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Explained: Where is Kaliningrad, why is it in focus amid the Russia-Ukraine conflict?

As Russia’s westernmost federal entity, the Kaliningrad Oblast occupies 15,000 sq km and houses under 1 million people. Russia is divided into 85 such oblasts, or states.

New Delhi |
Updated: June 23, 2022 10:41:38 am
Freight cars stand on the railroad tracks of the freight station in Kaliningrad, Russia, Tuesday. (AP)

Written by Jayati Tripathi

As the Russia-Ukraine conflict rages on, the spotlight is on Kaliningrad, Russia’s westernmost region. The region is at the centre of a row after Lithuania decided to ban goods part of EU sanctions from moving through its territory to reach Kaliningrad. Russia wants the ban limited.

Location

As Russia’s westernmost federal entity, the Kaliningrad Oblast occupies 15,000 sq km and houses under 1 million people. Russia is divided into 85 such oblasts, or states. It is situated almost 300-km away from mainland Russia, and shares no borders with it.

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History

The end of the Second World War marked an important milestone in Kaliningrad’s history. The Potsdam Agreement was signed by America, Britain and the former Soviet Union in 1945 in which Kaliningrad, then known as Königsberg, was ceded to Russia. This was done as the Soviet Union, under Stalin, had already taken control of the East Prussian territory due to its strategic geographic location.

Socio-political, economic landscape

Left in ruins after a prolonged siege by the Red Army in April 1945, Kaliningrad transformed from the land of the Teutonic Knights to an industrial and commercial centre dealing in lumber, paper making, fishing among others. Kaliningrad is also connected to the naval base of Baltiysk. Home to the deployment of Moscow’s Iskander missiles and the Russian Baltic Fleet, Kaliningrad has been called the Kremlin’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier”.

A special economic zone with close to no import duties and reduced taxes to facilitate the growth of the economy has been set up in Kaliningrad.

Back in 1947, the German population of Kaliningrad was expelled and thousands of Soviet settlers, primarily from Russia and Belarus, were brought in to repopulate the area, making its ethos a unique one. The city still retains bits of its German past through architectural elements and landmarks such as the grave of philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Though Kaliningrad was closed to foreigners till the fall of the USSR in 1991, its proximity to Europe and its shared borders with two NATO and EU members have meant that it has been exposed to several western influences.

On public holidays and weekends, there is traffic and movement at the border as people travel to the neighbouring countries, with Polish port city Gdansk being a popular destination. Following Putin’s ban on certain western foodstuffs in 2014 as a retaliation to sanctions, several citizens from Kaliningrad make their way to Lithuania and Poland to purchase such commodities, including coveted cheese parmesan and camembert.

Why has Lithuania banned movement of Russian goods?

The state-owned railway company of Lithuania, the LTG, said it would bar the transport of Russian goods to Kaliningrad, adhering to an EU sanctions list including advanced technology, metals, construction materials and coal. This will not impact the flow of passengers and other cargo, such as fuel. Situated on the coast of the Baltic Sea, Kaliningrad, which is the administrative centre of the Kaliningrad Oblast, receives a significant amount of its supplies from routes in Lithuania and Belarus. Governor of Kaliningrad, Anton Alikhanov, said that around half the goods imported by the region would be affected by this.

Earlier in February, Lithuania had closed its airspace to Russian flights headed to Kaliningrad, meaning such planes had to take a longer route over the Baltic Sea.

In response to the ban, Moscow has said, “Russia will certainly respond to such hostile actions. Their consequences will have a serious impact on the population of Lithuania.”

What next?

The Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are worried the war between Russia and Ukraine may spillover into their territory. The 40-mile Suwalki Gap, forging a connection between Kaliningrad and Belarus, is what they are concerned Russia is seeking to lay claim to. Losing the Suwalki Gap would mean the loss of a land corridor to the rest of the NATO countries.

Moreover, Anton Alikhanov voiced concerns saying the ban was “a most serious violation of the right to free transit into and out of Kaliningrad region”. Seeking to pacify citizens, the governor said he would begin talks for more ships and two vessels were already in the process of transporting goods between Saint Petersburg and Kaliningrad.

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