The Kremlin dismissed those concerns as exaggerated. Russia has never threatened anyone. This is our sovereign decision and nothing to worry about,” a spokesperson for the Iskandar family said in 2018. When Sweden and Finland informed NATO last month under pressure from Russian aggression in Ukraine, Putin publicly shrugged his shoulders. But he stressed that he would not condone any Deployment of NATO weapons In the meantime, he does not miss an opportunity to increase pressure with statements about the so-called “historical rights” of Russia.
This week, for example, he compared himself to Tsar Peter de Groot at a meeting in honor of his 350th birthday. The Tsar who fought the Swedes and “reclaimed” what belonged to Russia. “Now it is up to us to restore and consolidate things,” Putin said. It was also announced this week that the State Duma is considering a bill raising questions about Lithuania’s recognition of its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. No wonder politicians in countries surrounding the Baltic Sea fear direct confrontation and insist on a greater NATO presence in the region.
So there is practice. This week saw the launch of the annual NATO Baltops exercises, with the participation of sixteen countries, including the Netherlands and aspiring members Sweden and Finland. Russia also sent 2,000 soldiers and 200 vehicles to exercises in the Baltic Sea this week, the Interfax news agency reported.
All these sea maneuvers are almost unnoticed here on the shore. But even for young men like Alexander, the reality of war is getting dangerously close. The man in his twenties, who had just finished his military service, was barely standing on the beach this summer, not as a tanned barista, but as a soldier in Ukraine. The military enlistment office is on the phone regularly and even showed up at its door this week. His best friend and his maid took the lead. “He was training in Syria for three days when he was suddenly sent there.” As he sips his cappuccino, Alexander aloud wonders if he’ll ever see his friend alive again.
Sasja, Jana and Varvara walk through the waves in the bright sunset sky. There is no sign of any fear of the West among teenage girls. As if to emphasize it, Sasja, a blonde girl with chubby cheeks and big eyes, wears an oversized leather jacket with the American flag on it. “My dad found it in the attic, and let me have it,” she says proudly. They say enthusiastically that they have nothing to do with Russia’s military adventures in Ukraine. My mother says it is better if I leave Russia. “It gives me the foreign currency,” Sasja says. “The elderly are the ones who watch a lot of TV, and they are the ones who support it. Like my uncle, but he really is an exception for us,” Jana laughs.
The blonde Varvara, who wore a green jacket and white jeans, moved with her family from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv to Russia in 2014: first to Khabarovsk in Siberia, then back west to Kaliningrad. She explains her parents’ decision to leave Ukraine: “We spoke Russian, so we were bullied sometimes.” According to Varvara, bullying wasn’t too bad. “My sister has stayed and says that so far she’s a Russian with hardly any problems.” Varvara wants to return to Ukraine. “But I don’t think that’s very realistic at the moment.”
On a Saturday afternoon, Yevgeny is sitting over a cup of coffee at the local bakery in Sovetsk, an hour and a half to the northeast. Here in the former Prussian town of Tilsit, the Neman River separates Russia from Lithuania. The imposing Queen-Louise Bridge, temporarily closed for restoration, is well protected on both sides. As if to prevent the Lithuanians across the river from forgetting the Russian presence, a large wooden “Z” hangs on the facade of an old German half-timbered house, the now widespread statement of support for the Russian army.
Yevgeny, an athletic boy of the sixties in sneakers and skinny black jeans, was born in Sovetsk. At the age of three he moved to Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, where his parents worked in the mines. His father was from Western Ukraine. He laughs sarcastically: “Exactly where the Nazis are now.” In the late nineties, he returned to Kaliningrad. Now, as a government employee, he’s doing a “supervised thing” in the medical sector.