Lithuania, its chequered past during the Nazi and subsequent Soviet domination of the Baltic, and its difficulty in coming to terms with the involvement of its citizens in the Holocaust, is the background to an absorbing new book by veteran broadcaster, Sara Manobla. In Zagare: Litvaks and Lithuanians Confront the Past, Manobla provides personal testimony about how at least one Lithuanian town made a positive effort to reconcile itself to its own history.
On the face of it Lithuania, lying to the north of Poland and Belarus, would seem to have little in common with the Ukraine. Yet a map of the country in Manobla’s book offers an intriguing sidelight on the current crisis down in the Black Sea. Stuck out to the south-west of Lithuania, and including a healthy slab of Baltic coastline, is a chunk of Mother Russia – Kaliningrad – some 800 kilometers from Moscow, and separated from the motherland not only by the whole of Lithuania but by Latvia to the north and Belarus to the south as well. The accepted term for this extraordinary phenomenon is “exclave”.
From the First World War until 1945 Kalinigrad (or Königsberg, as it once was) was an exclave of Germany. In the final stages of the Second World War it was occupied by the Soviet Union, and was subsequently annexed to the USSR under the Potsdam Agreement. Most of its indigenous German population were killed or fled to West Germany; the rest were expelled, Russian settlers were moved in and the population became a Russian majority. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the region was absorbed into the Russian Federation.
As a constituent part of the Russian Federation, Kaliningrad is designated an “oblast” – one of 47. Other constituent entities include republics and cities. All are equal subjects of the Russian Federation, with their own executive, legislative and judicial arrangements, and with equal representation in the Upper House of the Federal Assembly.
Kaliningrad is peculiarly isolated, politically speaking, since Lithuania and Latvia, which separate it from Russia proper, are both members of the EU and of NATO, and all military and civilian land links between the region and the rest of Russia have to pass through them. This is what Russian President Vladimir Putin is desperately anxious to avoid in the case of Ukraine in general, and Crimea in particular. Just as Baltiisk, just outside Kaliningrad, is the only Russian Baltic port that is ice-free all year round, and is thus vital in maintaining the Baltic Fleet, so Sebastapol in the Crimea is the base of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, its largest and strongest naval entity.
Russia’s Crimea coup occurred on March 18, 2014. Following a referendum regarded with suspicion by world opinion, Russia declared Crimea to be an independent Republic, an entity recognized only by Russia. This declaration was followed by the signing of a treaty incorporating Crimea and Sevastopol as new constituent members of the Russian Federation – Crimea with the status of a republic, Sevastopol as a federal city. The treaty will come into effect on January 1, 2015.
Is Putin likely to extend his annexation to Ukraine generally? Unlikely, but what is virtually certain is that any accommodation acceptable to Russia would have to include a provision that keeps Ukraine permanently out of both the EU and NATO. As that is precisely the issue that led to the ousting of Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych – who continues stoutly to maintain that he is the lawful ruler of the country – an early settlement of the dispute between Russia and the current Ukranian government seems unlikely.
There are further unanswered questions to which only time will provide the answers. For example, are the economic sanctions threatened by the US, the EU and the global community likely to discomfort Russia to any great extent? If history is anything to go by, sanctions applied to a sovereign nation – let alone a world power – are easily circumvented and are probably destined to be spectacularly ineffective.
Will Russia choose to respond to sanctions applied against it with sanctions of its own? There are a variety of fields in which Putin could act the tough guy against the West, if he chose – the most obvious being energy. This possibility has already, according to Bloomberg, occurred to the EU’s 28 chiefs. They plan to ask the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, to outline within three months ways to diversify energy sources away from Russia, which is the main supplier of gas and oil to Europe.
Most potent question of all – will there be armed conflict? Between Kiev-controlled Ukraine and Russian-annexed Crimea, possibly. The atmosphere, especially in the border regions, is tinder-box dry, and any spark could start a conflagration. But with the precedent of the First World War ever-present in this centenary year of its outbreak, we might fervently hope that any minor or localized skirmish does not escalate into something more uncontrollable.
A final issue. The implications in the Middle East will not be lost, of a Russia -- following blatant aggression in Crimea -- emerging powerful and triumphant, as against the futile and weak-kneed response of the US and its partners. Yet again Russia has snatched a diplomatic triumph from under the noses of the US and the West. As the champion of Syria’s President Bashar Assad, Russia managed to divert the threat of a US strike following Assad’s use of chemical weapons; as the ally of Iran, Russia was instrumental in manipulating the US and the West into talking with Iran about its nuclear program, thus diverting the threat of a military strike – by Israel or any other power – on its nuclear facilities. As a result Egypt and even the US’s ally, Saudi Arabia, have been making overtures to Russia, which is rapidly re-assuming its old Cold War status as a world super-power.
As far as the Middle East is concerned, one thing emerges clearly from the current turmoil. The Israel-Palestine dispute is pretty much irrelevant as far as the world’s ills are concerned. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts, whether eventually successful or not, to provide a “framework agreement” under which the two sides can agree to go on talking, will have a negligible effect on global geopolitics. Far bigger battles, quite unrelated to Israel-Palestine, are under way on the world’s political stage.
The writer is the author of One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine (2011) and writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com)