Moscow Faces Serious Obstacles In Making Karelia A ‘Second Kaliningrad’ – Analysis

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Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Moscow has viewed Kaliningrad as an important Russian outpost in the West—first under Boris Yeltsin as a bridge to Europe and then as an advanced post for projecting Russian power. More recently, in response to Finland’s decision to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Kremlin has expressed the hope that it can transform Karelia into a “second Kaliningrad,” a center of Russian military power that could check any expansion of the Western alliance into Scandinavia and the Arctic.

In addition, in the event of a crisis, it could prevent NATO from severing the single-track rail line connecting central Russia and the Kola Peninsula, where a large portion of Russia’s strategic arms are located (, June 27, 2022). Such a calculation is entirely reasonable from Moscow’s perspective, but the Russian authorities face serious obstacles in achieving their goal—and, quite possibly as a result of such an overreach, may trigger precisely those centrifugal forces in the North that the Kremlin so fears (Sever.Realii, October 22, 2021).

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced these intentions earlier this year as part of his plans for the expansion of the Russian army over the next several years. As Finland’s accession to NATO will mean that the direct border between Russia and the Western alliance will expand by more than 1,200 kilometers, the defense minister stressed that the creation of a Russian military force there is vital. This would involve the formation of a new Russian army corps of some 100,000 men in Karelia. That force would represent the revival of the 6th All-Forces Army, which existed in the region until 1998 but was then disbanded, This field army would rely both on infrastructure that has survived from Soviet times and on the construction of new facilities to be paid for almost entirely by the republic’s government (RBC, January 17;, January 18).

Both Artur Parfenchikov, Russian head of the Karelian government, and Russian analysts, such as Vladimir Klimanov, head of the Moscow Center for Regional Policy, are upbeat about this possibility, with Klimanov arguing that an army corps in Karelia would become “a driver of economic growth” in the depressed region of 528,000 people (, February 19).

However, others are more skeptical. Petri Mäkelä, a Finnish military expert, is among those who doubt Moscow can achieve its goals. In truth, not only is the existing infrastructure in Karelia in bad shape, but the republic has also lost a high number of men in Ukraine.

Furthermore, anti-war and anti-military attitudes are widespread (, January 18). Karelian activist Vasily Fomin adds that these are not the only difficulties Moscow faces, as many in the republic doubt that what the Russian Defense Ministry is talking about will set the stage for any economic growth for them. Rather, they believe Moscow is putting in place the conditions for the final homogenization of the republic as a Russian region and even setting the stage for a possible new Winter War against Finland, something that was a disaster for Karelia and that no one there wants to repeat (, April 13).

Karelians actively supported the Euroregion, which tied them together with Finland during the first decade of this century and raised hopes that they could eventually live as well as the Finns do (, accessed April 18). But Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anti-Western course led to the suspension of the Euroregion nearly a decade ago, and his launch of a full-scale war against Ukraine last year has caused the collapse of the Karelian economy. In the first full year of the war, Karelia’s economy fell by more than 10 percent, five times as much as the Russian economy did as a whole.

The center has not compensated Karelians for that loss, and they are angry (, November 22, 2022). Anti-war activism has spread in Karelia (The Barents Observer, June 17, 2022), and residents of one small Karelian town have even taken the remarkable step of creating a Facebook page where they can discuss the war and their opposition to it (, March 14, 2022). An additional sign of anti-war attitudes among Karelians is that of Petrazavodsk, the republic’s capital, which is a rare case of a federal subject west of the Urals that has not seen the opening of a Wagner Group recruitment center. This is an indication that the Wagner leaders do not think they would find many recruits there, despite widespread poverty in Karelia (, March 13).

Moscow propagandists who focus on Karelia also appear to have given up. Last year, they played up in Karelia reports that NATO would soon have a base in Finland. Yet, such reports have declined in number this year, despite the fact that Finland is now officially part of the alliance (, July 4, 2022;, July 5, 2022).

The war in Ukraine is not the only issue animating Karelians, ethnic and non-ethnic alike. They are angry about the decline in their population, now forming fewer than 6 percent of all republic residents; the unwillingness of Moscow to recognize Karelian as a state language, making them the only autonomy in Russia without the titular nationality language having that status; and perhaps especially by Moscow’s tendency to treat them as if they are Finns rather than a nation in their own right, a position that means Moscow sees almost any actions by Karelians as secessionist rather than simply as an effort to achieve greater rights (, September 9, 2021; Sever.Realii, October 22, 2021).

Moscow’s plans to create an army corps in Karelia could easily prove to exacerbate tensions, especially since the Russian government seems to believe that it can convince the republic itself to bear most of the costs. If the war in Ukraine continues and losses of Karelians mount, the possibility will grow that another restoration will transpire in the republic—namely, that of the People’s Front of Karelia, which was established in the early 1990s as an analogous body to the people’s fronts in the Baltic countries. Moscow was able to suppress it the first time around; however, this time, by so blatantly asking the Karelians to pay for their own occupiers and for those who threaten their ties with Finland, Fomin suggests, a new Front may achieve more—and the new corps much less—than many now anticipate.

This article was published by The Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 63

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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