IN MAY, AS As part of a naval exercise, more than 100 Russian soldiers in Kaliningrad pretended to fire nuclear rockets at imaginary enemy positions in Europe. Russia often uses the exclave to threaten Europe. Unlike many ports in the country, it remains ice-free all year round and is home to its Baltic Fleet. Sweden fears a naval attack from Kaliningrad on Gotland, an island in the Baltic Sea. NATO fears that Russia will invade Poland and Lithuania to create a land corridor between the territory and Belarus. But in case of war with NATO, the exclave could cause problems for Russia. How did he come to control Kaliningrad, and is that an asset or a liability?
Kaliningrad is a “natural buffer zone” that is Russia’s first line of defense from the West, says Jonas Kjellen, an analyst at FOI, the Swedish state defense and research agency. It is dotted with radar systems that provide aerial surveillance of central Europe. In 2012 it was equipped with the S-400, a long-range missile defense system. In 2016, Russia sent a short-range Iskander missile system to Kaliningrad, placing nuclear warheads uncomfortably close to European cities. The Kremlin said the move was necessary to counter a growing US military presence in the region.
Kaliningrad is roughly the size of Northern Ireland (see map). The port was founded in 1255 by the Teutonic Knights, a Christian military order. As Königsberg, the commercial capital of East Prussia, it prospered for centuries. It produced the philosophers Immanuel Kant and Hannah Arendt, and ETA Hoffmann, the author of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”. At the end of World War II, Germany lost the territory to the Soviet Union. It was resettled with Russians and Belarusians and renamed in honor of Mikhail Kalinin, a Bolshevik politician. When the Baltic republics gained independence in 1991, the territory and its 950,000 people were cut off from the rest of Russia. A separatist movement has never gained ground; after protests in 2010 against Kremlin gubernatorial candidates, Russia cracked down on local media and civil society.
But in the event of war, the privileged situation of the territory between NATO members leaves little room for Russian forces to disperse. Kaliningrad would also be difficult to resupply. There is probably no part of Russia that is more closely watched by Western spies, believes Michael Kofman, director of the Russian studies program at NAC, an American think tank. Russia could hit European targets with long-range missiles without relying on the exclave. If and when Sweden and Finland join NATO, Kaliningrad will find itself surrounded by alliance members. Mr Kjellen warns he could become the ‘closest point of interaction’ between NATO military and Russia. “If an incident were to occur, it would most likely be in the Baltic Sea,” he said.
Despite attempts by the Russian government to boost the enclave’s economy, Kaliningrad has struggled in recent decades. Financial aid and tax incentives for foreign investment granted in 1996 were insufficient to support a declining industrial economy. The war in Ukraine led to Western sanctions and soured trade relations with Poles and Lithuanians. Flights to and from the rest of the country have become prohibitively expensive: much of European airspace is closed to Russian carriers and Lithuania has imposed strict conditions for transit passes. Rarely have Kaliningrad residents felt further removed from Russia.