Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave where tensions intensified

“We demanded the immediate restoration of the transition to Kaliningrad. Otherwise, there will be retaliation. On Tuesday, Russian diplomacy wasn’t getting there four ways: accusing the European Union of encouraging “escalation” in tensions after restrictions were placed on the transit of certain goods through Lithuania to the Kaliningrad enclave as a result of European sanctions against Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine.

What is Kaliningrad?

Kaliningrad is a residential district located between Poland and Lithuania, on the Baltic Sea, a thousand kilometers from Moscow.

Kaliningrad has not always been Russian. Founded in 1255 during the German expansion into Slavic lands, the city’s first name was Königsberg. It was conquered by the Soviets in April 1945, after a fierce battle with the Nazis. The name given to Russia at the Potsdam Conference was changed to honor the Bolshevik revolutionary Mikhail Kalinin. The German population was exiled and replaced by the Russians.

The area, which covers just over 200 square kilometers, has a population of just over a million, and about half of them are in the city of Kaliningrad, the administrative capital of the region of the same name.

Why is Kaliningrad important for Russia?

since 19to In the 19th century, the region served as an economic center for the Germanic and Russian worlds. Since 1996, the region has also been a special economic zone.

The region benefits mainly from its two ice-free ports – Kaliningrad and Baltiysk – and road and rail links to trade with its neighbors.

According to records, Lioudmila Chkrebneva, the ex-wife of Vladimir Putin, was born in Kaliningrad.

Why is the war in Ukraine talked about when Kaliningrad is far from it?

Kaliningrad is first and foremost a Russian military post and an important strategic asset in Europe.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, this Russian enclave found itself alone in enemy territory, surrounded by two NATO and EU member states, Poland and Lithuania.

How do the sanctions affect Kaliningrad?

Since the end of the Second World War, Kaliningrad has come to depend on its neighbors to import food. Everything else comes from Russia. Every year, millions of tons of oil and coal pass through Lithuania to reach Kaliningrad. That’s about 100 trains per month.

In mid-June, Lithuania imposed restrictions on the transit of goods affected by European sanctions from Russian territory by rail to the Kaliningrad region. Among the products in question are metals, cement, alcohol, fertilizers, with the aim of expanding the list later to coal and oil.

For Moscow, these restrictions violate an agreement between Russia and the EU signed in 2002 when Lithuania joined the European Union. Condemning a “blockade”, Kaliningrad governor Anton Alikhanov estimates that between 40 and 50% of the enclave’s supplies through Lithuania could be affected.

Lithuania, on the other hand, says it only applies European resolutions. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, confirmed that Lithuania’s “innocence” and work will be done to verify Russian knowledge of the 2002 agreements.

Military tensions add to the picture

The region has an important military tradition, serving as a fort during the two world wars and a defensive stronghold during the Cold War. Faced with the expansion of NATO, Moscow strengthened its military presence in Kaliningrad and organized particularly large maneuvers. In 2017, for example, these maneuvers resulted in the strengthening of the border on the Lithuanian side and frequent helicopter surveillance of freight trains between Russia and the residential area.

Nuclear missiles and S-400 air defense systems have been installed here in recent years. In February 2022, Russia placed hypersonic missiles there just before its troops entered Ukraine.

This is also where the headquarters of the Russian Baltic Fleet is located.

Russia’s favorite Lithuania?

Russia knows how to use its “negotiating arms”: by blocking ports in Ukraine and thus the world’s foodstuffs (mainly wheat and sunflower), it creates a famine of an seldom known magnitude.

Also, the head of the Moscow Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, threatened Lithuania with “serious consequences” in the “near future”. This is not to reassure the European Union, which is calling for a “diplomatic solution”.