The westernmost part of Russia, Kaliningrad, is best described as a special mix of German past glory and Soviet high-rise buildings. The residents of the former German Koningsbergen hold Instagram photo shoots, eat ice cream on the boulevard or take a boat trip. A stark contrast to what is happening at the political and military level in the exclave, which is surrounded on all sides by European countries.
Where Kaliningrad used to be the place for cooperation and friendship between the west and Russia, it has now become an isolated Russian military fortress against NATO.
In recent years, Russia has transformed the exclave into a true bastion, including the deployment of heavy anti-aircraft systems and Iskander ballistic missiles. It is also home to the Russian Baltic fleet. NATO, for its part, has strengthened the military presence in the Baltic with troops in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Add to that the tensions created by recent events: Russias so-called special operation in Ukraine, sanctions and major shortages, the Lithuanian blockade of transit of sanctioned goods from Russia to Kaliningrad and Finland and Sweden joining the NATO. All the ingredients for an escalation.
Military material makes us feel protected
The Kaliningraders dont seem to care about that. The Kremlin propaganda also has a lot of influence here. “No, people dont worry about tensions or anything,” says Lyudmila, who is married to a Russian war veteran and walks her dog.
“Okay, prices have gone up slightly and there are some shortages, but everything is good here. We will be able to travel to Europe again soon. Were just waiting for Putins surgery to end, and stay positive.”
Vladimir, a sturdy man in basketball shirt, also says that everything is quiet. “We are not concerned with the countries around us or NATO. Moscow makes all the right decisions for us”. When I ask if it doesnt bother people that there is so much military equipment in their region, he looks at me like Im crazy. “That makes us feel more protected”.
NATO = enemy
In the “Park Paplavok”, the “floating park”, political scientist Aleksander Nosovich paints a completely different picture.
“NATO is the enemy and is at the border with Kaliningrad at any moment,” he begins. “Especially when Sweden and Finland join. This is a direct threat, especially for Kaliningrad. That means that there are aggressive troops closer to Russian territory”.
The Kremlin itself reacted quite lukewarm today to the news that Sweden and Finland are joining. The authorities in Moscow do not seem so much concerned with Finland and Sweden, but consider enlargement mainly as a confirmation that NATO is becoming an increasingly “aggressive block” against Russia. That is exactly what Putin did not want: more NATO influence towards the Russian borders.
I ask Nosovich how he looks at the fact that, precisely because of Russias special operation, these countries now want to join NATO, that is, because of the Russian threat and aggression.
“Russia has its own logic,” is his answer. “Its not so much about Sweden and Finland joining the alliance, but NATO using those countries to place more military forces closer to Russian borders,” Nosovich continues.
In doing so, he fully emphasizes in the Kremlin line that NATO is a military force, led by the United States, that uses Western countries to attack Russia.
There is only one man responsible for all the misery
Back in town, nightfall falls. Music sounds everywhere, tourists take selfies in front of the characteristic German alpine houses and for a moment it seems like nobody really cares about all the tensions, isolation or the struggle in Ukraine.
But at some point, we address Mila. Shes waiting for the bus in a green summer dress. “People do suffer here,” she says. “And not because the sausages have become more expensive, or we cant travel to Europe. But because our country is broken”.
According to Mila, people do not want to see that Russia and to an even greater extent Kaliningrad is heading for total decay and isolation. “People here are blaming the west, for the sanctions, for all the misery. But there is only one man responsible and that is the man who rules this country”.
She says openly protesting is not possible. “I went with a poster to a planned demonstration, but in the end I was the only one”. And that, according to her, is exactly the problem.