What is Kaliningrad and why is Putin creating a new East Berlin?
It is closer to Berlin than Saint Petersburg, the former royal Prussian capital which was not annexed by the Soviet Union until after World War II. Kaliningrad, formerly Königsberg, is Russia’s westernmost branch and the base of its Baltic fleet. The city’s mishmash of influences is evident on its main thoroughfare, Leninsky Prospekt, where the former stock exchange has been transformed into a communist “palace of culture.” Construction of the House of Soviets, a famous Brutalist building, began shortly after the demolition of the city castle in 1968; it was never completed.
Until recently, Leninsky Prospekt was also home to both a Kalinin Express fast food joint, named after longtime Stalin ally Mikhail Kalinin and the city’s current namesake, and an “Obama Pizza” restaurant. , with a Masonic eye. East meets West, Poutine style.
Cut off from the main Russian landmass by Lithuania and Poland, Kaliningrad now faces major ramifications of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the diplomatic and economic response of its neighbours, both members of the EU – and NATO.
On June 17, the Kaliningrad regional governor announced that Lithuania would start applying a transit ban on sanctioned goods the next day and warned against panic buying – which was the immediate result. Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev threatened a response with “serious negative consequences for the Lithuanian people”.
The Kremlin criticized Lithuania’s move as an attempt to blockade the city. But EU officials noted that Vilnius was not acting unilaterally but simply applying bloc-wide sanctions and said unauthorized passengers and goods could still transit.
Vilnius played a leading role in the response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In May, lawmakers unanimously approved a resolution calling the Kremlin a terrorist actor, alleging it sought to commit genocide against Ukrainians and calling for the creation of a Nuremberg-style criminal tribunal to try members. of Putin’s regime.
Memories of Soviet mismanagement and occupation are very vivid in Lithuania, especially the “January events” in which Soviet troops sought to crush the republic’s declaration of independence in 1991, killing 14 protesters . The continued denigration of Lithuanian sovereignty by Putin’s regime in the decades since has assured him. In early June, a deputy from Putin’s ruling United Russia party presented a resolution calling for the cancellation of the recognition of Lithuania’s independence signed in September 1991 by Mikhail Gorbachev.
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Lithuania has also been the repeated target of Russian cyberattacks, espionage against its defense and political establishment, and seen its banks infiltrated with suspected Russian assets, issues that have also plagued its Baltic neighbors.
But the Russian ethnic minority in Lithuania is much smaller than those in Latvia and Estonia, around 5% of the population compared to around 25% in the latter two. Unlike them, there is no significant pro-Russian party in parliament, allowing for political cohesion around resistance to Putin’s imperialism.
Lithuania was particularly concerned about Russian pressure through energy ties – it was the first former Soviet state to start building a liquefied natural gas import terminal – and halted all remaining energy imports in May . The plan was at the top of the agenda even before Putin’s invasion after Lithuania considered the 2020 launch of a dangerous new Russian-built nuclear power plant near Astravets, Belarus, warning of the risk of another Chernobyl just 40 kilometers from Vilnius.
Agnia Grigas, senior researcher specializing in geopolitical economics at the Atlantic Council think tank, told the new statesman“Apart from the transit of goods and Russian citizens and servicemen, there are few economic ties between Lithuania and Kaliningrad.”
As Putin’s attacks on Ukraine have intensified, Kaliningrad’s isolation has also intensified. The cancellation of the rail link, with Russian Railways also under EU sanctions, leaves it accessible to Russia only by ferry and plane.
[See also: History’s long shadow falls over Russia and Ukraine]
Kaliningrad residents were previously used to having more access to Europe than other provincial Russians. In 2012, the EU and Russia agreed to allow short-term residents visa-free access to Poland and Lithuania, at least within 50 km of the border. Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine triggered initial sanctions that provided opportunities for residents engaged in the shuttle trade, but Warsaw suspended the pact in 2016.
Putin has long been happy to remove the remnants of Kaliningrad from Western ties. When local authorities conducted a poll on the city’s airport renaming in 2018 and Immanuel Kant – its most famous son – emerged as an early winner, Russian officials called the suggestion of unpatriotic.
Although Putin had previously promoted the philosopher as a symbol of Kaliningrad, his turn to vengeful Russian nationalism and imperialism meant that naming the airport after an ethnic German was a failure. Kant’s tomb and monument were then defaced – no one was punished.
Putin will certainly continue to propagandize the sanctions, but it is his regime that has long neglected the region. “Kaliningrad remains economically very underdeveloped even though it is declared a ‘free economic zone’ and is among the poorest regions in Russia,” Grigas noted.
The only significant investment in civilian infrastructure in recent years – the construction of a football stadium for the 2018 World Cup despite the absence of a major local team in the city – has been mired in corruption. It now sinks into the swamp on which it was built.
Rather than invest in Kaliningrad’s cut off European economy, Putin has militarized it – his strategy has been described as an attempt to create an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” stuck in the EU.
Moscow propaganda may aim to portray Kaliningrad as a city in crisis. Enclaves have suffered from such actions before in East-West conflicts, notably Berlin, cut off from rail and road links with West Germany by the Soviets in 1948-49. But don’t expect an airlift to mitigate it. In reality, Putin is creating a new East Berlin, isolated from the political and economic developments that surround it. It suits him perfectly.
[See also: As a new Iron Curtain descends, Europe is already irreversibly changed]