Why Kaliningrad, Russia’s stronghold in Europe, could be the next flashpoint in its war against Ukraine

Russia reacted violently to Lithuania’s ban on the import of sanctioned goods through its territory and into Kaliningrad. But Lithuania says it simply supports the European Union’s sanctions, and the European bloc has supported it.

Now the scandal threatens to escalate tensions between Moscow and the EU, which has unveiled several packages of sanctions against Russian goods.

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

Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, experts have feared that Kaliningrad could become a hotbed of tension between Moscow and Europe.

This is the westernmost territory of Russia and the only part of the country surrounded by EU states; Lithuania stands between it and Belarus, an ally of Russia, and Poland borders on it in the south.

On Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the move was unprecedented and that Russia considered it illegal. “Of course, this is part of the blockade,” he said. Other Russian officials threatened to retaliate.

Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, said: “Russia will definitely respond to such hostile actions. Measures are being worked out in an interdepartmental format and will be adopted in the near future. Their consequences will have serious negative consequences. impact on the population of Lithuania,” according to the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.

Sub-sanctioned products banned from import into Russia by the European Union include construction machinery, machine tools and other industrial equipment, the Russian state news agency TASS reports, citing the Ministry of Economic Development. Some luxury items are also included.

Lithuania has not imposed “unilateral, individual or additional” restrictions, the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Monday.

Charge d’Affaires of Lithuania in Moscow was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday and stated that in the event of incomplete restoration of cargo transit to the Kaliningrad region, Russia reserves the right to take actions in defense of its national interests.

But the EU, whose sanctions Lithuania applies by blocking transit, supported its member state.

Photographs of Russia's war in Ukraine are displayed along the railway station, which carries trains from Moscow to Kaliningrad, in protest of Lithuanians against the invasion.

In a conversation with Reuters, Dmitry Lyskov, a spokesman for the regional government, was forced to urge residents not to panic and buy in response to the spat.

Sub-sanctioned products will now have to be delivered by sea. Lithuanian official Rolandas Kachinskas said Tuesday that “the transit of passengers and goods not subject to EU sanctions to the Kaliningrad region through the territory of Lithuania continues uninterrupted. [Lithuania] has not introduced any unilateral, individual or additional restrictions on transit and operates in full compliance with EU law.”

What is Kaliningrad?

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

For decades it has been heavily militarized region, closed to foreigners. But in recent years, Kaliningrad has become a popular tourist destination and hosted the 2018 FIFA World Cup matches in Russia.

The population is about a million people, most of whom live in or near the capital of the same name. The exclave is one of the most prosperous regions of Russia with a developed industry. Its port, Baltiysk, is the westernmost harbor in Russia and, importantly, does not freeze throughout the year.

The streets of the main city are dotted with stately examples of old German architecture and grim concrete Soviet-era apartment buildings.

Kaliningrad on the eve of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, thanks to which the region has become the largest international cultural venue to date.

But the significance of Kaliningrad is mainly due to where it is located on the map. A thin strip of land south of Kaliningrad separates it from Belarus and connects the territory of Poland and Lithuania. Known as the Suwalki Gap or the Gap, it is the only land link between the Baltic States and the rest of the European Union.

Kaliningrad is also the headquarters of the Russian Baltic Fleet. On Monday, RIA Novosti reported that the fleet had begun a previously planned missile and artillery exercise, saying that “about 1,000 military personnel 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 prior to the accession of Poland and Lithuania to the European Union in 2004. When these countries joined, the exclave was surrounded on three sides by EU territory. Russia says the 2002 agreement is now broken.

Nuclear presence?

The importance of Kaliningrad for Russia has increased even more in connection with the planned entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO. Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s National Security Council, said in May that the accession plans meant that “there is no more talk of any non-nuclear status for the Baltic states – the balance must be restored.”

Russia has long objected to the presence of NATO countries around Kaliningrad. “They moved the NATO infrastructure to our borders,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. told CNN in 2015after reports that Russia deployed Iskander missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads to the region. “And it’s 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 has significantly upgraded a nuclear weapons storage bunker in the region based on analysis of satellite imagery.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Lithuania called on NATO to increase the number of troops on its territory. In April, President Gitanas Nauseda said that the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence battalion should be converted “at a minimum” into a brigade and called for strengthening the Suwalki Gap.