11 July, 2023
By Oliver Hegglin – Junior Fellow
The Oblast of Kaliningrad, wedged between the EU and NATO states of Lithuania and Poland, holds a unique position in the Russian Federation. This roughly 15,000 square km Russian exclave, of which both the city of about half a million and territory of about one million carry the name Kaliningrad, is home to the country’s only year-round ice-free European port and the Baltic Fleet. It hosts nuclear-capable, short-range ballistic Iskander missiles, and Bastion coastal defense and S-400 anti-aircraft systems. Often described as Moscow’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier”, Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine has placed the territory in a peculiar situation.
While often associated with the military threat it poses, Kaliningrad has had more connections and freedoms in relation to Europe, as well as an independence movement since the end of the Cold War. Despite ongoing censorship over the territory and country-wide internet restrictions and blocks, information concerning Kaliningrad since the invasion, together with that available pre-2022, paint the picture of a territory with a unique history that has never quite fit into the Russian Federation.
Originally established in 1255 by the Teutonic Order during the Northern/Baltic Crusades in a quest to Christianize the region, the territory was named Königsberg (German for King’s Mountain), in honor of Bohemian King Ottokar II. In the centuries that followed, the area became populated by predominantly German settlers and came under German control as part of East Prussia throughout the World Wars until it was captured by the Soviet Union.
The 1945 Potsdam Agreement, which ended the Second World War, set the territorial boundaries in Europe and declared that Königsberg would become part of the Soviet Union. In 1946 it was subsequently annexed, split between the Polish, Lithuanian, and Russian Soviet Republics, and renamed to Kaliningrad in honor of Mikhail Kalinin, head of state of the Soviet Union from 1919 to 1946. Over 90% of the city of Königsberg was damaged during the war, and the German population largely expelled, with the city repopulated with predominantly Russian citizens. The exclave remained closed to foreigners until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Kaliningrad became an exclave under Moscow’s control, with some 1000km between the cities of Kaliningrad and Moscow. Recent statistics indicate that over 70% of Kaliningrad residents own a Russian passport, compared to the nationwide below 30%, and a pre-2022 visa-free regime permitted residents to cross into Poland at will, with Kaliningrad city being just some 40km from Poland and about 115km from Lithuania, resulting in frequent cross-border travel. Consequently, and despite the heavy militarization, inhabitants of Kaliningrad are more exposed and open to western Europe than the rest of the Federation. Much food comes from its neighbors though other goods are transported by rail or ship.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the inhabitants of the territory, which are predominantly Russian but also include Ukrainians, Belarusians, and ethnic Germans, Armenians, Tars, Uzbeks, Lithuanians, Poles, and others, have made strides in acknowledging their unique position within the Russian Federation and independent political and economic interests. Being so far from mainland Russia has resulted in Kaliningrad developing close economic ties with European countries since 1991, and becoming a “special economic zone”, with nearly no import duties and low taxes to stimulate investment after a sinking economy in the 1990s. And yet, Kaliningrad’s neighbors continue to develop economically while it remains reliant on Moscow for many resources, as about 100 trains a month travel through Lithuania carrying millions of tons of coal, oil, and other resources. Efforts have also been made to restore remaining vestiges of German cultural heritage in a form of “East Prussian renaissance”, such as the Königsberg Cathedral. There has also been the desire among the population to use Prussian street names and to reconstruct Königsberg Castle.
State media has seemingly had a lesser effect in Kaliningrad, though efforts have been undertaken by Moscow to combat what local officials have labelled a “growing enthusiasm” for “Germanization”, and “creeping separatism”. The include expelling the NGO German House in 2017, deeming it a “foreign agent” and supporting Russian organizations instead, launching campaigns against Königsberg-born German philosopher Immanuel Kant, firing the director of a local museum in Sovyetsk after 36 years after refusing to cut dies with cultural organizations in Germany, and firing a professor in Kaliningrad after 20 years for the alleged promotion of separatism. Since 2014, after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula which drew European sanctions and condemnation, Moscow has also focused on increasing aerial and naval links between the mainland and the exclave while developing Kaliningrad’s agricultural sector and energy-generating capacity, in an effort to make it more self-sufficient.
In military terminology, Kaliningrad serves as an A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) bubble, meaning the territory has the ability to control access to and within an operating environment. On land, Kaliningrad is connected about 70km from Belarus via the Suwalki Gap/Corridor, which could close off the Baltic states from the rest of Europe and NATO. On sea, some 250km lay between the territory and the Swedish island of Gotland, located in the middle of the Baltic Sea and key for control over those waters. In war games, an attempt to close the Suwalki Gap, named after a Polish town in this area, is accompanied by an attempt to seize Gotland, which from 2005 to 2016 was demilitarized but since then strengthened in response to current events. Given the Russian performance in the ongoing war in Ukraine, it appears unlikely Russia would be able to mount a successful attempt at achieving both these strategic objectives to close the Baltics, should it even be able to muster the necessary amount of personnel and equipment for such an attempt. Ironically, the Baltic Sea is less tense now than pre-Russo-Ukrainian war due to Russia having to redeploy assets to Ukraine.
Where geo-political events in Europe in 2014 caused tensions between Russia and the rest of Europe to rise, it was the 2022 invasion of Ukraine which resulted in the isolation of Kaliningrad. That summer, Lithuania restricted the transit of sanctioned goods through its territory, which covers about half of all goods Kaliningrad receives from the mainland, including coal, metals, construction materials, and technologies. In response, shipping from St. Petersburg was increased. However, while the limitations on road travel remain, the restrictions on rail were lifted after only a month.
In November 2022, Poland began erecting a barrier along the 210km long border with Kaliningrad, following fears Russia may try to facilitate illegal migration after initiating flights from the Middle East and North Africa to the exclave. This mirrors migration fears along the Belarus-Poland border in 2021, with accusations Belarus was trying to “create chaos” and political division within the EU through hybrid warfare. The 2.5 meter high and three meter deep barrier containing cameras, motion detectors, razor wire, and anti-tank barriers on border crossing roads, is set to be completed by the end of 2023.
In May 2023, Poland’s state commission on the “Standardization of Geographical Names Outside the Republic of Poland” tasked with standardizing foreign names, recommended that the city of Kaliningrad be re-named to Królewiec, and the Oblast to Obwód Królewiecki, the Polish translation of Königsberg when the territory was a fief of the Kingdom of Poland in the 15th and 16th centuries. While this decision is not binding, it can be expected that other state bodies will begin referring to Kaliningrad as Królewiec, the name Lithuania is also using. The commission argued against using the ‘imposed’ name, which is “unrelated to either the city or the region”. The name Kaliningrad also carries negative sentiments, as Mikhail Kalinin was one of the signatories of the Soviet Politburo who in 1940 ordered the execution of over 21,000 Polish prisoners of war in the Katyn forest. The Kremlin described this decision as “bordering on madness” and a “hostile act”, accusing Poland of “hatred towards Russians”.
Königsberg has been part of empires and kingdoms for centuries, though the previously banned Baltic Republican Party (BRP) now aims to make the territory the “Fourth Baltic Republic”. Just days prior to the invasion of Ukraine, Königsberg natives, also referred to as “Baltic Russians”, protested in front of the Russian Embassy in Warsaw, where the coordinator of the independence movement threatened a referendum should the Kremlin not de-escalate tensions and demilitarize the exclave by 50%.
An unauthorized, non-binding, and potentially illegal, online referendum then took place one year later in five Russian regions. All regions voted in favor of independence, with 95,567 people from Königsberg having participated, amounting to 19.4% of the population of the city. 72.1% voted in favor during the 13 days of voting. While it’s likely those in favor of independence were more likely to vote and the results are skewed as a result, the vote still serves as a publicity stunt to promote future independence of Königsberg and the other regions included in the campaign. The BRP believes secession is only a “matter of time”, and it is widely believed that many within the territory wish for broad autonomy if not outright independence. The Party also uses the name Königsberg, saying they “belong to Europe”, and claim party membership both within and outside the exclave is increasing.
The Fourth Baltic Republic
Information from Königsberg has become difficult to come by due to the Kremlin’s censorship of the territory, restrictions of social media, and crackdown on journalism. As a result, information available stems from predominantly pre-war or from reporting outside Russia. While the BRP has vowed to continue campaigning despite efforts by the Kremlin to suppress independence movements, it is hard to assess just how much support there is, as many people also do not want to split from Russia.
It is difficult to assess how the eventual end of the Russo-Ukrainian War will affect the structure of the Russian Federation. There are many variables in play – the outcome of the War, President Putin’s position, the make-up of the Russian cabinet, the capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces – which will all have an effect on the then-status quo citizens of Königsberg will live under. In at least one future, nothing will change, but in others greater autonomy and a path to independence may be a realistic goal should the War’s end provide the necessary conditions for such a path.
The Kremlin is unlikely to want to lose any part of its empire and is likely to continue cracking down on separatism. Even with possible support from European neighbors, Königsberg sovereignty may be out of reach unless drastic changes in Russian society take place at War’s End. But what the Kremlin will not be able to do is to erase the past and the seemingly increasing desire to re-vitalize East Prussian culture. The goal of an independent Königsberg will continue to exist until the time and conditions are right for the first steps in this direction to be taken. Though for now, all eyes remain on the war in Ukraine, the outcome of which will either set the stage, or end the dream.