If you look at a map of the Baltic region, you might notice a funny little piece of land sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland that isn't marked with a country name. That's Kaliningrad (Калининград in Russian), also known as Königsberg when it was under German rule for many years. It's a small piece of land that was was the scene of bitter fighting during World War II and eventually ended up as part of the Soviet Union. During the Soviet era Kaliningrad was never integrated into one of its neighboring Soviet states. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, it remained disconnected part of Russia.
Today it's a port city of about a million people, where Russia houses its Baltic Sea fleet. It's Russia's only ice-free port in Europe, and Russia is serious about its ports. Some analysts believe one big reason Russia has remained steadfast in its support of Syria's murderer-in-chief Bashar al-Assad is because he lets them use the port of Latakia, which gives Russia access to the Mediterranean Sea.
In the past few weeks, Lithuania has reported several incidents of Russian ships interfering with Lithuanian ships in the Baltic Sea. Lithuania has submitted a formal complaint in the form of a "diplomatic note" to the Russian ambassador. Amid today's heightened tensions between Russia and Ukraine, this harassment is getting careful scrutiny.
This month also marks the 42nd annual Baltic Operations exercise (BALTOPS 2014) where military forces from the US, NATO and eleven other countries get together in the Baltic Sea and flex their muscles. It's primarily a naval exercise, but the US Air Force is participating as well.
It would appear that the US is just as serious about its own ports in foreign locales.
At the same time, the US Army is leading Saber Strike 2014, ground exercises in locations across Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, involving 4,700 military members from ten NATO countries. Here's the official Army-issued tri-fold brochure:
All three Baltic countries - Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - are members of NATO.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says these NATO maneuvers are hostile and intended as a threat to Russia, who in response has launched her own military maneuvers in the region. NATO and the Americans say these are longstanding annual festivities, not tied to recent events.
Then again, while in Poland last week, President Obama a billion dollar "European Reassurance Initiative" to increase US troop presence in the region. The name is as polysyllabic and professorial as our president. Maybe if he'd given it a shorter name with more hard consonants and better imagery (think Saber Strike!) he might have better luck getting it through Congress.
BALTOPS, not so much. Sounds like a brand of cheap candy.
Perhaps what's most interesting about these military maneuvers is how little coverage they're getting in the American press. A Google news search generates any number of pieces expressing outrage from outlets like Russia Today, ITAR-TASS and Voice of Russia.
Searches for BALTOPS and Saber Strike at the New York Times generated zero results. The same search at the Washington Post generated one AP story about Canadian participation. Even the Huffington Post didn't deliver. Not enough Kardashians?
As in 1989 and as in 1939, world history is playing out in the Baltic nations while no one watches.
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