Question: what do Tartus, Crimea and Kaliningrad have in common, and why is this single commonality key to understanding the wars in Syria and Ukraine, as well as a potential future conflict in the Baltics?
The port of Tartus in Syria is the base of Russian Mediterranean Fleet. Sevastopol, in now-annexed Crimea, is the base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet (whose access to the Mediterranean is through Turkey, a Nato member). Kaliningrad is a once-closed oblast of the Russian Federation, part of German East Prussia until 1945, now surrounded by Nato members Poland and Lithuania – and the main base of the Russian Baltic Fleet.
In short, Russian naval superpower depends on three "exclaves". Only the Russian Pacific and Northern Fleets, based in Vladivostok and Murmansk respectively, lie within the Russian Federation proper. You cannot, of course, have global superpower status without naval superpower.
Occupied Crimea is still an exclave, with no contiguous land access (yet) to the Russian Federation: hence the desire of the Russian proxies in Ukraine to seize the Ukrainian port of Mariupol, opening an easy Russian sea-route to Crimea, in this baroque post-communist recrudescence of 19th-century Tsarism.
Could Kaliningrad – a 220sq km exclave on the Baltic sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania – be supplied directly from the Russian Federation, without passing through EU/Nato territory? Not easily: there are only the ferries and airlanes from St Petersburg.
It was thus by ship from the St Petersburg area that nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles were again transferred to Kaliningrad three weeks ago – for the first time since 2014, when a similar missile system was moved to the exclave for a military exercise – in an arguable breach of the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty.
It is abundantly clear that Putin is willing to see Syria burnt to the ground for the sake of securing the Tartus base. His use of the paralysing veto at the UN Security Council as well as massive military and financial support – and the now-relentless direct bombing of the moderate opposition – have been prime factors in the survival of the Assad regime, on which the Tartus base currently depends.
It is equally clear that Putin is willing to risk engendering in Ukraine, with its ethno-religious diversity – two varieties of Ukrainian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Uniates, Catholics and Protestants – an absolutely catastrophic mélange of something like collapsing Yugoslavia infused with a sectarianised Northern Ireland on a vast scale. (Both Ulster and “New Russia” in eastern Ukraine were “planted” with loyal settlers by the respective imperial powers).
He could also use the highly militarised Kaliningrad (possessing Russia's only ice-free European port, Baltiysk) as part of a "hybrid-war" gambit to destabilise and dominate the Baltics, or as a manufactured casus belli.
It is time, in earnest, to bleed and crash the Russian economy – the safest current means of checking Putin's expansionist ambitions. A klepto-oligargic, gangster, ethnicised and permanently aggressive Russian state is vastly more dangerous than the temporary terrorist victories of "Islamic" State – the latter so distinctly reminiscent of the fascists of the "Orthodox" Iron Guard (Romania) or "Catholic" Ustaše (Croatia and Bosnia), ultimately defeated, during the second World War.
Three non-military pre-emptions in particular might be undertaken immediately.
Exclusion of the Russian Federation from Swift automatic bank transfers would wreak havoc on its financial system. A boycott of the 2018 World Cup to be held in Russia would touch every dedicatee of Russian football.
And now rather than later, both the charges for Russian transit visas as well as tariffs on trains and goods bound for Kaliningrad should be massively increased – not only as a demonstrative sanction on business-as-usual, but as a means of further bleeding the Russian economy by hiking up hugely the cost and difficulty of supplying this already-dangerous exclave.
Post-communism is not a clean break from the preceding system, but an evolution out of it. As the Polish dissident and historian Adam Michnik once remarked, "The worst thing about communism is what comes after."
Chris Agee is the editor of Irish Pages and Keith Wright literary fellow (writer-in-residence) at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.