The Russian Baltic Fleet has announced that it carried out a series of simulated missile strikes of its nuclear-capable Iskander system. This is not the first time that the Russian exclave – roughly the size of Northern Ireland and wedged between Nato and EU members Poland and Lithuania – has made the headlines as part of Russia’s sabre-rattling.
The Iskander missile system was first introduced to the region in 2016 and then upgraded in 2018, as part of a Russian strategy to counter Nato’s deployment of an anti-ballistic missile defence shield in Europe. There have also been regular military exercises involving Russia’s Baltic fleet, which is headquartered in Kaliningrad, including Zapad-21 in the autumn of 2021 and a series of war games since the invasion of Ukraine.
Kaliningrad is one of currently 46 oblasts (administrative regions) of Russia, but the only one that does not have a land border with another part of the country. The roots of the territory reach far back in history and are closely connected to the fate of East Prussia and its capital of Koenigsberg. Founded by the Teutonic Knights in 1255, it is often associated with German militarism. But it’s equally famous for the philosophers Immanuel Kant, who lived his entire live in Koenigsberg, and Hannah Arendt, who spent part of her childhood there.
Like most territories in this part of Europe, wars – and the peace settlements that ended them – shaped their ethnic composition and political boundaries. East Prussia became detached from Germany after the first world war, with the creation of the “free city” of Danzig and the establishment of the Polish corridor. It remained part of Germany, however, until the end of the second world war, when it was conquered by the Soviet Red Army in early 1945. Its partition between Poland and the Soviet Union was agreed at the Yalta conference and formalised at the final formal meeting of the big three (Russia, the US and Britain) at Postdam in 1945.
The “city of Koenigsberg and the area adjacent to it” (approximately one-third of East Prussia at the time) fell to Stalin. The Russian leader renamed it in 1946 in honour of Mikhail Kalinin, who had been chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet – the head of state of the Soviet Union – at the time of his death in 1946.
Once a highly inter-mixed area with a population of Germans, Poles, Lithunanians and Jews, it was ethnically cleansed of most of its German population by Stalin. This was followed by a systematic campaign of russification which sought to erase all traces of German heritage.
Post cold war
The region recovered from its Soviet legacy after the fall of communism, benefiting from the special economic status it was granted by the Russian government in 1996 and from improving links with the EU in the years afterwards.
In recent years, Kaliningrad has also seen its economic value grow as one of the nodes in the multimodal trade networks connecting Xi'an in central China through Central Asia and Russia to the European market along the New Eurasian Land Bridge corridor of the Belt and Road Initiative. At the same time, this has made the region more vulnerable in the context of the war in Ukraine and western sanctions imposed on Russia.
For Russia, however, Kaliningrad’s main significance is military as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier”. As a military base, the region adds significantly to Russia’s strategic depth and is a critical asset for Moscow in its anti-access area denial (A2AD) capabilities in the Baltic Sea, potentially undermining Nato’s freedom of manoeuvre across the Baltic states and parts of Poland.
Moreover, if there was a further escalation of the war – potentially involving Russian moves against Estonia and Latvia with their relatively large ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking communities – Kaliningrad would be an important launchpad for Russian operations. So Russian military exercises in Kaliningrad are a signal of Russian capabilities and a way of exerting more pressure on the west – just as the EU was agreeing its sixth package of sanctions.
In light of Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine, this signal should not only be read as one of defensive intent on Moscow’s part but also as a potential sign of things to come: the next missile launch from Kaliningrad may not be a simulation.