by Gabriel Gavin
Wednesday, 29
June 2022
Analysis
07:00

Kaliningrad: the most dangerous place on earth

Russia's enclave would be at the centre of a third world war
by Gabriel Gavin
Looking for Nato warships. Credit: VLADIMIR RODIONOV/ITAR-TASS/AFP via Getty Images

Outside the city of Kaliningrad lies the ruined Fort of Friedrich Wilhelm III. Once a jewel in the crown of German Prussia, it was captured by the advancing Red Army in 1945, weeks before they took Berlin. 

Now, Kaliningrad is once again taking centre stage as a war rages in Eastern Europe. Annexed at the end of WWII, the exclave — slightly larger than Northern Ireland and home to nearly a million people — is surrounded by NATO nations and cut off from the rest of Russia. Last week, Lithuania announced it had begun blocking trains that pass through its territory carrying sanctioned goods to the region, specifically construction materials and certain types of industrial machinery.

In response, President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, accused Vilnius of orchestrating a “blockade,” despite the fact air and sea routes are still open, while locals have scrambled to strip the shelves of everything from tinned goods to bags of cement. “We are preparing for the worst,” the Kremlin spokesman warned.

The rhetoric has only grown more belligerent. Accusing the West of trying to take Kaliningrad for itself, Russian senator Vladimir Dzhabarov warned its neighbours, Lithuania and Poland, would be first “to fall into the meat grinder.” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is now accusing the EU and NATO of “preparing a coalition for war with Russia.”

Likely acting on orders from on high, on Monday state-linked hacker group Killnet claimed responsibility for a slew of attacks on Lithuanian companies and government departments. “The attack will continue until Lithuania lifts the blockade,” a spokesman for the shadowy outfit said. “We have taken down 1,652 web resources. And that’s just so far.”

Home to both the Russian Navy’s Baltic Sea fleet and to legions of spies and signals intelligence units, Kaliningrad is an acutely sensitive region for Putin. Increasingly isolated from the rest of Europe since the start of the invasion of Ukraine, his economic strategy has been to become more self-reliant. But that’s far harder in an exclave dependent on imports that first pass through the EU. For those who believe their foes want to break up Russia, it would seem an obvious weak spot.

From the start of the so-called “special operation”, Putin has insisted the war is a defensive one, designed to protect his citizens from NATO. He and his top officials have spared no clichés in comparing their attack on Ukraine to the defence of the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany.

“When WWII started, Hitler gathered a significant number – if not the majority – of European countries under his flag in order to wage war on the USSR,” Lavrov claimed last week

In reality though, no serious party disputes Moscow’s sovereignty over Kaliningrad. 

That hasn’t stopped Moscow from stepping up its military presence in the area. The Suwałki Gap, a stretch of Lithuanian territory that offers the shortest route between Kaliningrad and Russia’s close ally, Belarus, has long been thought to be the most obvious point of attack if Putin was looking to form a land bridge to the exclave. In the event of a conflict with the West, the 60-mile strip would quickly become the most dangerous place on earth. 

NATO, however, knows this, and has been rehearsing its defensive plans for years — likely with greater urgency since February. Given Russia’s dismal performance on the battlefield in Ukraine, NATO commanders are likely to be confident about their prospects.

The risk of a conventional attack might seem slim, but, Moscow used it over the weekend as a pretext to furnish Belarus with nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles that could strike targets well into Poland and the Baltic nations. The result is an Eastern Europe that is more tense, and more heavily-armed, than at any point since the fall of Communism.

The row may not ultimately be the spark that ignites a new World War, but for those bunkered down in Kaliningrad, it probably feels like the last one never really ended.

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Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

“When WWII started, Hitler gathered a significant number – if not the majority – of European countries under his flag in order to wage war on the USSR,” Lavrov claimed last week.
So he’s forgotten the bit about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (critically supplying Germany with fuel and essential raw materials for war industries) and the joint German and USSR invasion of Poland that kicked off WWII. Or the USSR invading and enslaving the Baltic States.
Taking any Russian government statement at face value is foolish. When the Russians stop lying about their history, we might take their utterances seriously.

William Adams
William Adams
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Indeed, the Russians are very selective on the history of WW2.

Chris W
Chris W
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Presumably those sorts of statements are for domestic consumption? Surely Russian civilians can’t be so ignorant of WWII history given its cultural importance in Russia? Or is this sort of collaboration with the Nazis not discussed during Russian education?

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Chris W

Well, the USSR spent 70 years lying to its own people about its history and just about everything else. Talk to people educated behind the Iron Curtain and they have a very confused understanding of history. I doubt this has chnaged much for most in Russia. But little first hand data, so happy to hear from those who have.
I suspect that most Russians would be surprised to learn that the Red Army drove to Berlin in mainly American trucks.
It would also be hard to understand why the Poles hate them so much if you cannot be honest about 1939 or the Katyn massacre.
Bear in mind also that China is currently rewriting the history books to remove the colonial (British) period in Hong Kong …

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Concerning the Poles; to 1939 and Katyn should be added 1944, and the period 1945 to 1989. (For brevity, I omit anything before 1939.)

Louis Pereira
Louis Pereira
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

The Americans are also removing monuments and historic buildings from the Dixie-South attempting to rewrite history and teach their citizens a new view of the Ante Bellum America. Pre civil war.

Chris W
Chris W
1 month ago
Reply to  Louis Pereira

I think its pretty safe to say that removing monuments etc is quite different indeed from removing history from public record.

Tony Price
Tony Price
1 month ago
Reply to  Chris W

I once (4 years ago or so) had a very brief discussion of this with a lady from Ukraine (brief because I thought it best to avoid the subject in the interested of diplomacy as she was a client) who said that the USSR invaded Poland in 1939 to ‘secure its own borders’. Presumably the version of history taught in Russian schools, and very much the same as now used as the reason behind the Ukrainian invasion.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 month ago
Reply to  Tony Price

In the West most of us a fairly ignorant about the internal affairs of other countries so propaganda is fairy easy to instil in an authoritarian system. About 30 years ago I lent a book on the the social benefits system and what was available in the UK to a Czech friend over here and she in turn lent it to a Russian whose only comment was that it was not believable and could only be propaganda as no capitalist country would provide such benefits.
I also remember being told by a US acquaintance that England must be continuing to hold Northern Ireland to exploit its people and didn’t believe it was kept going by substantial subsidies from the mainland or that there was not some obscure strategic motive for not freeing the Northern Irish to join the Irish Republic and she was not even of Irish extraction.

Last edited 1 month ago by Jeremy Bray
Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

I’ll correct the statement:
“When WWII started, Hitler conspired with the USSR in order to wage war on the majority of European countries, starting with Poland.”

Last edited 1 month ago by Colin Elliott
Louis Pereira
Louis Pereira
1 month ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

Why did the west arm the USSR then? To conduct war against Europe? Was Stalin better looking than Hitler?

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

 Accusing the West of trying to take Kaliningrad for itself”.
Russia stole it from Germany after WWII. There was nothing Russian about it before 1945.
We can see the same sort of thing happening in Donbas – the pro-Russian Ukrainians are getting killed off in the fighting, the pro-Ukrain Ukrainians will all leave. The cities and industry will all be destroyed. Russia will then move in and colonise the ruins (as with Kaliningrad). What’s the Russian for “ethnic cleansing” ?

Graham Dawson
Graham Dawson
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Russia stole it from Germany after WWII. There was nothing Russian about it before 1945.
Quite so. Kaliningrad used to be Konigsburg and was the birthplace of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
1 month ago
Reply to  Graham Dawson

Indeed. It was a great centre of German culture. Hitler couldn’t have serve the Germans worse if he had tried.

Art C
Art C
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Russia also stole large tracts of territory from Poland, Romania & Hungary & picked up smaller bits from countries like Czechoslovakia & Bulgaria. Immediately post-war, the Russians also conducted the largest ethnic cleansing operation in history across Eastern Europe, Some 15 to 17 million people of “German” origin (a German sounding surname, or simplya denunciation by a neighbor was enough to qualify one) were forcibly expelled or simply murdered.

Lindsay Jenkins
Lindsay Jenkins
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Indeed. Even before the war ended the Soviet Union invaded Konigsburg. All two and a quarter million Konigsburgers fled west, many swimming three major rivers and a significant number died in the attempt. Their land, houses, property was taken by Russians.

Al N
Al N
1 month ago

The EU could set up the Kalingrad Protocol to keep trade moving….
They are good at this sort of thing.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 month ago
Reply to  Al N

Let’s just hope they don’t try to import sausages!

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
1 month ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

Or a cheese sandwich.

martin logan
martin logan
1 month ago

This is Putin’s own fault.
By creating frozen conflicts on his border, and intervening further afield in Syria, Libya and sub-Saharan Africa, he’s spread Russia’s power far too thinly.
Now even small powers like Lithuania and Norway (which is blockading Russians in the Svalbard region) can make things very difficult for Russia. The fate of South Ossetia and Transnistria is once more in question. Even with Kaliningrad/Koenigsburg, just what happens when/if Putin goes is a real question.
This is all the result of an essentially very poor country trying to pretend it is still a super-power.
It didn’t work for Spain in the 17th C, and probably won’t work for Putin in the 21st.

Last edited 1 month ago by Martin Logan