Window on Eurasia: On Kaliningrad, Another Russian Military ‘Mistake’?

by Paul A. Goble  |  June 13, 2005  |  ARTICLES

A Russian military publishing house has made a mistake, fateful or farcical depending on one’s perspective, in a new atlas for Kaliningrad, the non-contiguous part of the Russian Federation:  In its depiction of the official shield of that region’s capital, the atlas shows not a ship but NATO’s “rose of the four winds.”

The mistake, reported yesterday by the Regnum news agency, was made by the 439th Central Experimental Military Cartographic Concern, an institution that styles itself as “the leading enterprise of the Topographic Service of the Armed Forces of Russia with 85 years of experience.” (http://www.regnum.ru/news/471075.html).

The publishing house refused to respond to the news agency’s questions about how this could have happened, but book dealers told the agency that the atlas, issued in an edition of 10,000 copies, had quickly sold out and that the atlas is now what they called “a bibliographic rarity.”

The error -- and that is almost certainly what it was -- probably happened because NATO’s “rose of the four winds” is sometimes found in electronic publishing programs and used as a placeholder until authors or composers can find the actual art that is to be put in its place.

But this mistake inevitably recalls an earlier “mistake” made by Soviet generals about the Baltic region 15 years ago.  At that time, they told Philip Peterson, a distinguished American researcher at the Pentagon, that their defense planning maps for the year 2000 did not include the three Baltic countries as part of the USSR.

That judgment of Soviet commanders in late 1990 certainly proved prescient: Less than two years after it was made, all three Baltic countries had recovered their independence, and now the three are members of both the Western alliance and the European Union.

The way in which this Soviet judgment surfaced, however, and especially the consequences it had when it did are the real reasons why some may now be taking this latest Russian military “mistake” more seriously.

On March 12, 1990, the “Washington Times” reported on its front page the dramatic celebrations in Vilnius after elections there had allowed a newly formed parliament to declare the recovery of Lithuanian independence. 

The very same day, that paper carried on one of its inside pages an article about the judgments of the Soviet generals as reported by Philip Peterson in a paper that the Pentagon had cleared for publication.

That conjunction of events had real consequences.  On the one hand, it prompted denials by some Soviet generals that they had ever said anything of the kind. And on the other, it lead some in Washington to fear that overt Western support for Lithuania might be seen in Moscow as a tilt against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Obviously, it would be an error to insist on any parallels between the two.  But celebrations in Kaliningrad later this month marking the 60th anniversary of the formation of Kaliningrad oblast within the USSR and the 750th anniversary of the founding of the German city of Konigsberg, as Kaliningrad was formerly known, do raise the stakes.

And consequently, both those in the region who would like to see Kaliningrad become independent as the fourth Baltic republic or even revert to German control may now be asking themselves whether the publishers of this new Russian military atlas have made a mistake or rather “a mistake” that points to the future.