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Why is Kaliningrad so important to Russia?

Benjamin Restle | Monir Ghaedi
June 22, 2022

EU leaders are trying to defuse a row after member state Lithuania blocked transport of some Kaliningrad-bound goods through its territory. But why is Kaliningrad important and what could happen if tensions intensify?

View over water of buildings at the fishing village part of Kaliningrad city
Kaliningrad city is along the Baltic Sea coastImage: Sergei Trofimenko/Zoonar/picture alliance

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Thursday tried to cool tensions over the movement of goods between the Russian mainland and the Kaliningrad exclave, which is wedged between Lithuania and Poland. EU sanctions against Moscow should not apply to the goods Russia wants to send to its territory through Lithuania, Scholz argued.

In mid-June, Lithuania began blocking goods banned under EU anti-Russia sanctions from being transported through its territory to Russia's Kaliningrad exclave. Prohibited items include coal, metals and construction materials. A few days later, video footage showed some panic buying at Kaliningrad’s construction supply stores.

In April, the EU, had banned 21 Russian airlines from operating in the 27-member bloc, preventing goods from being flown into Kaliningrad as well.

Russia's foreign ministry blasted the ban as "openly hostile" and demanded that transit through the region be restored immediately. Russian TASS news agency reported that the transport of food has also been blocked. Moscow warned that Lithuania may face measures of "serious negative impact" in response. Lithuania, however, said it was merely fulfilling its responsibilities as an EU memberby implementing sanctions imposed on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine

Where is Kaliningrad?

Sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania — both of which are European Union and NATO members — Kaliningrad lies on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea.

Kaliningrad is Russia's westernmost region, or oblast. It is an exclave, meaning it shares no borders with mainland Russia. It spans an area of 15,000 square kilometers (5,830 square miles — about a fifth of Lithuania’s size), and has a population of roughly a million. Its capital is the eponymous city of Kaliningrad, where about half of the population lives.

The exclave receives much of its supplies via rail through Lithuania and Belarus, but a sea route of about 1,057 kilometres (about 657 miles) connects its port to the port of St. Petersburg through international waters.

Map of Kaliningrad, Lithuania, Belarus and Russia EN

Why does Kaliningrad belong to Russia?

The area of present-day Kaliningrad used to be part of the Kingdom of Prussia, and had a mixed Polish, Lithuanian and German-speaking population. After the defeat of Nazi Germany at the end of World War II, the territory was ceded to Soviet Russia. Its main city, known in German times as Königsberg, was renamed Kaliningrad — the same name given to the entire area.

After the collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union, Kaliningrad became part of Russia.

Why is Kaliningrad important to Russia?

After the Cold War, Moscow tried to turn Kaliningrad into a “Baltic Hong Kong.” It operates as a special duty-free zone with low taxes, meant to attract investment.

More importantly, it is Russia's only port on the Baltic Sea that is ice-free year-round, and the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet is based there.

Russia also holds nuclear missiles in Kaliningrad, placing them within close striking range of major European capitals. Neighboring countries Lithuania and Poland are EU and NATO states.

What could happen if the standoff continues?

Shortly after the end of the Cold War,Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, once ruled by the Soviet Union, joined NATO. They had been worried that Putin’s military aggression might target them next. That has led to Lithuania becoming one ofRussia's fiercest critics in the EU The country has been at odds with officials in Germany and Brussels who want to defuse the row.

But an escalation in the standoff over the transit of Russian goods to Kaliningrad could widen the war. Moscow could use military force to form a land corridor from Belarusto the exclave by capturing the stretch of land along the Polish-Lithuanian border. That could cut the land connection between the Baltic states and the rest of NATO.

Germany and other NATO members have soldiers stationedin Lithuania and Poland could be dragged into the conflict.

On Thursday, Poland's Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki was quoted by Reuters News agency as saying that the European Union and Russia agree it is necessary to come up with a plan concerning the movement of goods between the Russian mainland and Kaliningrad.

With the EU trying to reach a compromise with Lithuania, freight transport to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad could return to normal within days, an anonymous source told Reuters.

.Edited by: Sonya Diehn