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Braniewo At the Frontier

Jacek Bartosiak

from: Strategy and Future

8th August 2019 – in the early hours of the morning, I stood in Braniewo at ul. Zielona 25, looking at ex-German residential building typical of the region – Warmia – with a beautiful old orchard at the back of the house.

Braniewo, Zielona Street (photo: Jacek Bartosiak)


Most of the trees in the orchard undoubtedly remembered the pre-war city of Braunsberg. On this day, it had the look of a typical frontier town, quite sleepy, a place where life went slowly for the most part. Added to this the unmerciful heat despite the rain that had been announced.

According to historical records, Braniewo is the oldest city of Warmia and its first capital – located on the Pasłęka River (once navigable) near the mouth of the Vistula Lagoon, it currently numbers 17,000 inhabitants. Formerly it was an important river port, a fairly significant sea port and a vibrant Hanseatic city. Between the years 1466 and 1772, the city was part of the Kingdom of Poland. It returned to Poland after the Yalta-Potsdam agreements of 1945.

I’d intended to see the Vistula Lagoon that day, through which goods came and went via the Pasłęka River. This was at the time when the Hanseatic League ruled the Batlic Sea and Braniewo was known to the world as Brunsberg. The Hanseatic League of that time was an association of Northern European merchant cities from the medieval ages to the early modern era. The cities belonging to the union supported their mutual trade and monetary policy, in effect almost monopolizing strategic flows (i.e. trade, and the movement of capital and people) in the Baltic, which translated into the huge political power of the Hanse. Currently, near the mouth of the Pasłęka to the Vistula Lagoon, the Polish-Russian border separating Poland from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which cut the former German province of East Prussia into the Polish and Russian parts.

Polish-Russian border near Braniewo towards the Vistula Lagoon (photo: Jacek Bartosiak)

Today – in the era of great power competition in Eurasia and Russia’s offensive policy towards  the Baltic-Black Sea Bridge, aimed at weakening NATO and pushing US out of Europe – Kaliningrad enclave has become a serious strategic challenge for Poland, because it creates a so-called ‘A2/AD-bastion’.

To put it succinctly, weapons systems in the enclave threaten NATO sea, air and land communication lines to the Baltic States, including the freedom of communication through the Suwałki Corridor which connects Poland and Lithuania, and which is thus squeezed between Russia and its ally Belarus. The Suwałki Corridor has become a symbol of new times on NATO’s Eastern Flank because it is an important focus of the next generation warfare (hybrid warfare) between Russia and NATO.

We are still dealing with the fallout from a failure to resolve the issue of Kaliningrad enclave after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and this represents a serious planning problem for any operations of the Polish and allied forces in the event of a war with Russia over the Baltic states. It is also a problem now, because its very existence is a problem related to the so-called ‘strategic signaling’ and affects the dislocation of the Polish Armed Forces and our allies. Without the existence of the enclave, Poland would not border with Russia, which would completely change our strategic calculations towards the Baltic States and our military dislocations in the region.

On that August morning, the inhabitants of Braniewo with whom I spoke did not seem to be aware of what their city’s location means, 10 km from the Russian border and 63 km from the city of Kaliningrad.

The 9th Armoured Cavalry Brigade “King Stefan Batory” is stationed in Braniewo at ul. Sikorskiego 41, on the road leading to Elbląg and Frombork. Its soldiers were the first to serve in the Polish contingent in the Riga suburb of Ādaži, 23 km from Kircholm, where in 1605 Field Hetman of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Jan Karol Chodkiewicz, defeated the Swedish army, protecting the strategic line of defense of the Commonwealth on the Daugava River from penetration. The Commonwealth also secured a Livonian buffer against Russian land troops, aiming to break through to the Baltic Sea, while fighting Swedish landings from the sea on which our northern neighbors ruled at that time. Today, Polish tankers from the contingent in Ādaži are the first line of defense on the main axis of a potential Russian attack crossing the three Baltic states towards Riga through the southern part of Estonia.

Braniewo has been a witness to frequent geopolitical changes. In the times of the communist Poland, according to the inhabitants of the border town, the mechanized Soviet columns on their way to Czechoslovakia in 1968 (also in August) moved down the streets in numbers. Who would have thought 50 years ago that in half a century Polish soldiers from the Braniewo unit would be part of the Polish power projection to post-Soviet Latvia (which in the meantime has become a NATO member) in order to deter any offensive Russian action! The history is constantly rolling on the Baltic-Black Sea Bridge.

In the life of one man, things that can fundamentally change his political and economic environment and thus obviously his personal life can happen several times.

Geopolitical changes are sometimes so fast that we have learned to get used to them quickly in this region of the world. After all, the geopolitical system from before – let’s say – 40 years seems pure abstraction to us!

That morning I talked with an elderly man who told me that in the house located on the bend of Zielona Street, which picturesquely turned towards military barracks, a music professor lived before the war, who commuted to work by train every day to Königsberg, as Kaliningrad was called in German times, which was not a long journey between two cities after all located in one German state in the province of Ostpreußen.

Railway towards the formerly German Königsberg, currently Russian Kaliningrad; railway station in Braniewo (photo: Jacek Bartosiak)

The railway still goes from Braniewo to the former Königsberg, now Kaliningrad, and the city has a beautiful, though neglected, German station. Recently, transit trains from China have begun to pass through Braniewo station as part of the Chinese Belt and Road initiative, or – if you prefer – the New Silk Road, towards Olsztyn and further into Poland, probably further to Germany and Western Europe. Slowly building a system of land connectivity between East Asia and Europe and a new trading system based on it.

Braniewo, railway station (photo: Jacek Bartosiak)

Together with the area of the present Kaliningrad enclave, Warmia and Mazury were once called the Prussian Lakeland. They are stretched between the Vistula and the Nemunas and separate from the Polish hinterland the former Prussian coast based on the Pregoła, the Pasłęka and the Nemunas. Both the Pregoła and the Nemunas flowed into the Baltic Sea with deltas where they are today on the Vistula Spit and the Curonian Spit, which arose when the sea invaded the course of both rivers and on the bottom of the shallow Baltic coast, the sand settled forming the spits.

Vistula Lagoon (photo: Jacek Bartosiak)

The parts of the sea cut off in this way are shallow (4 meters in the Vistula, 15 metres in the Curonian) but home to fish and breaks in the spits at Baltiysk and Klaipeda made it possible for the lagoons to communicate with the open sea. This is the source of Warsaw’s current pressure to build a channel for Polish freight communication to be able to access the Baltic Sea (from the Vistula Lagoon) without Russian mediation.

However, the Prussian coast was not conducive to the development of shipping in the modern era, because the lagoons turned out to be too shallow for larger commercial vessels. For this reason, the ports, once significant – Konigsberg, Elbląg, Braniewo (Brunsberg) and Klaipeda lost their commercial significance when sea-going vessels with the development of shipbuilding technologies became more substantial and more submerged. With the opening up of the Atlantic Ocean and great geographical explorations, cities such as Brunsberg have deteriorated all the more. In the case of Braniewo, i.e. the former Brunsberg, this led to a real decline of the importance of the once rich and influential Warmian city.

Pasłeka river estuary to the Vistula Lagoon (photo: Jacek Bartosiak)


I am not sure if the resident of the city whom I spoke to in the morning in August also realized that his city was the first line of defense in the event of war with Russia.

The 9th Armored Cavalry Brigade is stationed too close to the border and would be subjected to the the Russian long range artillery fires, so the troops in the event of an alarm would have to leave Braniewo barracks and deploy to a location further in the direction of Elbląg through the Elbląg Plateau, probably taking defensive positions on the Elbląg Canal between Elbląg and Olsztyn. The garrison in Braniewo would be a Russian target from the first minutes of the war. The Pasłęka River in Braniewo is at most a tactical barrier. The defense of Polish troops in this region cannot be organized based on this river. This means that the Polish units from the garrison in the event of a defensive war must move southwest.

The Russians, in order to destroy the Polish Armed Forces, especially if Poles decided to go through the Suwałki Corridor to help the Baltic States, could plan the right arm of the great encirclement operation against Polish forces along the Vistula River. The basic assumption would be to take Braniewo and the S22 express road – the former “Berlinka”. Then through the Elbląg Plateau and after eliminating the Polish 9th Armored Cavalry Brigade, the task would be to get to the Elbląg communication node, blocking traffic to Gdańsk and Warsaw on the S7 route. This seizure of the Elbląg-Ostróda defensive line extended by the defensive area east to Olsztyn – along with the S7 and S16 expressways – would break the defense line of the Polish Republic in the north of the country. In this way, the Russian frontline would be expected to reach the S22 road to Malbork, pass the River Nogat and cross the operational barrier of the Elbląg Canal and try, after defeating Polish forces, to reach the Vistula line after passing several smaller lakes located 15 kilometers from the flow of the Vistula itself.

The first major operational obstacle is only the Elbląg and several lakes connected to it between Elbląg and Ostróda and Olsztyn. This line is actually the only defensive line on an operational scale between Kaliningrad enclave and the strategic line of the Vistula. North of this line and west of the Bartoszyce–Biskupiec road 57, the terrain is open and undulating with rare intersections and therefore convenient for maneuvers, as can be seen with the naked eye in the fields below Dobre Miasto.

In the case of an offensive operation, aimed at eliminating the isolated enclave of Kaliningrad enclave, Braniewo (like Bartoszyce and Raczki) would be a pivot resembling a hinge, decisive for the communication of the forces striking Kaliningrad. The layout of the area means that it is easiest to strike at Kaliningrad from Braniewo – if it at some time were ever to come to this.

Life in Braniewo, despite the fact that in August 2019 the town seemed utterly sleepy, cannot be ever geopolitically boring, simply because of the changes that have affected this town and might also touch it in the future. It rather may resemble a spinning carousel. Earlier periods notwithstanding, in the 20th century itself – first both German Reichs and two World Wars, the second of which completely crushed Braniewo’s urban tissue. Then the influx of Polish people and the sad, closed and secluded Polish-Soviet border. Then, from the end of the 20th century, the border of an independent Poland. With the arrival of the 21st century, the border of the NATO Alliance that stretches from California to fields and forests northeast of Braniewo. At the same time, the European Union border and the border between completely different political projects: Western and Russian. Under the very nose of the Russian army and near the Russian anti-access bastion.

If American-Chinese competition causes a further reversal of the globalization process and the competition gains momentum, then Braniewo may become a border city between the part of the world centered around the United States and the world of Eurasian land masses stretching
from Shanghai to Russian Kaliningrad and Belarusian city of Brest on the Bug River with both Russia and Belarus remaining within political and economic gravity of China.

Both competing worlds can then be divided by a wall with a separate economic and trade system, separate supply chains, technological standards, rules for the exchange of information, knowledge and the movement of people.

Then Braniewo will be at the wall. Pessimists say that this situation could even last several decades.
I did not have the courage to talk about this particular matter with a city resident on an August morning. At the same time, such a conversation would be somewhat abstract. Probably the same if in August 1968, when the Soviet tanks were moving down the streets of the town, someone fantasized that Poland would be in NATO and the Soviet Union would not exist.


Jacek Bartosiak
CEO and Founder of Strategy&Future, author of bestselling books.

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