Vignette 9.1 Strategic Kaliningrad

If you look at a map of present-day Russia, you may wonder why a triangular piece of its territory is isolated between Poland and Lithuania, right on the Baltic Sea coast. Historically, this was part of the now extinct country Prussia, populated by the Baltic people of the same name. However, the ethnic Prussians were absorbed over several centuries  by the Polish, Germanic, and Slavic inhabitants of this region. The German Teutonic knights made this area one of their Baltic strongholds and brought Roman Catholicism here in the 1300s. Later Prussia became the first country in the world to adopt Lutheranism as its state religion. Under a post-World War II arrangement, the Soviet Union claimed the territory for itself, to gain a strategic foothold in Central Europe and to help cover the enormous costs of postwar reconstruction. The territory is small (slightly under 15,000 km2), but it is strategically important for Russia. The total population is just under 1 million.

The city of Kaliningrad was formerly known as Koenigsberg, “the city of kings.” It is known as the birthplace of Immanuel Kant, a famous German philosopher who lived and is buried there. The city's architecture and layout show strong German influences. It is a big seaport. Manufacturing in the region includes ships, railroad cars, automobiles, and TVs. Kaliningrad Oblast is also one of the leading areas of amber production and has thriving fisheries. More significantly for Russia, its ports serve as a gateway to Europe. Since 2004, the oblast has been surrounded by EU territory from all sides except the sea. Its residents must have visas to visit Lithuania or Poland. Without visas, they cannot travel to Russia except via direct airplane flights or an express train that crosses Lithuania without stopping. There is also an unfinished highway to Berlin, which ends at the Polish border and bypasses most inhabited areas.

The strategic importance of this exclave lies in its geographic position close to Europe and in the southern part of the Baltic Sea. The city of Kaliningrad is the closest port in Russia to Europe. Because of its southerly location, it is also the only Baltic Sea port that does not freeze in winter. About 12 million metric tonnes of goods pass through the port per year. The oblast has a special economic zone status with favorable tax rates for foreign investors, to stimulate local industry. It is also one of the few areas where Russia can locate its early-warning radiolocation stations to keep an eye on possible NATO expansion and can stage its antiaircraft missile complexes and fighter jets. Finally, the region has high tourism potential because of its dunes and beaches.