threat of attack from rogue nations.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk recently paid a visit to Kotlicki’s house, where he was confronted with the furious citizens of Redzikowo. Still, the majority of Poles overall support the installation of the US missile defense system. After four Polish partitions and millions of war dead, the American promise of life in peace and liberty falls on especially fertile ground in Poland.

This sentiment becomes clear when the residents of Slupsk, the regional capital near the military airfield, congregate in the Church of St. Mary on the national holiday. They include naval infantrymen carrying their bayonet-tipped assault rifles, heavily armed militias, veterans of World War II and members of student leagues, all standing side by side under red-and-white flags. There is something archaic in the area, something that has become a rarity in Old Europe, a mixture of incense and gun smoke: the Polish essence.

For a long time, Slupsk was one of those places in the heart of Europe — like Narva, Memel and Pillau — that were routinely flogged by history the way carriage horses are flogged by the driver’s whip. Even as the identity of its masters changed, suffering always returned to these cities. The Germans laid the foundations for the airfield, which they used in 1939 to launch their first air strikes on Poland. The Soviets arrived in 1945, followed by soldiers from the Polish People’s Republic. And now 200 US soldiers are set to manage the 10 planned missile silos.

At least, if the Polish government has its way. “Everyone will agree,” Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski recently said in Washington, “that countries where US soldiers are stationed are20not attacked.” Although he did not name potential attackers, he did provide an indication when he likened Russia to the “glacier ice” covering the Eastern European landscape. Sometimes, he said, it moves forward, and sometimes it recedes.

The objections of the eloquent Sikorski are legendary among his European colleagues. On one occasion, while speaking to fellow ministers, Sikorski issued the following warning to Russians seeking to attack Ukraine: “Then they will face 90 million people. Poland will fight side-by-side with Ukraine.” On another occasion, he referred to the German-Russian pipeline project as part of the “Molotov-Ribbentrop tradition” — a reference to the foreign ministers of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany which signed the World War II non-aggression pact, part of which involved the carving up of Poland between the two powers.

If there is a trench between the old and new Europe, it would have to run along the Oder and Neisse Rivers, which mark the border between Germany and Poland. But despite the mutual suspicions of the past, the relationship between Warsaw and Berlin has become more trusting of late. Following the NATO meeting in Brussels, at which the membership prospects of Georgia and Ukraine will be on the agenda once again, Sikorski have a private dinner with Foreign Minister Steinmeier in Berlin. “Despite our different biographies, we attempt to maintain a close relationship,” says Steinmeier.

Steinmeier has inherited one insight from Willy Brandt who, like a stylite immortalized in bronze, adorns one corner of his office: “Europe was and remains like a torso without its east.”