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Putin makes surprise visit to Kaliningrad, flies close to NATO territory

by Nate Ostiller and The Kyiv Independent news desk January 26, 2024 10:06 AM 2 min read
In a pool photograph distributed by the Russian state-owned agency Sputnik, the motorcade of Russia's President Vladimir Putin moves along a street in Kaliningrad on Jan. 25, 2024. (Gavriil Grigorov/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad on Jan. 25, marking his first trip there since shortly after the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Kaliningrad, situated on the Baltic Sea, borders NATO member states, with Poland to the south and Lithuania to the north and east. It is often considered to be a potential flash point of future conflict between NATO and Russia.

Putin's trip there was his first since Finland, located across the Baltic Sea, joined NATO in April 2023. Turkey formally ratified Sweden's NATO accession on Jan. 25, leaving Hungary as the only remaining holdout.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said he supports Sweden joining the alliance, which would effectively turn the Baltic Sea into what has been dubbed by some as a "NATO lake."

Putin's visit to Kaliningrad was viewed by some analysts as "a clear attempt to signal that the Baltic Sea is no Nato sea after Finland and Sweden applied to join NATO."

It also served as a reminder to Kaliningrad residents that they are part of Russia, as well as a demonstration that Russia still has significant military assets in the exclave, the analyst said.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov refuted these assertions, saying that "when the president visits the regions of the Russian Federation, it is not a message to Nato countries."

NATO has sought to strengthen its force posture on its eastern flank, with a particular focus on the Baltics. If Russia were to attack through the Suwalki Gap, a thin strip of Polish territory between Kaliningrad and Russia's ally Belarus, it could effectively cut off the Baltics from the rest of NATO.

Despite the growing concern that a direct military confrontation between NATO and Russia is increasingly likely, Lithuania's chief military commander Valdamaras Rupsys said in an interview on Jan. 25 that "the probability of a war between Russia and NATO is very low, extremely low."

Rupsys acknowledged contradictory statements made recently by Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, who said that a potential NATO-Russia war is a "likely possibility." Preparation for a potential conflict is a necessary move, Rupsys said.

Despite this, the general said that “when we have to discuss military advice with those who are not really qualified to give military advice, there is some confusion.”

“It would be good for everyone to do their job in the whole decision-making process," Rupsys added.

NATO official warns of ‘all-out war’ with Russia within next 20 years
“We have to realize it’s not a given that we are in peace. And that’s why we [Nato forces] are preparing for a conflict with Russia,” said Lieutenant Admiral Rob Bauer, Chair of the NATO Military Committee.
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