In the wake of Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea, many wonder just how much farther Putin’s western expansionism will go. But the Ukrainian peninsula isn’t Russia’s strongest foothold in Europe — Kaliningrad is.
Sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland, Kaliningrad encompasses 8,301 square miles of Russian territory and is home to a million Russian citizens. It’s 300 miles from Berlin but nearly 700 miles away from Moscow.
Russia’s forgotten westernmost state was part of East Prussia for 700 years until, at the end of World War II, the Soviets launched an invasion in which they killed or expelled many of the area’s German citizens. And then they officially claimed the area for themselves at the Potsdam Conference.
Kaliningrad – 8,301 square miles of Russian territory sandwiched between EU members Poland and Lithuania. Home to one million Russian citizens.
During the Cold War, Kaliningrad was Europe’s most militarized area, but it was geographically separated from the rest of Russia when the Iron Curtain lifted. And now that Lithuania and Poland have joined NATO and the EU, Kaliningrad is even more isolated from Mother Russia.
Kaliningrad’s peculiar location has left it with a mixed identity. It feels like a Baltic country, but Russian is its official language. And unlike other Baltic states, the majority of the population, at 86 percent, is ethnically Russian. There are also smaller groups of Ukrainians, Belarusians and Lithuanians.
But this somewhat mysterious exclave is much more than a throwback to a Soviet heyday. Before the economic crisis, Kaliningrad’s GDP was growing by an average of 10 percent a year — faster than any other region in Russia — leading Moscow to hail it as “the Russian Hong Kong.”
What’s behind the economic success? Designated as a Special Economic Zone by Russia in 1996, Kaliningrad was given generous tax and customs-duty breaks on the goods it sent back to the mainland, which helped transform it into a manufacturing hub, home to major automotive plants like Cadillac, Hummer and BMW.
Plus, given its coastal location, Kaliningrad has major shipping and fishing industries — not to mention that the small region also happens to be the world’s largest producer of amber.
Today, after years of seclusion, Kaliningrad is trying to develop a tourism industry, with attractions like the Immanuel Kant Museum — the renowned philosopher is a native son — and the Amber Museum. But it’s a struggle to draw tourists when flights from Europe are so expensive.
And now the crisis in Ukraine has thrown a spotlight on Kaliningrad’s geopolitical importance — while casting a chill over Lithuania and Poland, both of which are historically enemies of the former Soviet Union.
Much to Europe’s chagrin, Kaliningrad would make a good missile launchpad for Russia.
Gone are the days when the USSR had 100,000 troops stationed in the region, but Kaliningrad is still the base of Russia’s powerful Baltic Fleet — consisting of 56 warships, two submarines and at least 3,500 troops. And just outside the capital is the town of Baltiysk, the country’s Baltic seaport. Much to Europe’s chagrin, Kaliningrad would make a good missile launchpad for Russia. In 2007, Moscow threatened to put nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad in response to U.S. threats to position missile defense systems in Poland.
While nuclear warheads were never deployed, fears still persist. Back in March, both Lithuania and Poland viewed Russian military exercises that were held on Kaliningrad’s bordering lands as an act of intimidation.
If tensions continue to flare over Russia’s moves in Ukraine, Europe may need to keep a watchful eye on its own backyard.
Why you should care
Because Russia had territory inside Europe way before Putin took Crimea, and Europeans need to remember who’s already at their doorstep.