It is barely past 11:00 when the unmistakable noise of a military plane rips through the air over Kaliningrad. The Russian city, an enclave separated from the rest of the country and surrounded by Poland and Lithuania facing the Baltic Sea, remains calm, oblivious to the alleged “blockade” that the Kremlin blames on NATO. A word, blockade, which brings to the Russian imagination the tragedies of past wars and intensifies the feeling of tension, of being cornered by the enemy. In mid-June, Lithuania began to restrict the passage of goods to Russian territory (of just over a million inhabitants) due to European sanctions on Moscow after the offensive unleashed against Ukraine. An escalation of tension to which has been added the announcement by US President Joe Biden, during the NATO summit in Madrid this past week, of the reinforcement of troops in the Baltic countries to defend them. However, neither the Government of the oblast of Kaliningrad (region, in Russian) nor its population are worried: they trust in the enormous Russian army and in an unprecedented logistical deployment.
“Kaliningrad has long been a Russian city. Part of the German architectural style remains, but this is our trophy, of which we are very proud and we will not give it to anyone, ”says Dmitri Lyskov, spokesman for the governor of the region, Anton Alijánov, in the cafeteria of the headquarters of the Governorate.
Two days earlier, on June 27, the Russian media had replicated with great fanfare the statements of a former Latvian Interior Minister, Maris Gulbis, who stated that the European Union has sent a signal to Moscow with restrictions on the passage of goods Russians towards the enclave: “If they are brave, we will take back Kaliningrad”. For his part, the Lithuanian deputy responsible for the parliamentary committee for Taiwan and democratic Russia, Matas Maldeikis, jokingly proposed on Twitter to recover “the historic lands of Smolensk”, now Russian and which were disputed in the 14th and 15th centuries for the Grand Duchy. of Lithuania and the Principality of Moscow, with the image of a corridor that stretched across the entire map, even to Moscow.
Kaliningrad – the former Prussian Königsberg – was annexed by the USSR in 1945. The European Union, and especially Germany and Poland, recognize Russian sovereignty and have renounced any territorial claim. Its strategic importance lies in the fact that it is the only western port in Russia where the sea does not freeze in winter.
The enclave is one of the main sources of tension with NATO. However, Lyskov is blunt in replying that they do not see a threat in the Alliance’s military presence in the Baltic countries. “No way. Combat formations are building up, but our protection is reliable. In Kaliningrad is the base of the Baltic Fleet, the third in the country by naval volume, “says the governor’s representative before stressing that they have a “huge deployment” of Russian troops, planes, ships and missile groups that he does not detail. . “We’re not worried,” he says.
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And nuclear weapons? The spokesman laughs when asked about Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas’ claim that it is an open secret. “I don’t know anything, he doesn’t go with me. I just know that Russia is a nuclear power and in the case of ballistic missiles it doesn’t matter where they fly from; if from Kaliningrad, Smolensk or Pskov”, he affirms.
The maritime museum is one of the great attractions of the city. Children dressed as paratroopers visit a Soviet submarine accompanied by guardians who proudly display their “Z” lapels, the insignia of those who openly support the offensive on Ukraine. Nearby, another giant letter in the colors of the Imperial Order of Saint George covers the facade of the Youth sports center. In the Kaliningrad military region it is easy to see how the new “generation Z” is germinating.
“We trust in our country, in our army, victory will be on our side,” proclaims an older woman near the port. She boasts that she was born in Kaliningrad, but she prefers to keep her name anonymous. “Before [de su entrada en la OTAN] we had a friendly relationship. The fault lies with the United States and the United Kingdom, which they took Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia”, he says after listening to the flight of a fighter: “Our planes are watching them [a los de la OTAN]it is necessary to be alert”.
The feeling of being the target of a siege It has permeated all generations. “It is useless to invade Kaliningrad, it is very well defended,” argues Arsen Azaryan, a young taxi driver protesting that the conflict in Ukraine has raised the cost of living and the price of the toll to get to the airport.
Lithuania suspended on June 18 the transit through its territory of goods that are under sanctions. This has not affected businesses, supplied although at prohibitive prices. “Everything continues as before. There is food, other products… We have many of our own factories,” says the taxi driver. An opinion shared by the older woman who prefers not to give her name: “Absolute tranquility. We have everything and the construction works continue”.
The governor’s spokesman explains that many ships were stranded by the sanctions, and now they will reinforce the route that connects them with the Leningrad region (whose capital is Saint Petersburg) with up to five large ferries. “Its ports operate all year round. In winter there may be small delays with deliveries, but we are not talking about weeks,” says Lyskov, who emphasizes that the province enjoys full energy independence and, in any case, will receive aid from the state budget to cover any logistical or electrical extra costs. “The situation is that we have many ships, they subsidize our rates and the transportation time is not extended. We have no problem, ”he presumes.
At one point in the conversation, Lyskov receives a message on his mobile. According to the Reuters agency, Lithuania could soon allow goods to pass through its territory to the enclave. The EU seeks to reduce the tension generated by the Lithuanian controls. “It was stupid [el bloqueo]. For us it is just a nuisance, nothing catastrophic, but for the Lithuanian railway there will be no horizon”, warns Lyskov, and emphasizes that the transport rates for the route to Kaliningrad account for 70% of what the country’s train network enters. Baltic.
In any case, if the blockade continues, the Russian authorities will prepare “painful measures” for Lithuania, such as vetoing the importation of alcohol, which implies some 300 million euros per year. “We talk about economic initiatives, nobody talks about anything else,” says the spokesman.
Years ago, former President Boris Yeltsin tried to make Kaliningrad and its port a special economic region. It barely prospered, but this week his successor, Vladimir Putin, signed a decree legalizing what he calls “parallel imports,” a euphemism for the smuggling of certain foreign goods. “It is interesting, it is technically possible, but why import electronic devices to Kaliningrad and then transport them by sea? [a Rusia] when they can take them directly to the rest of the territory,” says Lyskov.
The oblast had simplified its visas for foreign visitors shortly before the outbreak of the coronavirus, which would have been an incentive for this flourishing sector. Although Apple, Sony and Samsung, like many other foreign firms, have left the Russian market due to sanctions, their products are still sold in some stores, such as those in the Europa shopping mall. On the avenue of Mariscal Vasileksi they ignore the sanctions and try to exhibit normality. A store that used to sell Nike items now advertises “European clothing for the whole family,” even though it doesn’t carry any well-known Western brands. The conflict, however, is present in a building where a military recruitment point and a funeral home share space.
“There are far fewer tourists than last year. Germans, Balts, Europeans in general,” laments Alexei Lisin, who has lived in Kaliningrad since he was five years old and is now almost 70. A sailor and the son of a sailor, he walks visitors through the city’s canals. “Before we had the pandemic, now the fear of the blockade,” he says. “The important thing is not to give up,” he adds, reflecting on these bad times.
Kant, the “Russian philosopher”
The city’s ties to pre-World War II times are becoming more tenuous. This past week a plaque in memory of the Lithuanian writer Vidunas was removed to be replaced by one dedicated to a Russian hussar of the Napoleonic wars, Denis Davídov. “The monument had been erected illegally. A group of citizens asked to dismantle it, the deputies saw the request, and there was no formal reason to reject it. They have not destroyed it”, defends the spokesman for the governor of Kaliningrad.
The trace of the Prussian past is also erased in the case of the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who was born and died in what was then Königsberg. In 2018 it was decided to rename the region’s airport and in the vote on-line Tsarina Elizabeth I prevailed from afar against the German “traitor”, as the Russian Vice Admiral called him, who launched a campaign against the memory of the thinker. In the only city that retains the name in honor of a Soviet leader (Mikhail Kalinin), the teacher of universal philosophy arouses suspicion. And the airport does not honor him despite having a self-service that boasts of “German quality” (in Cyrillic).
It is known that the inhabitants of the city swore allegiance to Moscow after its conquest in 1758 and that Kant asked Elizabeth I of Russia for a teaching position at the university. However, in 1763 she became a Prussian again. “Kant died as a subject of the Russian Empire,” says Lyskov. And it goes further: “When the Russian troops occupied Königsberg, during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), Kant swore allegiance to (Elizabeth) Romanova. When Paul I withdrew the troops from here and this territory became Prussian again, he remained a subject of the Russian crown until his death. Formally, Kant is the great Russian philosopher.
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