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Putin sparks fears of war with Nato with visit to Kaliningrad

Putin sparks fears of war with Nato with visit to Kaliningrad

Vladimir Putin gave a talk to students at the Kant Baltic Federal University

Vladimir Putin leaves a commemorative note at Kant Baltic Federal University where he also gave a talk to students – SPUTNIK/REUTERS

Vladimir Putin has raised fears of war with Nato by threatening the EU nations bordering Kaliningrad on a surprise visit to the Russian exclave.

The Russian president flew into the territory, which is sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland, amid growing concern it could become the flashpoint for a future conflict.

Putin appeared to taunt the Baltic nations, flying close to Estonia and hugging the coasts of Latvia and Lithuania in his “Flying Kremlin” presidential plane, before landing in Kaliningrad.

Fighter jets were deployed off the eastern coast of the Swedish island of Gotland as Putin approached the Baltic Sea.

Talking to students at the Kant Baltic Federal University, Putin hit out at Kaliningrad’s neighbours for tearing down Soviet war memorials.

“This is stunning ignorance and lack of understanding of where they live, what they are doing and what will follow,” he said.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said the visit was not intended to send a warning to Nato but for the purpose of boosting “development.”

“When the president visits the regions of the Russian Federation, it is not a message to Nato countries,” Mr Peskov said.

“The most important thing is not to send messages, but to do what he has been doing for many years – working on the development of our country and our regions.”

Despite the Kremlin’s denials, the timing of Putin’s visit to the heart of Europe – amid a heightened Russian threat of a wider war with the West – is significant.

Rishi Sunak was forced to rule out conscription on Wednesday after the head of the Army warned that civilians would have to sign up to fight Russia if there was a war.

In January, Boris Pistorius, the German defence minister, said Putin could declare war on Nato in “five to eight years”.

Trip to remind residents ‘you’re Russia’

Camille Grand, an analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, said Putin was sending several messages, including reminding people in Kaliningrad that “you’re Russia”.

“This is in my view a clear attempt to signal that the Baltic Sea is no Nato sea after Finland and Sweden applied to join Nato,” he said.

It was also “a way to remind the West that Russia has military assets in Kaliningrad,” he added.

Mr Peskov said that “militaristic statements” from Baltic countries posed a threat to Kaliningrad, which Russia took over from Germany in the aftermath of the Second World War.

“One year is enough for them to do something horrible in our direction,” he said.

British troops are stationed in Estonia, as part of Nato’s defences. In January, Estonia, together with Latvia, and Lithuania agreed to set up a common Baltic defence zone on their borders with Russia and Belarus. They will build a wall of “anti-mobility defensive installations” and develop missile-artillery cooperation.

Estonia, a former Soviet state, will build 600 bunkers, each accommodating up to 10 soldiers, along its 182-mile border with Russia.

Hanno Pevkur, the Estonian defence minister, said the war in Ukraine proved the need for “physical defensive structures at the border from the first metre to protect Estonia”.

Kaliningrad is viewed as the most likely place for a war to break out between Russia and Nato. 

Moscow deployed warplanes armed with state-of-the-art hypersonic missiles to the region shortly after its illegal invasion of Ukraine.

Later, it threatened to deploy missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads to the Russian “island” on the Baltic Sea.

The 60-mile Suwalki Gap on the border between Poland and Lithuania connects Kaliningrad with Russia’s ally Belarus, where Russian troops are stationed.

If Putin moved his forces from Belarus across the gap to Kaliningrad in a sudden thrust, he could cut off Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from their allies and supply lines in central and western Europe. Nato generals have called the Suwalki Gap the alliance’s “Achilles Heel”.

Putin has been forced to restrict his overseas travel after an international arrest warrant was issued for him over the kidnap of Ukrainian children.

Before his presidential plane landed in Kaliningrad, which Putin last visited shortly after the invasion in 2022, a Nato reconnaissance plane from the Dutch air force circled over the Baltic Sea.

An RAF Boeing RC-135W electronic reconnaissance aircraft also allegedly approached the Kaliningrad region, as well as a French reconnaissance aircraft, according to Russian reports.

Gabrielius Landsbergis, the Lithuanian foreign minister, said on Wednesday before an EU meeting in Brussels: “Yes, we’re convinced that a real war is a likely possibility.”

Boris Pistorius, Germany’s defence minister, warned neither the country’s army nor its public was ready for a war with Russia.

Addressing trainee soldiers at the German military academy in Hamburg, Mr Pistorius said: “Are we seriously ready to defend this country? And who is this ‘we’? This debate has to be had.”

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