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Sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad has become a geopolitical headache for both western and Russian politicians following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Until 1945 the city was known by its German name of Königsberg, located in the Empire's easternmost province of East Prussia. In 1945, as the Soviet Army advanced across Eastern Europe, the city and its surrounding region were incorporated into the Soviet Union and given a new name in honour of Mikhail Kalinin, the Soviet Union's first head of state.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Kaliningrad's awkward geographical position became an uncomfortable anomaly. All overland passenger and freight traffic had to pass through Lithuania into Belarus and from there into Russia, accentuating the region's isolation from the rest of the country. With the accession of Poland and Lithuania to both the European Union and NATO, the city's strategic importance increased significantly.

Since February 2022 this geographical quirk has become a potential flashpoint. In mid 2022, in protest against the war, Lithuania unilaterally banned Russian trains from crossing its territory for a number of weeks, raising the stakes in the already acrimonious relations between the two countries. And while connections to Kaliningrad have since been restored, the long term outlook for the territory has started to look problematic.

For Russia, painfully aware of strategic weaknesses on its western frontier, Kaliningrad's isolation has increased the sense of encirclement by hostile governments in hock to NATO and the US. The short stretch of territory separating Kaliningrad and Belarus, a country that has stood firmly by Russia's side since the breakup of the Soviet Union, is known as the Suwalki Gap and has military planners pondering its future significance.

For NATO and the EU Kaliningrad, home to Russia's Baltic Fleet and its only ice free port in the region, is an increasingly glaring weak spot on its eastern flank which, in case of a future confrontation, could present serious challenges.

Much of historic Königsberg was badly damaged during the Second World War and rebuilt in stark Soviet style. Most traces of centuries of German presence were either actively removed or left to decay. The German speaking population fled en masse in 1945 and hundreds of thousands of Russians from across the Soviet Union were brought in as settlers. And yet Kaliningrad, the birthplace of Immanuel Kant and former coronation city of the Prussian monarchy, retains some of the distant glory of the Teutonic State and a bygone era of early Christianisation of the Baltic.

Elena Chernyshova explored the city and the hints of its illustrious past.
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