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Geopolitics

Kaliningrad Revisited: Where Putin's ​Nuclear Threat Is Most Chilling

Vladimir Putin has put his nuclear forces on alert — a shock for many, but even more so for those just across the Polish border from Kaliningrad where Russian nuclear missiles are stationed, and aimed at European capitals from Warsaw to Berlin.

Photo of soldiers with a missile

An Iskander-M missile system during a demonstration show in 2017

Sorokin Donat/TASS via ZUMA
Klaus Geiger and Dominik Kalus

GOLDAP — In the immediate vicinity of this Polish tourist town, there are three special features: a picturesque lake, a renowned health spa — and Russian weapons of mass destruction. The small town of 14,000 inhabitants is located directly on the border with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

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The region, which is geographically separated from Russia and located by the Baltic Sea, is of vital importance to Moscow when it comes to threatening Europe — with nuclear weapons in particular.


Since 2018, the area has been home to nuclear-tipped short-range Iskander missiles. Russia sees the missiles as retaliation for the stationing of NATO soldiers in the Baltic states and Poland.

A very current threat

“Of course people are afraid,” says Brygida Zylinska, an educator and volunteer at the “Haus der Heimat” (House of the Homeland) meeting place in Goldap. People are well aware of the missiles, she says.

They are only 50 kilometers as the crow flies from the village stationed in Chernyakhovsk in Russia's Kaliningrad Oblast on the Baltic Sea just north of the Polish border. Like all her friends, Zylinska has been following the news about Ukraine for months. The Iskander missiles have a range of 500 kilometers, they could hit European capitals: Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga, Copenhagen — and Berlin.

Disinterest should have evaporated.

For the German population, which showed little interest in military strategy issues before last week's Russian invasion of Ukraine, the nuclear missiles in Kaliningrad had hardly been an issue. The danger of using nuclear weapons was considered a relic of the distant past. A pale reminder of the 1980s, when the issue of nuclear armaments still brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets and could topple European governments.

But Sunday, the general disinterest of the past three decades of nuclear weapon policy should have well evaporated when Vladimir Putin announced that he was putting his military's nuclear defense arsenal on "highest alert."

Already last Wednesday, in his speech justifying the invasion of Ukraine, Putin had already threatened the West with “consequences you have never experienced before” if it interfered in the Ukraine war. A barely veiled threat of nuclear weapons.

His announcement Sunday on Russian television that his country’s nuclear forces were on high alert included instructions for Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu and the Chief of General Staff to put the nuclear deterrent forces in a “special regime” of combat readiness. Top representatives of leading NATO countries had not only imposed sanctions, Putin argued, but also allowed themselves to make “aggressive statements against our country.”

Looking for a pretext

Putin had already declared the same nuclear warning level in the wake of the Crimea annexation in 2014. Acute panic is therefore certainly out of place after the Russian president’s statements. But where nuclear weapons are involved, the risk of an unintended escalation must always be considered.

Russia’s nuclear doctrine, last updated in 2020, provides for the use of nuclear weapons in two cases: in the event of a nuclear attack on Russia; but in addition, Moscow reserves the use in large-scale deployments of conventional weapons against Russia and its allies when the existence of the Russian state is threatened.

Given Putin’s invented reasons for war (genocide in eastern Ukraine, neo-Nazi government in Kyiv), facts may be secondary if Russia really wants to see a pretext for using nuclear weapons. Russia’s atomic arsenal is controlled by three nuclear suitcases: One is with the president, one with the defense minister, and one with the Chief of Staff.

Anyone who wants to launch a Russian nuclear strike must have two of these three suitcases in his possession. Russian Defense Minister Shoygu is considered a devoted confidant of Putin.

In the port of Kaliningrad

Sludge Ulper

Counting warheads

One thing is certain: Russia, which was insulted as a “regional power” by then U.S. President Barack Obama a few years back, is the largest nuclear power in the world. The country possesses some 6,250 nuclear warheads, according to the latest figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). That’s slightly more than the U.S. arsenal, and nearly half of the roughly 13,000 such weapons worldwide. Some of these are discarded warheads, but about 4,500 are deployable. An estimated 1,600 of them are ready to be launched or dropped at present — on missiles, from submarines or by aircraft. Another 2,900 are stored in central warehouses.

During the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union had even more nuclear warheads. Then in the 1980s, with the policy of détente, came disarmament talks. In the process, limits were agreed upon for several types of weapons. Crucial for Europe was the INF Treaty concluded in 1987, which provided for a complete ban on medium-range nuclear missiles with a range of between 500 and 5,000 kilometers.

The first treaty to scrap an entire category of weapons significantly reduced the threat to Europe, as Russian medium-range missiles had previously been aimed directly at Europe. However, according to Western intelligence, Putin secretly developed medium-range missiles over the past decade, with the so-called SSC-8 missiles having a range that could reach any target in Germany.

Nuclear danger 200 meters away

In response to the clandestine rearmament, former U.S. President Donald Trump terminated the INF Treaty. It has been out of force since Aug. 2, 2019. Russia admitted the existence of the new missile but denied that they violate the INF Treaty. It said the U.S. had withdrawn from the treaty without cause.

Poland has long been much more aware of the danger.

Putin does not even have to hide the nuclear-tipped missiles in Kaliningrad. They have a maximum range of 500 kilometers and were therefore not covered by the INF Treaty — but are stationed close enough to Europe to reach as far as Germany.

Poland has long been much more aware of the danger, especially near the border with Kaliningrad. If you drive from Gołdap in Poland even further towards Kaliningrad, you come to village of Mażucie. From here, the border to the Russian exclave is visible, just 200 meters away.

A barrier chain and a sign warn against entering the unpaved access road to the border. Michal Fiedorov, 28, has always lived in Mażucie. “Putin is capable of anything,” he says. If the Russians came, he would immediately join the fight and defend his homeland.

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