• 2005-10-26
Calls for the demilitarization of Kaliningrad Oblast were an immediate effect of the Russian jet fighter's crash into Lithuanian territory in September. The Su-27, armed with four air-to-surface missiles, had been flying from St. Petersburg to Kaliningrad along with three other fighters on a dubious training run when it lost its bearings 's and then apparently ran out of fuel 's and smashed into a vacant field in western Lithuania not far from the border. The pilot, thankfully, managed to safely eject.

The incident has served as a catalyst for a new discussion on high concentration of military firepower in the exclave, a rump of territory about the size of Connecticut. In the immediate post-Soviet years, the region was used as a waystation 's or a junkyard 's for military hardware being evacuated from eastern Germany. Much of it, of course, has been displaced elsewhere in Russia, but a significant amount remains. Kaliningrad Oblast is now home to the Baltic Fleet, whose admiral is also chief of the region's ground forces. In all, there are approximately 16,000 active servicemen in the region.

After the Su-27 fiasco, which could have ended tragically considering the ordnance the fighter had been carrying, the Baltic states have become more vocal about the need to demilitarize the region. Lithuanian and Polish politicians want EU leadership to pressure Russia into scaling down the military presence in the region. In comparison with previous such attempts, the two countries are now members of NATO and the European Union, so their voices are more likely to be heard.

The most notable plea came from Lithuanian Defense Minister Gediminas Kirkilas, who argued that it was more a condition of the Russian armed forces than their presence than elicited grave concern. "It is not just that the planes are carrying missiles. The planes themselves and the way they are controlled is the threat - if their navigation systems break down, if the ground control is chaotic and lacks any coordination so that even an experienced and professional pilot is unable to read the conflicting commands. If the economy is such that fuel runs out in several minutes after veering off-course, the situation in the Russian Armed Forces, especially those deployed in the Kaliningrad region, worries us a lot," he said last month.

Both he and other politicians have repeatedly pointed out that Kaliningrad is surrounded by friendly neighbors, so there is no need for the disproportionate military concentration. They all claim, and rightly so, that Kaliningrad, which is mired in poverty and dilapidated infrastructure, should be a prosperous region.

The calls, of course, will fall on deaf ears. The Kaliningrad exclave is one long, non-freezing beachhead ideal for military maneuvers and naval bases. It is Russia's European redoubt, a place where 's unlike Murmansk or Simferopol or Vladivostok 's it can project power and remind Brussels and Washington that it is a force to be reckoned with. Not even grand promises of billions of euros in investments would likely convince the Kremlin to ship out the tanks and warships.

Yet perhaps, with a little money and lot of jawboning, over time Moscow can be persuaded to draw down the concentration of military force and open up the region to foreign investment. So the calls for demilitarization should continue.