Russia opens sea route to Kaliningrad to break 'blockade'

Russia has broken what it regarded as an unfriendly European Union blockade of Kaliningrad by opening a sea route to connect the heavily militarised Russian enclave with "the motherland" for the first time.

A sliver of Russian territory sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, Kaliningrad found itself marooned hundreds of miles from the Russian mainland when the two countries joined the EU in 2004.

Since then the enclave has been a source of tension between Moscow and Brussels, with Russia arguing that its access to the region is hampered by Lithuania's government, with which it enjoys frosty relations.

Russia's fears were compounded recently when Vilnius threatened to close the main rail route into Kaliningrad "for repairs" in a tit-for-tat row with Moscow over oil supplies. Moscow is therefore billing the new twice-weekly ferry service as an antidote to what has been sarcastically called a new iron or "blue" curtain (the colour of the European Union flag). From now on the Kremlin will be able to supply its most westerly region via a one-day sea route stretching across the Baltic Sea from the port of Baltiisk in the Kaliningrad region to the port of Ust-Luga in the Leningrad region, near St Petersburg.

The route, which will initially be only for cargo shipments but may be extended to passenger services, was inaugurated on Sunday under the watchful eye of President Vladimir Putin, who hailed it as "a matter of national security". Russia's state-owned Rossiya television channel was more blunt; it said the route would "deprive the Baltic states of an instrument of influence over Russia". Symbolically the first cargo load included artillery equipment being sent back to the Russian mainland for repair.

Russian television showed Sergey Ivanov, the Defence Minister, complaining that Lithuania had prevented Moscow from transiting such equipment in the past. The service does not yet have the capacity to replace the rail service completely since Russia does not have enough ferries and needs to build at least four more vessels. That Kaliningrad even exists is a quirk of history. It was originally called Konigsberg and was part of German East Prussia but in 1945 it had a dramatic "rebranding" when the Red Army seized it from the Nazis as a trophy of war and it was subsumed into the USSR.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 it found itself cut off from Russia and when the European Union borders washed over it in 2004 life became even more complicated. Shifting geopolitics left the region, which is the headquarters of Russia's Baltic Fleet and home to one million Russian citizens, in a situation that Russian nationalists compared to the Soviet blockade of West Berlin from 1948 to 1949.

Today, to Russians' annoyance, they must apply for Lithuanian travel documents to visit what is another part of their own country since they must transit Lithuania to get there. However, the new ferry service will allow Moscow to re-supply Kaliningrad without having to cross Lithuania, a country the Kremlin perceives as "unfriendly".

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