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Kaliningrad or Königsberg: why names have meaning

James Loughton

Nestled in-between Poland and Lithuania lies a peculiar landmass, seemingly lost from its motherland, the Kaliningrad Oblast serves as a detached Russian military base. Armed to the teeth and housing the formidable Baltic Fleet of the Russian Navy, its long-range missile systems pose a serious threat to NATO.

Its proximity as the closest Russian region to Western Europe and reputation as an impenetrable fortress has left little thought to NATO challenging its existence. However, as the Russo-Ukraine War escalates in unpredictable ways, first with nuclear weaponry deployment in Belarus and then with mass mercenary mutiny almost reaching Moscow, the idea of Russian sovereignty over Kaliningrad ending may not be entirely ridiculous.

Last month, the Polish government announced that it will increase its efforts to reject “Russification”, a term now commonly used across multiple post-Eastern Bloc states in an attempt to subvert Russian linguistic and cultural effects. This rejection came in the form of removing all government references to the name “Kaliningrad” in favour of the name “Königsberg” - this being the original name for the region during its 679-year period under Teutonic and Prussian/German control.

Following the recommendation of a state commission, the name Königsberg (“Kroleweic” in Polish) will be used in all official documents, with Latvian officials urging similar action by adopting the traditional Baltic names of "Karaļauči” whilst Lithuania is suggesting the name “Karaliaučiaus”. In response Russian authorities have slammed these decisions, declaring the renaming a “hostile act”.

An overreaction surely? How could a simple renaming of a region require declarations of hostility?

Well, names have power, and in the case of Kaliningrad, these names highlight the historically contested nature of one of Moscow’s most strategic possessions. Originally, the city of Königsberg was established by Teutonic Knights during the Northern Crusades of the 1200s; as time passed, its Germanic occupants evolved through succeeding states - the Teutonic Order, Duchy of Prussia, East Prussia and eventually the German Empire. All called it home.

Detached from mainland Germany following the Versailles Treaty, Königsberg and East Prussia’s existence surrounded by Poland served as the match to light the Second World War. Afterwards, the city and its surrounding region would become one of the Soviet Union's many geographic spoils of war. Serving as a hub for the Baltic Military District and a forward operating base for the Baltic Fleet, its westward positioning and warm water ports made it a military prize worth guarding.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 saw the area once again surrounded by foreign lands, over a thousand kilometres away from its capital, Moscow. Despite this newfound geographic insecurity, it remained an internationally recognised part of Russia. Decades of “Russification” through renaming, rejection of traditional Baltic German culture and mass population exchanges have resulted in Kaliningrad’s artificial belonging to Russia transforming into widely accepted normality.

However, with the catastrophic failures of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the increasing unity in European securitization, there is the potential for this to change.

Looking back at the subject of names; following the 2022 invasion, Ukraine appealed to the world to adopt a rebranding of its capital. Overnight “Kiev” became “Kyiv”. At first glance, the geopolitical ramifications of such a change may seem inconsequential, especially considering this was not a name change, but rather a more accurate pronunciation. Yet its purpose served to preserve Ukrainian political independence in the face of possible devastation.

Kyiv was almost unanimously adopted by the greater world, respecting Ukraine’s wishes to enrich its own cultural legacy and reject lasting Russian cultural remnants. Through name-changing, Ukraine affirmed both its ability to implement decision-making over its sovereign territory in spite of an occupying force and its ability to influence perceptions in other states.

Media campaigns across Western Europe saw pushes for change being implemented from supermarket brands to national governments. Through soft power - indirect power that shapes preferences in contrast to militarily forceful hard power - Ukraine has altered the social norms of other communities. Eventually, the majority of people outside of Ukraine will forget about the name ‘Kiev’, assuming it had always been “Kyiv”, thus removing a Russian cultural influence from Ukrainian society.

This is why the altering of Kaliningrad’s name is perceived as a threat by Russia; it has not only used the same linguistic soft power tactics to cement its own rule over Kaliningrad, but also in its recent brutal invasion. Putin’s use of “Novorossiya” to label Ukrainian regions under Russian occupation is an attempt to justify military action, linguistically linking historic terminology to modern war.

Kaliningrad’s threat to NATO security is evident in a small piece of territory between Poland and Lithuania, called the Suwałki Gap. About 60 miles in distance, the area could rapidly be closed off by Russian troops attacking from Kaliningrad and Belarus. This would immediately separate the Baltics from the rest of NATO. Furthermore - although never confirmed - Russia has never denied that its Iskander missiles stationed in Kaliningrad possess attached nuclear weaponry.

Yet following the military and political failures of the Ukraine invasion, Kaliningrad’s threat to NATO has transformed into a liability for Russia.

According to a Forbes report from last year, 80% of Kaliningrad’s 12,000-strong garrison was transferred to Ukraine. Kaliningrad’s economic situation has also increasingly become a burden on Russia as Lithuania implemented several blockers reducing the ability of goods to enter the region. Although these have since been lifted, the ability for the region to be blocked, combined with Sweden’s future ascension into, leave the region surrounded by sea and land.

Whilst the idea of Ukraine retaking Crimea had previously been dismissed as unrealistic, it is now receiving considerable attention from Western military analysts. Recent internal conflicts and military instability present a new reality - Russia is descending into unpredictable chaos. For Kaliningrad, a new possibility may emerge; as such, by taking advantage of its increasing weaknesses, demilitarisation and eventual annexation by neighbouring powers is not off the table.

The first step towards this end goal may be its de-Russification.

This is not to suggest that Poland reviving the names of Königsberg or Kroleweic will lead to Moscow surrendering its most strategic Western possession. However, such action indirectly challenges Russian sovereignty.

The use of Krolewic re-establishes Polish cultural ties to the

region, laying the groundwork for territorial claims and justifying a future military or political intervention to the public.

Historically, invasions and foreign policy expansions have required some form of historical justification - just as Russia uses the Kievan Rus to question Ukrainian sovereignty, Poland and Baltic states may weaponize their own historical terminology.

Contestation over Kaliningrad will not happen anytime soon, but this linguistic conflict could be another headache for an already embattled Russia.

Image: Getty Images

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