Analysts warn Kaliningrad becoming hotspot
The former Konigsberg Stock Exchange. Isolated buildings survived the Soviet invasion. Source: Wikimedia
As tension mounts with its neighbours, Kaliningrad’s maritime museum in the isolated Baltic Sea enclave says it is struggling to hold its annual naval display.
Svetlana Sivkova of the museum said participants from neighbouring Lithuania and Poland are threatening to boycott this year’s event.
“They said they could not come to us because Poles and Lithuanians are being beaten on the streets of Kaliningrad,” said Sivkova. “These are intelligent, educated people. It’s horrible propaganda. We had to explain that it’s not true, that we are an open people.”
The province of Kaliningrad was East Prussia and Germany’s eastern province for 500 years before Stalin captured it in 1945. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin tried to end Kaliningrad’s reputation as an armed garrison closed to foreigners but this process has been reversed with members of Nato saying the Baltic region is a major hotspot in tensions with Moscow.
Last Tuesday, about 70 nautical miles off Kaliningrad, two Russian SU-24 planes “buzzed” the US destroyer Donald Cook, simulating an attack, roaring within 9 metres of the vessel, according to the Pentagon.
A Russian intelligence-gathering ship had shadowed the American vessel for some time before the aircraft encounter and the US crew had contacted it to say they were conducting routine operations, according to Washington.
On Thursday, a Russian aircraft intercepted a US reconnaissance plane at an unsafe distance over the Baltic Sea, CNN reported.
European Command spokesman Danny Hernandez told CNN the fighter had “performed erratic and aggressive manoeuvres” as it flew within 15 metres of the US aircraft’s wing. “The unsafe and unprofessional actions of a single pilot have the potential to unnecessarily escalated tensions between countries,” Hernandez said.
Washington military spokeswoman Laura Seal said: “The US aircraft was operating in international airspace and at no time crossed into Russian territory.’’
Kaliningrad is Russia’s most westerly province. Source: Wikimedia
In the 1990s, Moscow tried to turn the province, more than 350km from mainland Russia, into something a duty-free destination. Car, electronics and furniture factories opened after a visa-less travel deal was agreed to Polish border areas.
“More people visited Europe than ‘big Russia’,” said Ilya Shumanov of the Kaliningrad branch of the Transparency International anti-corruption group.
But Russia has since heavily armed Kaliningrad, analysts say, equipping secretive bases with the long-range S-400 anti-aircraft missiles and mobile, medium-range Bastion nautical missiles. Russia holds exercises deploying Iskanders, a short-range ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
Nato commander General Philip Breedlove told Congress that Kaliningrad was “very militarised” and a “complete bubble” capable of repelling any attack.
After Crimea and eastern Ukraine, observers fear the Kremlin may use ethnic Russian minorities as an excuse to launch attacks on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all Nato members.
Attempts to defend them would have to get past Kaliningrad and any Nato force attacking the province “will get their teeth broken”, a fisherman told the New York Times.
“If you are my neighbour and you sit there with an axe, I will get an axe too,” said museum director Sivkova. “It is foolish but people say that weapons have been moved to Russia’s borders, so there has to be some parity.”
Areas of Kaliningrad still resemble Germany, including some suburbs of red-tiled, Gründerzeit villas, although most of the city was flattened during the war.
BMW, one of the province’s largest employers, has recently withdrawn expansion plans after a 40-per-cent decline in Russian car sales and Swedish development aid is coming to an end after decades. Cultural exchanges have suddenly ended as a result of European sanctions after the Kremlin’s Ukrainian adventure.
Kaliningrad, home to almost half the province’s million inhabitants, was the last major Baltic city without a modern water treatment plant. Stockholm helped build about 30 in the 1990s to replace Kaliningrad’s German system, built in the late 1920s.
A new sewage plant, delayed for years, should be operating by 2017 and it is suspected that all Swedish aid will be terminated by 2018.
“Cooperation with European countries was a good source of cheap loans and now we don’t have that possibility,” said Alexander Ivaschenko, who runs the city waterworks. “Due to the sanctions, future projects are frozen.”
Sweden and Finland, who have long promoted neutrality, are now considering the once unthinkable prospect of joining Nato.
The Baltic Fleet shrank after the Soviet Union fell to 190 ships from 450 and to two submarines from 42 under communism. It is now strong enough to turn the Baltic red with Nato blood, observers say.
Poles still cross the border for cheap fuel, cigarettes and vodka but tensions have increased. “I don’t think it is a place for development anymore,” said anti-corruption activist Shumanov. “I think that it is a place for militarisation. There is no investment, no money, no real federal interest in the region itself and bad relations with the neighbours.”