Kaliningrad is 15,1000 square kilometers, and has about 1 million people living in the region. While it is a part of Russia, and has been for decades, Kaliningrad Oblast is not directly connected to Russia, but rather, the region is over 300 kilometers away. Yet, this territory has been of strategic importance to Russia for quite some time (since the Cold War), and, as shall be pointed out here, is now arguably even more valuable to the country today, particularly with regards to pressure European states.
Kaliningrad Oblast continues to be a part of Russia due to the history of Russia acquiring the territory, and its geopolitical interests in Kaliningrad, particularly with regards to its location in Europe and on the Baltic Sea.
Historically, Kaliningrad Oblast belonged to Germany for seven centuries. During this time, the area did not go by the name of Kaliningrad, but rather, Königsberg. However, in the 1920 and 1930s, Königsberg was removed from Germany after the creation of what was called the “Polish Corridor” during this time period (an area, which included the city of Danzig) that the League of Nations labeled a “free city.” This allowed Poland the ability to have economic benefits with the area.
However, it was during World War II that the Soviet Union took over this area. Following Joseph Stalin’s invasion into Poland in 1939. In the following years. Stalin called on both the United States, and also Britain to clarify what their plans would be for Königsberg after the war. Stalin made his position on Kaliningrad clear in 1943, at a meeting in Tehren, in which he spoke about the importance of the area to the Soviet Union. He made the argument that Kaliningrad could be used as a port for them, and in turn, this could further weaken Germany. This argument seems to be supported by United States President Truman, who accepted the idea of allowing the Soviet Union to control Kaliningrad.
The Russian control of Kaliningrad was then formalized two years later during the Postdam Conference. In the next year, the USSR began the “Sovietization” of the entire region. They did this by destroying old buildings and landmarks, and introducing Russian naming and new construction to the area. The Soviet Union then used Kaliningrad as a military installation throughout the Cold War.
Following the end of the Cold War, some floated the question of what should be done with Kaliningrad. However, the Kaliningrad Oblast region was very important to Russia, and it was evident that the state was not going to allow the area to become independent, or to break away into another neighboring state. Furthermore, the countries nearby did not make a direct claim for the area, given the potential consequences that they could face from Russia. In addition, while the people in the area historically identified themselves as German and Polish, more recent polling suggested that that the majority in the country saw themselves as ethnic Russian, which is still the case to this date.
Today, Kaliningrad Oblast is very important to Russia. While the economic value of the region is small, Russia is able to use the area to further establish its presence on the Baltic Sea, moving even closer to Europe and other NATO member states. Russian leaders have been concerned about the expansion of NATO into former Soviet States, or increased ties between NATO and Ukraine. Thus, Russia has spoke about the importance of Kaliningrad militarily. Putin has even recently ordered that missiles able to hold nuclear warheads be moved into Kaliningrad, which has led to great concerns by NATO and other states.
After the Cold War, there were conversations about what would happen to Kaliningrad Oblast. Would it continue to remain within Russia? Would it be an autonomous area? Would it call for independence? Would another neighboring country try to lay claim to Kaliningrad Oblast? Despite these questions, it became clear quickly that Kaliningrad was a very salient issue for Russia; if any country thought of annexing the country, they did not do so, since they understood the response that Russia would carry out if this happened. Plus, there were not disputes over the border that might suggest a renegotiation of claims for the territory. Plus, in terms of the population, the vast majority did not identify as German, Polish, or Lithuanian, but rather, following the end of the Cold War, the vast majority of the country (at 94 percent) saw themselves as either Russian, as Belorussian, or as Ukrainians.