Russia's enclave would be at the centre of a third world war
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.
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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.