It is closer to Berlin than St. Petersburg, the former royal capital of Prussia, which was only annexed by the Soviet Union after World War II. Kaliningrad, former Koenigsberg, Russiathe westernmost spur of Russia and the base of the Baltic Fleet. The city’s mixture of influences is evident on its main thoroughfare, Leninsky Prospekt, where a former stock exchange has been turned into a communist “Palace of Culture”. Construction of the House of Soviets, a well-known brutalist building, began shortly after the town’s castle was demolished in 1968; it was never completed.
Until recently, Leninsky Prospekt was home to the Kalinin Express diner, named after Stalin’s longtime associate Mikhail Kalinin and the city’s current namesake, and the Masonic-inspired Obama Pizza restaurant. East meets west, a la Insert.
Cut off from mainland Russia Lithuania as well as PolandKaliningrad is now facing the severe consequences of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the diplomatic and economic backlash from its neighbors, who are both members EU – as well as NATO.
On June 17, the governor of the Kaliningrad region announced that Lithuania would start imposing a ban on the transit of sanctioned goods the next day and warned against panic buying, which was an immediate result. Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev threatened to retaliate with “serious negative consequences for the population of Lithuania.”
The Kremlin criticized Lithuania’s actions 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 passengers and unauthorized goods could still transit.
Vilnius played an important role in responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In May, lawmakers unanimously supported a resolution calling the Kremlin a terrorist actor, claiming it seeks to commit genocide against Ukrainians and calling for the creation of a Nuremberg-style criminal court to try members of the Putin regime.
In Lithuania, the memories of Soviet rule and occupation are very vivid, especially the “January events” when Soviet troops tried to suppress the republic’s declaration of independence in 1991 by killing 14 protesters. The continued vilification of Lithuanian sovereignty by the Putin regime over the following decades has convinced this. In early June, a deputy from Putin’s ruling United Russia party submitted a resolution calling for the repeal of Mikhail Gorbachev’s September 1991 recognition of Lithuania’s independence.
Lithuania has also been subject to repeated Russian cyberattacks, espionage against its defenses and political establishment, and its banks infiltrated with suspected Russian assets, issues that also affect its Baltic neighbors.
But the ethnic Russian minority in Lithuania is much smaller than in Latvia and Estonia, about 5% of the population versus about 25% in the latter two. In contrast, there is no significant pro-Russian party in parliament, which ensures political cohesion around resistance to Putin’s imperialism.
Lithuania was particularly concerned about Russian pressure through energy channels – it was the first former Soviet republic to start building a terminal for the import of liquefied natural gas – and in May stopped importing all remaining energy resources. This plan was on the agenda even before Putin’s invasion after Lithuania considered 2020 launch about a new Russian-built nuclear power plant near Astravets, Belarus, unsafe, warning of the risk of another Chernobyl just 40 kilometers from Vilnius.
This was announced by Agniya Grigas, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, specializing in geopolitical economics. New statesman: “Apart from the transit of goods and Russian citizens and military personnel, there are few economic ties between Lithuania and Kaliningrad.”
As Putin’s attacks on Ukraine have escalated, so has the isolation of Kaliningrad. The cancellation of the rail service, as Russian Railways is also under EU sanctions, leaves it only accessible to Russia by ferry and plane.
Kaliningraders used to have more access to Europe than other provincial Russians. In 2012, the EU and Russia agreed to allow residents short-term visa-free entry to Poland and Lithuania, at least within 50 km of the border. Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine triggered initial sanctions that opened up some opportunities for shuttle trade residents, but Warsaw suspended the treaty in 2016.
Putin has long been happy to get rid of the remnants of the western ties of the Kaliningrad region. When local authorities held a poll to rename the city’s airport in 2018, and Immanuel Kant — his most famous son — was one of the first winners, Russian officials called the proposal unpatriotic.
Although Putin had previously promoted the philosopher as a symbol of Kaliningrad, his turn to Russian revanchist nationalism and imperialism meant that naming the airport after an ethnic German was unsuccessful. The grave and monument of Kant were subsequently desecrated – no one was punished.
Putin will certainly continue to promote sanctions, but it is his regime that has long bypassed the region. “Kaliningrad remains extremely underdeveloped economically, despite the fact that it has been declared a “free economic zone” and belongs to the poorest regions of Russia,” Grigas said.
The only major 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 — is mired in corruption. It is now sinking in the swamp on which it was built.
Instead of investing in Kaliningrad’s economy cut off from Europe, Putin militarized it – his strategy was described as an attempt to create an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” that wedged into the EU.
Moscow’s propaganda may be aimed at portraying Kaliningrad as a city in crisis. The exclaves had suffered from such actions before in the conflicts between east and west, especially in Berlin, which was cut off by the Soviets from railways and roads with West Germany in 1948-49. But don’t expect air travel to make things easier. In fact, Putin is creating a new East Berlin, fenced off by a wall from the political and economic events around him. This suits him just fine.