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21 June 2022updated 18 Aug 2022 4:19pm

What is the Kaliningrad problem?

The Russian exclave is a point of pressure for the West but also has more to lose from Moscow’s manoeuvring.

By Maximilian Hess

It is closer to Berlin than St Petersburg, the former Prussian royal capital that was only annexed by the Soviet Union after the Second World War. Kaliningrad, formerly Königsberg, is Russia’s western-most spur and the base for its Baltic fleet. The city’s hodgepodge of influences is evident on its main thoroughfare, Leninsky Prospekt, where the former stock exchange was turned into a Communist “Palace of Culture”. Construction on the House of Soviets, a famous brutalist building, began shortly after the city castle was demolished in 1968; it has never been completed.

Until recently, Leninsky Prospekt was also home to both a Kalinin Express fast-food joint, named for a long-standing ally of Stalin, Mikhail Kalinin (and the city’s present namesake), and an “Obama Pizza” restaurant, complete with Masonic eye. East meets west, à la Putin.

Cut off from Russia’s main landmass by Lithuania and Poland, Kaliningrad now faces major ramifications from Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the diplomatic and economic response of its neighbours, both of them members of the EU – and Nato.

On 17 June, Kaliningrad’s regional governor announced Lithuania would begin enforcing a transit ban on sanctioned goods the following day and warned against panic buying – which duly followed the statement. The secretary of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, has threatened a response with “serious negative consequences for the population of Lithuania”.

The Kremlin has slammed Lithuania’s move as an attempt to blockade the city. But EU officials have noted that Vilnius is not acting unilaterally but merely applying bloc-wide sanctions, and it said passengers and unsanctioned goods can still transit.

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Vilnius has taken a prominent role in responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In May, its lawmakers unanimously endorsed a resolution labelling the Kremlin a terrorist actor, alleging it was seeking to commit genocide against Ukrainians and calling for the establishment of a Nuremberg-style criminal court to try members of the Putin regime.

Memories of Soviet misrule and occupation are very much alive in Lithuania, particularly the “January Events” in which Soviet troops sought to crush the republic’s 1991 declaration of independence, killing 14 protesters. The Putin regime’s continued denigration of Lithuanian sovereignty in the decades since has made sure of that. At the beginning of June, an MP from Putin’s ruling United Russia party submitted a resolution calling for the September 1991 recognition of Lithuanian independence signed by Mikhail Gorbachev to be rescinded.

Lithuania has also been the repeated target of Russian cyberattacks, espionage against its defence and political establishment, and the country has seen its banks infiltrated by suspected Russian assets – issues that have also afflicted its Baltic neighbours.

But Lithuania’s ethnic Russian minority is far smaller than those of Latvia and Estonia, an estimated 5 per cent of the population vs roughly 25 per cent in the latter two. Unlike them, there is no significant pro-Russian party in parliament, enabling political cohesion around resistance to Putin’s imperialism.

Lithuania has been particularly concerned about Russian pressure through energy links – it was the first ex-Soviet state to begin building a liquefied natural gas import terminal – and halted all remaining energy imports in May. The plan was atop the agenda even before Putin’s invasion after Lithuania deemed the 2020 launch of a new Russian-built nuclear power plant near Astravets, Belarus, unsafe, warning of the risk of a new Chernobyl just 40 kilometres from Vilnius. 

Agnia Grigas, a senior fellow specialising in geopolitical economy at the Atlantic Council think tank, told the New Statesman: “Other than the transit of goods and Russian citizens and military personnel, there are little economic ties between Lithuania and Kaliningrad.”

As Putin’s attacks on Ukraine have escalated, so has Kaliningrad’s isolation. The cancellation of the rail link, with Russian Railways also under EU sanctions, leaves it only accessible to Russia via ferry and plane.

[See also: History’s long shadow falls over Russia and Ukraine]

Kaliningraders had previously been accustomed to more access to Europe than other provincial Russians. In 2012, the EU and Russia agreed to allow residents short-term visa-free access to Poland and Lithuania, at least within 50km of the border. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 triggered initial sanctions that offered some opportunities for residents engaged in shuttle trade, but Warsaw suspended the pact in 2016.

Putin has long been happy to remove Kaliningrad’s remaining vestiges of Western links. When local authorities ran a poll on renaming the city’s airport in 2018, and Immanuel Kant – its most famous son – emerged as an early winner, Russian officials slammed the suggestion as unpatriotic.

Although Putin previously promoted the philosopher as a symbol of Kaliningrad, his turn towards Russian revanchist nationalism and imperialism meant that naming the airport after an ethnic German was a non-starter. Kant’s tomb and monument were subsequently defaced – no one was punished.

Putin will certainly further propagandise the sanctions, but it is his regime that has long neglected the region. “Kaliningrad remains highly undeveloped economically even though it’s declared a ‘free economic zone’ and is among the poorer regions of Russia,” Grigas noted.  

The only significant civilian infrastructure investment in recent years – the construction of a football stadium for the 2018 World Cup despite the city’s lack of a major local team – was mired by corruption. It is now sinking into the swamp it was built on.

Rather than invest in Kaliningrad’s economy as it has been cut off from Europe, Putin has militarised it – his strategy has been described as an attempt to create an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” wedged in the EU.

Moscow’s propaganda may aim to portray Kaliningrad as a city facing crisis. Exclaves have suffered from such actions before in east-west conflicts, most notably Berlin, cut off from rail and road links to West Germany by the Soviets in 1948-49. But don’t expect an airlift to alleviate it. In reality, Putin is creating a new East Berlin, walled off from political and economic developments around it. That suits him perfectly well.

[See also: Can Ukraine win the war with Russia?]

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