REPORTS
ANALYTICS
INVESTIGATIONS
  • USD90.19
  • EUR97.90
  • OIL81.6
DONATEРусский
  • 4861

A four-day conference celebrating the 300th birthday of the German philosopher was part of a Russian government effort to justify its war in Ukraine and weaken pro-NATO sentiment in the Baltic region.

This is a joint investigation with Estonian Delfi, Lithuania’s national broadcaster LRT, Finland’s Iltalehti newspaper, Sweden’s Expressen and Germany’s Paper Trail Media.

On April 22, several hundred people gathered in the university hall of the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University in Kaliningrad, a modest, modern-looking building tucked inside a park next to the Alexander Nevsky temple. To inaugurate the event, Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko read out a greeting from his boss, Vladimir Putin:

“This is vivid evidence of the undying interest in the personality of the brilliant and unique thinker, in his philosophical works, which remain relevant today.”

The thinker to whom Putin alluded was the eponymous philosopher, Immanuel Kant, born 300 years ago in the East Prussian city Königsberg. Putin has sporadically peppered his rambling speeches with quotations from Kant, who lived through Russia’s brief conquest of his hometown during the Seven Years’ War in the 18th century. After the Second World War, Königsberg, together with the surrounding East Prussia, was given to the Soviet Union, which renamed the city Kaliningrad. The four-day International Kant Congress, marking the philosopher’s tricentennial, was hosted on Putin’s decree, itself designated by the numeral 300.

Putin, via Chernyshenko, wished the participants “success and all the best.” Then the assembled audience was asked to rise for the Russian national anthem. On a giant screen on the stage, the Russian flag flapped in the wind.

According to the organizers, the conference gathered “more than 700 leading scholars, including 87 foreign participants from 23 countries.” Among those standing were dozens of Kant scholars from Germany, other European countries, as well as Africa and Asia. Also in attendance were Tarja Cronberg, a former Finnish cabinet official and parliamentarian and deputy of the European Parliament. Wolfgang Richter, a retired German colonel and a frequent military commentator in the German media, joined remotely.

Putin’s interest in the categorical imperative was superficial, at best.

In parallel with the event’s programming on the life and works of Kant, the Kremlin was clearly using this opportunity to present to a Western audience, with the help of Western participants, arguments justifying the two-year war in Ukraine and justifications for a hypothetical attack on the Baltic states. The entire conference, in fact, appears to have been an outcropping of an already-exposed Kremlin influence operation targeting the region.

In parallel with the event’s programming on the life and works of Kant, the Kremlin was clearly using this opportunity to present to a Western audience, with the help of Western participants, arguments justifying the two-year war in Ukraine and justifications for a hypothetical attack on the Baltic states.

Last year, Yahoo News, Delfi Estonia, Sweden’s Expressen and other international media revealed Russian government documents outlining plans by the Directorate of Cross-Border Cooperation — a department under the Russian Presidential Administration whose staff largely consists of officers from various Russian intelligence services — to create a network of Western contacts using front organizations outwardly concerned with environmentalism. The Baltic Sea, a polluted body of water shared by ten nations, has long been a fixation for marine ecologists. The true aim of the platform was to advance Russia’s geopolitical interests and cultivate contacts by pushing a narrative that the militarisation of the Baltic countries through NATO membership and the stationing of American troops undercut Russia’s supposed view of “peaceful, good neighborly and mutually beneficial solutions to the region’s problems.”

Laurynas Kasčiūnas, Lithuania’s Defense Minister told LRT, one of The Insider’s partners in this story, that because the war in Ukraine caused Sweden and Finland to join NATO, effectively transforming the Baltic Sea into an alliance-dominated body of water, Russia’s strategic options in the neighborhood have dwindled significantly. Scandinavian neutrality is gone and so now the propaganda must veer into “demilitarization” efforts, which historically have been twinned to environmental causes. “During the Cold War, we had cases where the Soviets in the West were influencing through the green movements in order to constrain the defense architecture in this or that region,” Kasčiūnas said. “Inevitably, there will be attempts to do so here.”

Because the war in Ukraine caused Sweden and Finland to join NATO, Russia's strategic options in the neighborhood have dwindled significantly

Except now the Baltic Platform has eschewed its green pretext for transcendental idealism.

According to the Lithuanian State Security Department (VSD), the Kant Congress is “almost certainly part” of the Cross-Border Directorate’s original strategy. Nor was the congress trying very hard to hide the fact. The entire second day was given over to the “Baltic Platform Plenary Session,” where the discussions were putatively about “Kant’s legacy for contemporary international relations.” In reality, they devolved into a forum for participants to blame Russia’s full-fledged war against Ukraine on NATO and accuse the alliance of military escalation in the Baltic Sea region.

“The congress was organized using the key idea of the Baltic Platform, which is to use non-political, universal themes to attract participants from ‘unfriendly’ European countries and to encourage them to spread — consciously or unconsciously — the Kremlin's narrative that Russia is a normal country, it cannot be isolated, and must have its interests taken into consideration,” the VSD said in a statement to The Insider. “It is also possible that Russian intelligence services may have used the congress to gather information, recruit and coordinate further influence activities.”

“The congress was organized using [...] non-political, universal themes to attract participants from ‘unfriendly’ European countries and to encourage them to spread — consciously or unconsciously — the Kremlin's narrative that Russia is a normal country, it cannot be isolated, and must have its interests taken into consideration,” the VSD said in a statement to The Insider

Another panel, “Towards Eternal Peace (1795) and the Russian-Ukrainian/NATO Conflict,” at least took its title from Kant's well-known tract, written when he was 71, on how to secure a lasting peace in the wake of violence cataclysms on the continent, not least the French Revolution. Somewhat awkwardly for the pro-Russian tilt of the proceedings, one of the most famous articles in the original essay reads, “No independent states, large or small, shall come under the dominion of another state by inheritance, exchange, purchase, or donation.” Which would certainly seem to complicate Russia’s designs on Ukraine.

Eduard Parhomenko is Estonia’s foremost Kant expert and a philosophy lecturer at the University of Tartu. He twice attended Kant congresses in Kaliningrad in 2008 and 2014 and now regrets doing so in light of what he now acknowledges was the university’s intent all along: to reframe a highbrow gathering of scholars into a platform for legitimating Russia’s neo-imperialist ambitions.

“In Russia there was a perfectly well-established academic tradition of Kantian studies and the University of Kaliningrad was becoming one of the centers of this tradition, working closely with German Kantian scholars,” Parhomenko said. “Now, however, it is being politically pressured and instrumentalized and taken over by the Puntinists.”

Parhomenko mentioned that Aleksandr Dugin, Russia’s most prominent living fascist philosopher, recently became the head of a research center at the Russian State University of Humanities. The center is named after Ivan Ilyin, Russia’s most prominent dead fascist philosopher and yet another touted intellectual touchstone for Putin.

One of the speakers at the congress retired German military colonel and analyst Wolfgang Richter, who joined virtually.

In an interview with The Insider, Richter denied he was being targeted in any influence or intelligence recruitment operation, given his status as an experienced military hand. “It might be in your profession only to be suspicious and look for how they [the Russians] promote their security ideas. Everybody does it. I've spent half my life negotiating. I know that everyone is interested in promoting their interests,” Richter said.

Richter does not believe his participation helped amplify or legitimize a scheme cooked up by Putin’s office.

“It depends how you phrase it. Is it an influence operation or is it a possibility to make your own positions clear?”

The Russian attendees at the congress certainly did plenty of the latter.

Alexandr Dynkin, President of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) of the Primakov Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, is publicly credited as the architect of the Baltic Platform. At the panel called “Perpetual Peace Theory and Contemporary Issues of International Security,” Dynkin laid into Estonia’s outspoken support for Ukraine and consensus approach to countermanding Russian belligerence. “We can say that today, instead of the usual Finlandizaton of the region, we see its aggressive Estonianization,” he said. “What do I mean by this? This means that political pluralism has become toxic in the capitals of the Baltic region. This means a certain primitivization of political choice and unambiguous adherence to Washington. This is a norm that does not allow deviations.”

The theme of Dynkin’s talk was making the Baltic Sea region nuclear-free. He argued that, because NATO countries have a huge conventional weapons superiority over Russia, Moscow has transferred Iskander-M missiles outfitted with tactical nuclear warheads to Belarus as a counterbalance, and also placed additional Iskanders in Kaliningrad.

“If this disproportion were eliminated, we could talk about turning the Baltic into a nuclear-free zone,” Dynkin said. “And there would be reciprocal interest on the Russian side. But the concentration of such powerful forces, the expansion of the presence of American troops on a rotational basis in the Baltic countries — all this, of course, complicates the situation,”

The threat of a nuclear war, which Russian officials and state media personalities now routinely threaten two years into the war in Ukraine, was further propounded at the congress.

The threat of a nuclear war, which Russian officials and state media personalities now routinely threaten two years into the war in Ukraine, was further propounded at the congress.

Alexey Gromyko, Director of the European Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, another attendee, said that while for a long time northern Europe was seen as a relatively peaceful region, much had changed. “In terms of the potential for escalation, the Baltic-Arctic region can compete only with the Black Sea,” Gromyko, who is the grandson of the former Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, said at the panel titled, “Baltic and Arctic Region: Searching for a Development Model.”

In Gromyko's view, Finland and Sweden are to blame for the escalation because they have both joined NATO in the last year and tactical bombers have started to appear in their airspace. “Naturally, the question of a hypothetical nuclear conflict arises. Is it possible to develop a security code for the Baltics? This is an interesting question because the military infrastructure network in the region is quite extensive.”

While such speeches might otherwise be confined to a discussion between Russian academics, it was precisely to discuss the same issue that the organizers brought Tarja Cronberg, a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), to Kaliningrad.

Cronberg is an experienced Finnish politician. As a representative of the center-left Green Party, she served as Minister of Labor from 2007 to 2009, was previously a member of both the Eduskunta, or Finnish national legislature, and the European Parliament from 2011 to 2014. She has been a vocal opponent of Finland's membership of NATO. In 2014, Cronberg said that the EU was partly to blame for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and outbreak of violence in Donbas, eastern Ukraine, as Kyiv’s decision-makers at the time forced Ukraine to choose between Europe and Russia.

At SIPRI, Cronberg focuses on armament and disarmament issues. When the EU imposed first sanctions on Russia in 2014, Cronberg was against them and believed that the focus should rather be on negotiations and diplomacy to resolve the crisis in Ukraine.

Cronberg's recent speech in Kaliningrad was quoted by the Russian state news outlet Rossiyskaya Gazeta:

“I agree that the situation in the region is really difficult and tensions are rising,” she said. “Kant argued that international law must necessarily be based on the principle of the federalism of free states. Today, this idea can be associated with the growing threat of the use of nuclear weapons, despite the fact that many states have pledged to respect restrictions on their production, transport and deployment.”

When contacted by The Insider’s investigative Finnish partner Iltalehti, Cronberg admitted that the organizers of the Kant Congress covered all her travel expenses but that she was not paid an additional speaker’s fee. The main reason for her attendance, she claimed, was that she is writing a book on Russia's role in the nuclear weapons system. “It is very important for my research that I know and understand what is going on in Russia on nuclear issues,” Cronberg said.

Smith defended Cronberg's participation on the grounds that “it is appropriate to attend such a conference in order to maintain communication, even in difficult times”

SIPRI Director Dan Smith said that Cronberg attended the Kaliningrad conference with his knowledge and consent, but that it was her personal decision to attend and that she was not speaking on behalf of SIPRI. Smith defended her participation on the grounds that “it is appropriate to attend such a conference in order to maintain communication, even in difficult times.”

Martin Kragh, the deputy director of the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies and one of Sweden’s top experts on Russia, described the Kant Congress as “a Kremlin event, not an academic conference.”

“They are simply using Kant as a fig leaf to promote Russian security interests,” Kragh said. “Every Russian representative there is a state employee. They are instructed by law to promote the Kremlin's policies every time they open their mouths.” No respectable scholar should have accepted the invitation, he added.

Kragh also pointed to Kaliningrad as a location symbolizing Russia’s military presence in the Baltic Sea.

“There can be no other suggestion here [than not to participate], because such events are designed to promote Russia’s state interests. Russia is simultaneously waging a large-scale invasion war against Ukraine. It would be very strange for me to sit at such an event and listen to Russian government officials talking about Immanuel Kant of all people. It just seems absurd to me.”

Cronberg and Richter, for their part, see themselves as unbiased interlocutors and dialogue facilitators.

“If it turns out that my participation is being exploited, I will definitely not participate,” Cronberg said. “But right now it's a balancing act where I have to find a middle ground between getting information from Russia and at the same time providing it to the West.”

“This is necessary in order to avoid the worst, the escalation, which, by the way, would hit your country [Estonia] and your neighbors first,” Richter told a reporter at Delfi.

Richter said that attending such events is simply a matter of engaging with Russia and there’s nothing wrong with that. “This is necessary in order to avoid the worst, the escalation, which, by the way, would hit your country [Estonia] and your neighbors first,” he told a reporter at Delfi.

The Insider has seen evidence that the Kant Congress organizers planned to fly in 105 participants from Germany. To do this, they were planning to use a plane belonging to Gazprom, Russia’s state gas giant, which has been sanctioned by the U.S., at no travel cost to the participants themselves. Among the prospective passengers were businessmen who were meant to return to Germany to lobby against Russian sanctions.

Whether any such businessmen made it to Kaliningrad is unclear. The Insider has not found any evidence to confirm their attendance.

Subscribe to our weekly digest

К сожалению, браузер, которым вы пользуйтесь, устарел и не позволяет корректно отображать сайт. Пожалуйста, установите любой из современных браузеров, например:

Google Chrome Firefox Safari