upr-header-1.jpg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Kaliningrad region is a flashpoint for Russia's relationship with the West

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tensions have been rising in the Baltic region in northern Europe, with Russian territory of Kaliningrad emerging as another flashpoint in the Kremlin's standoff with the West over Ukraine. Kaliningrad is geographically cut off from the rest of Russia, with Lithuania to the north and west and Poland to the south. NPR's Charles Maynes recently traveled there and has this report.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: As a boy, Alexander Sokolov grew up playing in the ruins of this city.

ALEXANDER SOKOLOV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: His family arrived soon after Soviet forces took Kaliningrad, then called Konigsberg, from Nazi Germany in the closing days of World War II. And Sokolov spent his childhood confronting the remnants and memories of that war.

SOKOLOV: (Through interpreter) Nearly every family here had someone who died or was killed by the fascists. So there was a lot of hate for all things German. And so we decided to tear down what was and build a new world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Propaganda films of the era...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: ...Describe the construction of a proud communist city as an outpost of Soviet power in Europe. Only after the collapse of the USSR, Kaliningrad became a de facto Russian island - an exclave, after neighboring Lithuania and Poland escaped Moscow's influence and embraced Western alliances.

SOKOLOV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Now in his 70s, Sokolov laments that Kaliningrad is again at the forefront of Europe's new divisions.

SOKOLOV: (Through interpreter) There are Western politicians who think they can destroy Russia, but Russia can't be destroyed. If they try, know that every last one of us will rise up and fight.

MAYNES: These days, anger is directed at neighboring Lithuania. Kaliningrad normally relies on shipments of goods from Russia to transit through Lithuania to get here - or did, until Lithuania started enforcing a ban on sanctioned goods shipped by rail from the Russian mainland. Lithuanian officials say they're simply enforcing EU sanctions. The Kremlin has denounced the move in a legal blockade.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

NIKOLAI PATRUSHEV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Last month, Moscow dispatched the head of Russia's National Security Council Nikolai Patrushev to the region, where he vowed a tough response to what he called Lithuania's hostile actions. Yet, even as the EU and Russia now wrangle over a possible compromise, some locals argue the Kremlin should've given more thought to Kaliningrad's vulnerabilities before it sent its troops into Ukraine.

SOLOMON GINZBERG: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: There's nothing surprising about this situation, says Solomon Ginzberg, a critic of the Russian military campaign. Ginzberg laments Kaliningrad has become a hostage to Kremlin policies that ignore the region's basic geography.

GINZBERG: (Through interpreter) Failing to acknowledge Kaliningrad's European roots makes no sense. Who are we supposed to turn to, China?

MAYNES: But voices sympathetic to the Kremlin argue Moscow is more aware of Kaliningrad's geopolitical significance than ever before.

VLADISLAV GULEEVICH: Keep in mind that the central government - they cannot leave Kaliningrad region in the lurch.

MAYNES: Vladislav Guleevich, a local political analyst, argues the West sees Kaliningrad as a way to pressure the Kremlin over Ukraine.

GULEEVICH: 'Cause they think that if they hit Russia in the Kaliningrad region, they can make Russia change its political stance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAYNES: Such tensions can be hard to feel in Kaliningrad's reconstructed old town, where tourists stroll quaint canals and musicians busk on balalaikas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAYNES: But those in the know say Kaliningrad has had a front row seat to the ebb and flow of post-Cold War tensions ever since its neighbors joined the NATO alliance.

YURI ZVEREV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "It's not uncommon to see American B-52 bombers fly a few miles off the coast," says Yuri Zverev, a local defense analyst. Zverev says recent announcements that Sweden and Finland plan to join NATO are the latest sign of military escalation in Northern Europe spinning out of control.

ZVEREV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "If you hang a gun on the wall, eventually it should go off," says Zverev, quoting an old Russian theater adage. Critics in the West counter that those same concerns apply to the presence of Russian nuclear-capable missiles housed in the region.

SOKOLOV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: But longtime residents like Alexander Sokolov, who lived through the Cold War only to see a newly divided Europe, says he hopes cooler heads ultimately prevail.

SOKOLOV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "A new generation of leadership is needed," he argues, adding younger people shouldn't inherit yesterday's problems. "There are always rational people," he adds, "everywhere."

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Kaliningrad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.