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Playing Geopolitics With the World Cup

Russia's new stadium in Kaliningrad sends a message, backed up by war games.

Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

Kaliningrad, which will host four World Cup matches this month, is a peculiar Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea. Wedged between Poland and Lithuania, both members of NATO and the European Union, it is geographically separated from the rest of Russia—a Free Economic Zone (FEZ) that has earned it status as the “Russian Hong Kong.”

But as attention turns to the soccer tournament, the Kremlin is set to make a statement in this highly militarized, western-most territory that serves as the Russian Baltic Fleet base and, as of this February, home to a permanent arsenal of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles: On the world stage, Russia will showcase its new $300 million Kaliningrad stadium, known as Arena Baltika, which can house 35,212 people—a far larger capacity than is necessary for the 4,000 fans the local Baltika team typically attracts.

Ostensibly, the stadium is just a sports venue for Croatia vs. Nigeria on June 16, Serbia vs. Switzerland on June 22, Spain vs. Morocco on June 25, and England vs. Belgium on June 28. But situated 28 miles from the Polish border on Kaliningrad’s Oktyabrsky Island, the colossal structure also sends an aggressive message, say some veteran Russia-watchers.

“Putin wants to show off Kaliningrad as a militarily powerful bastion against NATO influence moving eastward, and also, with the shiny stadium, show that Kaliningrad is more prosperous than it actually is,” said William Courtney, a senior fellow at the RAND Corporation who previously served as a negotiator at the U.S.-Soviet Defense and Space Talks in Geneva and as ambassador to Georgia and Kazakhstan.

The sectoral sanctions the U.S. applied after the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea have hurt the Russian economy, and Kaliningrad has been no exception, with a reputation for being financially troubled and requiring subsidies from Moscow. But Courtney says there is a bit of posturing going on through the imposing construction, in keeping with a decades-long trend.

“One of the features of the Soviet period was often that investments didn’t make economic sense but had the purpose of showing that the state was powerful,” Courtney said. “So building a stadium that’s far larger than Kaliningrad’s soccer team will be able to use in the future comes out of this long tradition of Stalinist and Soviet mega-projects for show.”

The stadium may be impractical, in part, as a way for Russian President Vladimir Putin “to channel wealth to individuals and use state funds to win support and to legitimate his rule in a symbiotic relationship between business cronies and favored bureaucrats/politicians,” said Elise Giuliano, political science lecturer at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies. In particular, it’s a boon for Aras Agalarov, the oligarch who partnered with Donald Trump to host the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow and runs Crocus International, the company that built the new stadium.

It also notably represents Russia’s aim to “demonstrate the so-called Russianness of the enclave,” said Sergey Sukhankin, a Jamestown Foundation fellow from Kaliningrad and associate expert at the International Centre for Policy Studies in Kiev, Ukraine. Modern-day Kaliningrad had a long history before Russia came into the picture. Teutonic knights from East Prussia founded it as Königsberg 763 years ago, and German philosopher par excellence Immanuel Kant spent his whole life there. The Soviet Union annexed it from Germany only in 1945 to serve as a closed military zone. And though Kaliningrad is currently an established manufacturing, shipping, and fishing hub, the Russian government, along with the Russian Orthodox Church and civilian authorities, has recently doubled down on efforts that began in 2014 to eliminate remaining traces of the region’s German past and prop up Russian structures like a statue of medieval Russian prince and hero Alexander Nevsky. That Kaliningrad is an isolated part of Russia makes it vulnerable to attack from Poland and the Baltic states, and the insecure Kremlin feels the non-Russian vestiges detract from Russia’s hold on the place and delegitimize Russia’s claim to the turf in the eyes of foreign neighbors. The stadium is just the latest nationalistic affirmation.

“The Kaliningrad stadium is totally unnecessary and too large, but the point is to mark the territory,” said Kalev Stoicescu, research fellow at the International Centre for Defence and Security in Tallinn, Estonia. “The Kremlin never spares money when it is about such considerations.”

And that’s especially true in this strategic outpost given Russia’s wariness of Western intervention following its invasion of Crimea.

Of course, the Kremlin wants to flaunt Kaliningrad as a Russian military foothold in the West by calling attention to its grandiose stadium during the World Cup. But Russia’s flexing is not merely gestural.

The Kremlin has lately ruffled geopolitical feathers in the region by engaging in war games such as simulating a nuclear bomb drop in Sweden by flying a squadron of aircraft in formation over Stockholm as a practice run without using an actual explosive. And Russian aircraft flying over the Baltic Sea have continually violated Finnish airspace.

“The security situation here in the region is very serious,” said Marius Laurinavičius, senior expert at the Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis in Lithuania. “Instead of talking in soccer terms, we should talk about the numerous red lines the Kremlin has crossed already and about the threat it poses in real terms.”

In response to Russia’s revved-up aggression, Sweden has recently bolstered a civil defense program that the government had sharply reduced after the Cold War. Last month, The Swedish government started distributing pamphlets to citizens as part of its total defense concept to mobilize the civilian population in the event of a Russian attack.

Russia’s taunting antics have increased speculation from diplomats like Hannu Himanen, Finland’s former ambassador to Russia, that Finland and Sweden might want to join NATO. And in the last few days, Poland has called for the U.S. to make its rotational brigade team of 5,000 soldiers a permanent fixture in Warsaw as Russia brandishes its military power.

But Russia has a built-in statecraft safety net against augmented foreign forces in the region even as it escalates tensions: the NATO-Russia Act of 1997 contains a pledge by NATO to refrain from the “additional permanent station of significant combat forces,” said Simon Saradzhyan, project director at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School and assistant director of the U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism.

The NATO accord may fail to achieve the vision Kaliningrad’s own Kant had for “perpetual peace,” Saradzhyan said, “but it does help to maintain a semblance of normality in the military-to-military relations between the West and Russia.”

Therefore, if the U.S. were to follow Poland’s request to deploy a brigade on a permanent basis, Russia might view such an action “as a violation that merits a red card and discontinuation of the functioning of that 1997 Act,” Saradzhyan added.

The threat of increased U.S. presence, however, also justifies Kremlin saber-rattling.

“Russia has consolidated public opinion and ‘convinced’ the domestic audience that Russia’s actions in Kaliningrad are purely defensive and should be seen as a reaction to NATO’s moves,” the Jamestown Foundation’s Sukhankin said.

That narrative of Kaliningrad as an easily combustible state where any nearby wrong move could drive Russia to attack with its fresh crop of precision missiles, Sukhankin added, has made the exclave into Russia’s most advanced Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2AD) campaign, a military strategy that deters enemies from occupying or entering a particular area. Specifically, the potential volatility in Kaliningrad allows the Kremlin to capitalize on the fears and doubts of its geographic neighbors, Sukhankin added. By “applying information-psychological pressure,” by encroaching upon restricted air space, for example, Russia has used a budget-friendly efficient tactic here, Sukhankin said, unlike Soviet times when the Kremlin permanently kept masses of armed forces in Kaliningrad and the three Baltic states.

As the soccer gets underway in Kaliningrad, all of these tensions are percolating while the stadium serves as a clear messaging tool for the Kremlin’s looming strength in the region. Of course, the Kremlin’s overtures, both symbolic and real, may not come off with open-goal ease.

“[Arena Baltika] is a Putin-style power demonstration,” said Harley Balzer, an associate professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University focused on Russia.Putin seems to believe that he can do what he wishes on Russian territory. Of course, rattling one’s neighbors is hardly a new phenomenon, but it rarely produces beneficial results.”