Kaliningrad: NATO-encircled Russian exclave could be ‘trigger point for greater disaster’ | World | News

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Nestled behind NATO lines at the heart of Eastern Europe, Kaliningrad’s unique geography makes it a strategically invaluable asset to the Kremlin. Of an area similar to that of Belgium, the region – or “oblast” – is the most westerly in all of Russia. Severed from the mainland, it lies 300 miles from Russia’s European border and 800 miles from Moscow. Sandwiched on land between two NATO and European Union (EU) members – Poland to the south and Lithuania to the north – on its western shore crashes the Baltic Sea, a body of water that has recently acquired the nickname of “NATO lake”. While this small pocket of Russia is home to just under a million inhabitants, its naval and territorial firepower packs a far bigger punch – the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs claiming it “notorious for being the most heavy-militarised region in Europe.” Since the “special military operation” in Ukraine began, Kaliningrad has gone from being a minor concern for the West to the potential flashpoint of World War 3.

Stranded

“If the citizens of the Russian Federation are unhappy with the decisions of the regime they are living under and the consequences of these decisions, they have the power to change it,” Urmas Reinsalu, the Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs, told Express.co.uk.

On September 19, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland began barring entry to all Russians travelling on Schengen visas. Last Friday, Finland followed suit. As external border states of the EU and the passport-free Schengen area, the move essentially closed Europe to Russian tourists.

Mr Reinsalu added: “As the people of Ukraine are being tortured, murdered and terrorised, the citizens of the aggressor state should not be able to enjoy the benefits of the free world.”

Residents of Kaliningrad now have nowhere to go except mainland Russia. To date, they remain able to secure simplified travel documents that allow them to transit through Lithuania within a 24-hour period, most often by train – but friction is increasing.

Vladimir Putin eyes NATO near Kaliningrad

Kaliningrad was seen as the potential flashpoint for a full-scale war between Russia and NATO (Image: GETTY)

Kaliningrad on the map of Europe

Where is Kaliningrad and why is it so important to Russia? (Image: EXPRESS)

Raimundas Lopata, a Member of the Lithuanian parliament, told Express.co.uk: “What concerns cars, considering the restrictions put in place just recently, that are travelling right now, there are some problems for Russians. It’s not so easy to cross Lithuania or to go in.”

Flying between Moscow and Kaliningrad remains possible, but the ban on Russian aircraft from EU airspace means flights must circle over the Baltic, making them 40 minutes longer than they used to be.

Speaking to Russian news agency Interfax in late September, spokesperson for the region’s governor Dmitry Lyskov said: “The Baltic countries’ decision to shut themselves from Russian citizens is extremely strange. Lithuania is once again trying to restrict Russians’ travel to its territory.”

Not for the first time over the past seven months, the people of Kaliningrad were collateral in a grander geopolitical conflict.

NATO forces in the Suwalki Gap

NATO forces gathered for a joint conference on July 7th in the Suwalki Gap area (Image: GETTY)

“We have to look at Kaliningrad quite seriously as a potential trigger point for an even greater disaster than we already have in Europe at the moment,” said Stefan Wolff, professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham, during a recent panel discussion held by the Centre for Geopolitics.

Russia cited NATO’s eastward expansion as a pretext for its invasion of Ukraine – an act that would prove a self-fulfilling prophecy. As of October, only Hungary and Turkey remain yet to ratify Sweden and Finland’s accession into the Alliance. 

The Baltic Sea is more geopolitically unified than ever before – Kaliningrad, together with the Russian coastline giving onto the Gulf of Finland surrounding St Petersburg, being the only areas outside of NATO influence.

On land, fears of escalation reached fever pitch this summer over what is known as the Suwalki Gap. According to Western military planners, Putin could all too easily annex the Baltic states by occupying the area surrounding the 65-mile stretch of Polish-Lithuanian border separating Kaliningrad from Belarus, cutting them off from NATO reinforcements. 

NATO considers the area important enough to have positioned the US-led Enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup in Orzysz, Poland, just a two-hour drive from the Lithuanian border. 

“Kaliningrad from a Russian perspective now acquires even more importance because it is what has been referred to quite frequently in the past almost like an unsinkable aircraft carrier that Russia has in the middle of what is now clearly a NATO area,” Mr Wolff said.

The Suwalki Gap mapped

The Suwalki Gap is a choke point for NATO forces should they need to send troops to the Baltic (Image: EXPRESS)

Why is Kaliningrad a part of Russia?

At the turn of the 20th century, what we now know as the region of Kaliningrad was the easternmost part of the Kingdom of Prussia, with the city of Konigsberg at its centre.

After the Nazi’s defeat in the Second World War, in August 1945 the Allies carved up the map of Europe in the Potsdam Agreement. Konigsberg and the surrounding area were ceded to the Soviet Union – both promptly being renamed in honour of Bolshevik revolutionary Mikhail Kalinin.

The half-a-million German inhabitants either fled or were expelled to East Germany to be replaced by Soviet settlers. By 1946 around 200,000 Russians had migrated to the region expecting a European standard of living – only to find a land devastated by war. By 1950, roughly a third had returned to their homeland. It would be four decades before the region got back up to its pre-war population.

As the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991 and the Lithuanian and Belorussian republics achieved independence, Kaliningrad Oblast found itself stranded – cut off from the Russian heartland yet unallowed to rule itself. Propped up by the Cold War military industry, the region’s economy collapsed in turn.

However, following the eastern enlargement of the EU and increased assertiveness by NATO, things changed under Russian president Vladimir Putin’s watch. According to the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for over a decade Moscow has been fortifying Kaliningrad into a military stronghold in the Baltic Sea region.

Kaliningrad harbour

The city centre of Kaliningrad still shows traces of its German roots in its architecture (Image: GETTY)

Military

Russia’s Baltic Fleet is headquartered in the city of Kaliningrad, and has its main base in nearby Baltiysk – the westernmost town in all of Russia. It is the Federation’s only Baltic port that remains ice-free year-round.

Felix Chang, senior fellow at Foreign Policy Research Institute, said: “Strategically, Russian military forces stationed in Kaliningrad are well positioned to threaten shipping through the Baltic Sea and the narrow land route between much of NATO and its Baltic member states.” 

However, Mr Chang believes the most important elements of the Russian military presence in Kaliningrad to be on land. Throughout the past decade, the Kremlin has been upgrading equipment in the region at pace – sending submarines, troops and aircraft. “Perhaps most significantly, Moscow has added a number of new air-defence, cruise, and ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad’s arsenal,” Mr Chang said.

Troop numbers have also been bolstered by the addition of the 152nd Guards Missile Brigade – a regiment equipped with 12 mobile transporter erector launchers, each capable of firing two Iskander ballistic missiles. With a range of up to 250 miles, these missiles are capable of delivering nuclear warheads.

Although Russia has never officially admitted to having nuclear and hypersonic weapons in Kaliningrad, they are widely believed to be deployed there. Back in April, Lithuanian Defence Minister Arvydas Anusauskas told state media: “Nuclear weapons have always been kept in Kaliningrad. The international community and the countries in the region are perfectly aware of this. They use it as a threat.”

Mr Chang believes that even without physically projecting power from Kaliningrad, Russia’s extensive military presence in the region allows it to exert influence deep into Europe. “Thinking about it in terms of naval history, one might see Russia’s current posture as a ‘fleet in being’ – meaning a naval fleet that can exert influence while remaining in port,” the researcher said.

Russian Baltic Fleet on Navy Day

The Baltic Fleet displays its might every year on Russian Navy Day (Image: GETTY)

Demands of the front lines

However, the unexpectedly high toll of the conflict in Ukraine has seen personnel numbers become depleted. Before the war, Russia had around 30,000 airborne and ground troops stationed in the region, according to a publicly released assessment by the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service. European defence officials in the region claim as much as 80 percent of these have been redeployed to Ukrainian front lines.

The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs cautioned this development by saying: “Whereas at this point the significant part of forces from Kaliningrad are engaged in Ukraine, in the medium-term they will come back, and due to the battlefield experience gained there, they could become even more dangerous to regional stability.”

Nevertheless, Raimundas Lopata, who also sits on Lithuania’s Committee for National Security and Defence, suspects the demands on the people of Kaliningrad may lead to public unrest – especially in the wake of Putin’s calling-up of 300,000 reservists on September 21 in a move unprecedented since the Second World War.

Since, protests against the draft have led to violent clashes with police as thousands of Russian men sought to flee the country, resulting in miles-long queues at the Georgian border. Last Friday, a ceremony was held at Chkalovsk airfield to mark the mobilisation of the first 150 conscripts from Kaliningrad.

Mr Lopata told  Express.co.uk: “We know the process of mobilisation raised some fears among the citizens, but what concerns the consequences of that fear are at the moment unclear.”

Vladimir Putin and Anton Alikhnov

Putin met with Kaliningrad regional governor Anton Alikhanov in early September (Image: GETTY)

Consequences for the home front

For nearly 20 years, goods and people have flowed freely between Kaliningrad and Russia, thanks to transit agreements allowing Lithuania to be crossed by road or rail. 

In response to Putin’s invasion, in concert with Western allies, the EU imposed a raft of sanctions on Russian exports. Just under half of all the goods usually transiting through Lithuania in roughly a hundred train journeys a month – from coal to metals, building materials, oil and advanced technology – became covered by bans. As Lithuania began enforcing them, Kaliningrad’s economy collapsed.

“We consider this to be a most serious violation of the right to free transit into and out of Kaliningrad region,” said the region’s governor Anton Alikhanov in June, according to Reuters.

In July, the European Commission updated its guidance to allow Russia to transport essential goods to and from Kaliningrad via Lithuania by rail only. Freight transit promptly resumed, but to this day hangs by a thread.

According to LTG Cargo, the Lithuanian state rail company responsible, in September the total volume of freight transported paid for by Russian and Belarusian companies decreased significantly.

In light of the recent visa restrictions imposed on Russians, the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “Our focus is on raising the cost of war for Russia and aiding Ukraine which has been protecting its sovereignty for more than seven months now.”

In 2019, the Kaliningrad region received around 200,000 foreign visitors, principally from Poland, thanks to a streamlined e-visa system introduced in July of that year. 

Not only are Russians banned from visiting the neighbouring states of Poland and Lithuania, but the e-visa scheme for foreign nationals has been suspended, causing tourism levels to the exclave to plummet.

Train transiting through Lithuania

Russians must stay on the train all the way through Belarus and Lithuania while in transit (Image: GETTY)



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