Why Kaliningrad, Russia’s stronghold in Europe, could be the next hot spot in its war on Ukraine


Russia reacted with fury after Lithuania banned the passage of sanctioned goods through its territory and Kaliningrad. But Lithuania says it is just upholding European Union sanctions, and the European bloc has backed it.

The row now threatens to escalate tensions between Moscow and the EU, which has unveiled several sanctions packages on Russian products.

Here’s what you need to know about Kaliningrad, its history, and its importance to Russia.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, experts fear Kaliningrad could become a hotbed of tension between Moscow and Europe.

It is the westernmost territory of Russia and the only part of the country surrounded by EU states. Lithuania lies between it and Belarus, an allied nation of Russia, while Poland borders it to the south.

On Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the move was unprecedented and that Russia considers it illegal. « It’s part of a blockade, of course, » he said. Other Russian officials have threatened to react.

Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, said: “Russia will certainly respond to such hostile actions. Measures are being developed in an interdepartmental format and will be taken in the near future. Their consequences will have a serious negative impact. impact on the Lithuanian population », according to the Russian news agency RIA Novosti.

Sanctioned products banned from export to Russian territory by the European Union include construction machinery, machine tools and other industrial equipment, according to Russian news agency TASS, citing the Ministry of Economic Development. Some luxuries are also included.

Lithuania has not imposed « unilateral, individual or additional » restrictions, its foreign ministry said in a statement on Monday.

Lithuania’s charge d’affaires in Moscow was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday and informed that if cargo transit to the Kaliningrad region is not fully restored, Russia reserves the right to take measures to protect its national interests.

But the EU, whose sanctions Lithuania enforces by blocking transit, backed its member state.

Speaking to Reuters, Dmitry Lyskov, a regional government official, was forced to urge residents not to panic in response to the spat.

Sanctioned products will now have to travel by sea. A Lithuanian official, Rolandas Kacinskas, said tuesday that « the transit of passengers and goods not sanctioned by the EU to the Kaliningrad region via Lithuanian territory continues without interruption. [Lithuania] has not imposed any unilateral, individual or additional restrictions on transit and is acting fully in accordance with EU law. »

What is Kaliningrad?

Kaliningrad is a Russian enclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. It was captured by Soviet troops from Nazi Germany in April 1945, then became part of Soviet territory following the Potsdam Agreement. It was renamed from German Königsberg in 1946.

For decades it was a heavily militarized region, closed to outsiders. But in recent years Kaliningrad has become an emerging tourist destination and hosted matches during the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

It has around one million inhabitants, the majority of whom live in or near the capital of the same name. The enclave is one of the most prosperous regions in Russia, with extensive industry. Its port, Baltiysk, is the westernmost port in Russian territory and, significantly, is ice-free all year round.

The streets of the main town are lined with grand examples of old German architecture alongside dark, concrete Soviet buildings.

Kaliningrad in the build-up to the 2018 World Cup, which put the region on its biggest international cultural platform yet.

But the importance of Kaliningrad comes mainly from its location on the map. A thin strip of land south of Kaliningrad separates it from Belarus and connects Polish and Lithuanian territories. Known as the Suwalki Corridor or Gap, it is the only land link between the Baltic States and the rest of the European Union.

Kaliningrad is also the seat of the Russian Baltic Fleet. RIA Novosti reported on Monday that the fleet had started previously planned rocket and artillery drills, saying that « about 1,000 servicemen and more than 100 units of military and special equipment of artillery and missile units are involved in the maneuvers ».

In 2002, the EU and Moscow reached an agreement on travel between Russia and Kaliningrad, before Poland and Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004. When these countries joined, the enclave was surrounded on three sides by EU territory. Russia claims the 2002 agreement has now been breached.

Nuclear presence?

Kaliningrad’s importance has become even greater for Russia with the planned NATO membership of Sweden and Finland. Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s National Security Council, said in May that membership plans meant it « will no longer be possible to talk about a non-nuclear status of the Baltic countries – the balance must be restored « .

Russia has long balked at the presence of NATO countries around Kaliningrad. “They moved NATO infrastructure next to our borders,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told CNN in 2015, after reports that Russia had moved nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to the region. . « And this is not the territory of the United States. »

Russia has not acknowledged that it has nuclear weapons based in Kaliningrad, but in 2018 the Federation of American Scientists concluded that Russia had significantly modernized a nuclear weapons storage bunker in the region, based on analysis of satellite images.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Lithuania has urged NATO to increase the deployment of troops on its territory. In April, President Gitanas Nauseda said NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence Battalion should be upgraded to « at least » brigade size and called for the Suwalki Corridor to be strengthened.

cnn Eur

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