President visits part of his own country. Shock. Vladimir Putin’s visit yesterday to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, perched precariously on the other side of the Baltic states, was not, as some overheated commentary has claimed, a threat to Nato. Rather, it was a sign of his renewed need to campaign domestically.
Kaliningrad, once East Prussian Königsberg, is a territory a little larger than Northern Ireland that was annexed by the Soviets at the end of the second world war and subject to an intensive period of industrialisation, militarisation and colonisation. More than three quarters of the population are now ethnic Russians, and although a handful of activists claim there is strong support for independence (last year, the self-proclaimed Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum held a methodologically-dubious internet poll which they claimed showed 72 per cent in favour), there is no sign of any particular disaffection.
Yesterday, Putin flew to Kaliningrad for a brief working visit, which in the current environment has been characterised as a taunt, warning or threat for the West. After all, many of the scenarios for some kind of future war with Russia revolve around the Suwałki Gap, a 40-mile long corridor between Belarus and Kaliningrad. The fear is that a lightning strike through Belarus could then cut the Baltic States off from the rest of Nato. Beyond that, Kaliningrad itself is often presented as a Russian bastion in the Baltic region, a hub for what are known as A2AD or ‘Anti-Access and Area Denial’ capabilities, whose missiles could block the region’s seas and airspace to the West.
The threat from Kaliningrad and to the Suwałki Gap is, though, heavily mythologised. The demands of the Ukraine war have left Kaliningrad’s garrison cannibalised, and Russia’s notionally unbeatable air and sea defences have proven all too porous.