What has been missing in recent reports about the current row between Lithuania and Russia over transport of Russian materials through Lithuania to the Russian-administered enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic coast—is that Kaliningrad (formally known as Kaliningrad Oblast) is a disputed territory and has been since the end of World War II.
While the August 1, 1945 Potsdam Agreement called for transfer to the Soviets of Germany’s East Prussia region then known as Königsberg–which was the birthplace of Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant—Potsdam did not call for Soviet annexation.
And neither did the 1990 Treaty on the Final Settlement.
Nevertheless, Stalin and the Soviets cleansed Königsberg of Germans and Germany history. Königsberg had long been a center of intellectual excellence. The Soviets renamed it Kaliningrad and repopulated it with Soviet citizens.
However, this does not mean that Russia, the successor state to the USSR holds legitimate title to Kaliningrad. It does not.
I visited Lithuania in 1997, prior to its 2004 Nato membership, reporting for Newsday’s editorial pages and researching a documentary. While there, I interviewed a cross-section of people: officials in various branches of government, military, diplomats and former diplomats, publishers, hotel owners, supermarket owners, townspeople, as well as actors—including Christopher Lee, who was filming a television series in Lithuania.
Lithuania at the time owned two ships, which it got from the Russians. I was invited to tour one of them.
I also traveled by car across Lithuania to the Baltic city of Klaipėda, which shares a border with Kaliningrad to the south. Crime in the area was quite serious at the time and was even worse across the border in Kaliningrad. My colleagues and I traveled in an old car that would not be a target for thieves and stayed at a tourist park overnight to avoid scrutiny in a hotel. So I have a particular interest in the current Lithuanian-Russian row. My ancestry is also Lithuanian and “Mazurian”; the Mazurians inhabited the southern part of East Prussia.
My “Letter From Vilnius” follows as a backdrop to current regional tensions.
Kaliningrad has been cut off from mainland Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union. This has posed a logistical problem for Russia, which needs to move and supply its troops. Aside from Russia’s Baltic Fleet (submarines, surface combatants, patrol ships, etc.), naval aviation fighter regiments, and marine brigade, Russia has roughly 25,000 soldiers on the ground in Kaliningrad. According to Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas, Russia also has nuclear weapons in the Baltic region.
Russia previously relied on Lithuanian air and land space to transport its troops, military equipment and supplies to and from Kaliningrad. Following Lithuanian independence and pre its Nato membership, Lithuania complained of ongoing Russian violation of its air space by military transports. Now that Lithuania is a member of the European Union (and Nato) and EU sanctions have been imposed on Russia—Lithuania’s refusal to allow transport of steel and ferrous metals from Russia through its borders to Kaliningrad has resulted in Russia threatening Lithuania with “actions to protect its national interests”.
Further EU sanctions on materials passing from Russia via Lithuania to Kaliningrad are expected in July (cement and alcohol), August (coal and other solid fossil fuels), and December (Russian oil).
There are Lithuanian concerns that Russia could retaliate by cutting off Lithuania’s electricity. This would mean a greater reliance on Poland’s grid until a Lithuanian link to the EU power system is completed in 2025.
Eighty percent of Kaliningrad’s one-million residents are of Russian ancestry and speak Russian. Kaliningrad’s governor, Anton Alikhanov has said that as of January 2022, 54% of Kaliningrad’s residents were first-generation immigrants. People there largely rely on the flow of goods from Russia.
The territory has been failing economically for decades and has serious social and environmental problems, as well.
Various remedies for Kaliningrad’s economically crippled status have been proposed over the years. Making Kaliningrad a sort of Hong Kong was one that never materialized.
In 2001, stories floated about an “association agreement” in which Germany would take control of Kaliningrad as a settlement of Russia’s then-debt to Berlin. A headline in the Sunday Telegraph read: “Germany in secret talks with Russia to take back Königsberg,” the paper saying further, “Chancellor [Gerhard] Schröder is offering to waive debts to remove East Prussia from Russian control”.
At the time Russia was in no position to repay said debt to Berlin but according to the Telegraph, Putin did offer Germany “equity stakes in Russian companies,” which would have given Germany economic dominance in Kaliningrad. A deal was never reached, although the Swedes also supported the Schröder initiative.
The Telegraph quoted then Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson as follows:
“The region is heavily polluted. There are diseases such as Aids and tuberculosis and there is nuclear waste. Almost every problem imaginable can be found in Kaliningrad.”
Because of logistical difficulties of Russia administering Kaliningrad there has been regional discussion about creating an independent or at least a semi-autonomous Kaliningrad. There are also those who think Lithuania could claim sovereignty over Kaliningrad. Raymond A. Smith writing in the Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences noted:
“[T]here are five conceivable claimants to sovereignty over the Oblast —the USSR/RSFSR, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, and the indigenous population. Applying the “legality” criteria, the first three claimants can be eliminated. Despite the de facto control of the Oblast, the USSR/RSFSR has never really held de jure title. Germany held title for many centuries, but has now waived its claim. Poland has never held title and has no basis upon which to claim it now. . . .[O]ne claimant to the Oblast has a case which is both well-founded legally and realistically practicable—Lithuania.”
One of the more interesting proposals I’ve seen is from Jüri Saar, writing in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine that Kaliningrad could become a demilitarized zone within the jurisdiction of the European Union, along the lines of Washington, D.C.
Bottom line, however, is that Russia is unlikely to relinquish its strategic position on the Baltic Sea, with Sweden looking to join Lithuania and its other Baltic neighbors in Nato. Indeed, Russia seems to be repurposing Kaliningrad. A train from Xian, China to Kaliningrad, part of China’s Belt & Roadway Initiative has been operating for more than a year, supplying goods via Kaliningrad to various Scandinavian countries as well as European countries en route.
Yes, China is now a player on the Baltic stage. . .