The strategic region has no borders with Russia, but Moscow has been able to keep it, even allegedly deploying nuclear weapons there.
As the Russian assault on Ukraine rages on, some little-known locations like Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway region in Moldova located alongside Ukraine’s southwestern border, have emerged as critical factors shaping the conflict’s long term prospects.
Kaliningrad, a Russian region in Eastern Europe on the coast of the Baltic Sea, is critical for both Moscow’s Ukraine offensive and ensuring its security across a hostile continent. According to reports, Russia has deployed nuclear-capable strategic missiles in the region, which is close to states like Germany, the former owner of the region.
Kaliningrad, which has no borders with Russia, also has the Baltic Sea’s only ice-free port all year round, carrying the same name as the region itself. As a result, the port city is crucial for both Russia and the Baltic states to ensure transportation and trade across the region where temperatures are usually below zero during much of any given winter.
But beyond transportation and trade, Kaliningrad is still important to Russia due to its strategic depth. It hosts the country’s Baltic fleet and is positioned as the westernmost territory of Moscow, close to the heart of Europe.
Some military analysts thought that if NATO intervened in the current Ukraine conflict, or if Moscow targeted other former Soviet republics like Lithuania, a Baltic NATO member state, or nearby Poland, which supplies Ukraine with critical NATO weapons, Kaliningrad could be a launching pad for Russia’s attack on those countries. Russia's Baltic region neighbours both Lithuania and Poland.
“On one front, an attack could come along NATO’s easternmost border, especially Poland’s border with Belarus, or at one of the Baltic States; on the other, NATO could experience an equally devastating offensive from virtually inside its own house, from the heavily armed oblast of Kaliningrad,” wrote Sarah White, a senior research analyst at the Lexington Institute.
Has Russia deployed nuclear arms?
Analysts like White think that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who put the country’s nuclear weapons on alert at the beginning of his Ukraine offensive, might use Kaliningrad’s alleged Iskander nuclear-capable missiles to target European capitals if the conflict escalates into a nuclear war.
Russia neither denies nor acknowledges that it has deployed nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, using vague language about allegations. "The deployment of one weapon or another, the deployment of military units and so forth on Russian territory, is exclusively a sovereign issue for the Russian Federation,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dimitry Peskov in 2018.
But some senior officials, like the Lithuanian president and a Russian lawmaker, confirmed that Moscow did deploy nuclear arms to the strategic Baltic region.
Also, some academics using satellite images believe that there are “all the fingerprints of typical Russian nuclear weapons storage sites” in Kaliningrad, according to Hans Kristensen, the director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).
Long before the Ukraine conflict, Russian leaders like Dimitry Medvedev, the former Russian President, indicated that Moscow could deploy nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad in response to NATO’s instalment of missile defence systems in Poland and Eastern Europe.
Kaliningrad: the former capital of Prussia
In addition to its strategic and military importance, Kaliningrad carries a lot of historical significance for both European and Russian history.
While the city has a Russian name, which comes from Mikhail Kalinin, one of the leading members of the communist Bolshevik movement and the official head of the Soviet Union between 1922 and 1946, it was founded by Teutonic Knights, a German-origin Catholic crusading order, who ruled Prussia from the 13th Century to the 15th Century.
The Teutonic Order named the city Konigsberg, which means king’s mountain, referring to King Ottokar II of Bohemia. The city had been the capital of the Prussian monarchy, a German-led state, for centuries until 1701, when the royal family moved its capital to Berlin. Prussia is the predecessor state of current Germany.
During WWII, the city witnessed intense fighting between the Soviet forces and Nazi Germany, which was defeated at the Battle of Konigsberg, and was lost to Moscow in 1945. After the 1945 Potsdam Agreement between the Allies and the Soviets, the city was ceded to Moscow by Western powers and became part of the USSR.
After claiming it from Berlin, the Soviet leadership named the city Kaliningrad in 1946, forcibly displacing its German population to Germany. But following the dissolution of the Soviets in 1991 and with the emergence of independent Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, the city lost its land connection to the Russian Federation.
While Russians changed all Soviet-era names of cities, which commemorated communist leaders like Lenin and Stalin, they did not follow that policy for Kaliningrad, making it the centre of the country’s Kaliningrad Oblast. Russian leaders might think that going back to the city’s former name would remind people of its German past.
Kaliningrad Oblast’s current total population stands at nearly one million, as it is a magnet for internal migration from other parts of Russia. It’s also one of Russia’s largest industrial centres. A picturesque location, it has been elected as the best Russian city many times in the past.
Immanuel Kant, Germany’s leading philosopher, was also a native of Kaliningrad. His “perpetual peace” theory was one of the inspirations for the European Union’s integration project, according to some academics.
During a brief Russian invasion of Kaliningrad between 1758 and 1762, Kant swore allegiance to the then-Russian Empress Elizabeth. Interestingly, the German philosopher refused to renounce his allegiance to Russia even after Prussia claimed Kaliningrad back later.
Today, his statue stands in front of the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University in Kaliningrad.