After the Soviet Union sacrificed millions of lives to help defeat Nazi Germany, it received a token of gratitude from its allies: a chunk of territory surrounding the Prussian city of Konigsberg on the Baltic Sea. Now called Kaliningrad, the isolated and highly militarized Russian enclave of nearly 1 million people is provoking renewed fears of war in Europe.
Following a Russian military buildup in Kaliningrad over the past few months, neighboring Lithuania announced on Monday that it would build an 80-mile-long border fence equipped with surveillance cameras, scheduled to be finished later this year. "The reasons are both economic to prevent smuggling and geopolitical to strengthen the E.U.'s external border," Interior Minister Eimutis Misiunas told the Agence France-Presse news agency. The project is expected to be funded mostly by the European Union as a security investment.
The fence is the latest sign of the heightened tensions between Russia and the West along the Baltic Sea. All three of the tiny Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — are members of the E.U. and NATO. They also border Russia and were all once part of the Soviet Union.
After Russia's war in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea, Baltic leaders fear their countries may be the next targets for potential Russian expansion. They have accused Russia of frequently violating NATO airspace, landing covert units on their territory and even practicing invasions of the three small countries. Politicians in Lithuania believe the fence could act as a deterrent against potential Russian incursions.
The biggest fear is that Russia might attempt to close the "Suwalki Gap," the 60-mile-long stretch of Poland that separates Kaliningrad from Russia's ally, Belarus. If Russia invaded that stretch of land, the Baltic states would be cut off from the rest of Europe.
Russian officials have rejected accusations that they want to reabsorb the Baltic states. Anton Alikhanov, the interim governor of Kaliningrad, sarcastically told Russia's government-funded broadcaster RT on Monday that his region would provide the construction materials for the border fence. Russia has also pointed to the 3,500 American soldiers deployed to Poland last week, as well as missile defense systems installed along Russia's borders, to argue that NATO should be blamed for the growing tensions.
If Russia ever did decide it wanted to invade, the fence would probably do little to stop Russian forces. A fence might prevent smugglers and soldiers from simply walking into Lithuania, Misiunas acknowledged on Monday, but it would certainly not prevent tanks from entering the country.
But with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump calling NATO "obsolete" and fears about the future of the alliance reaching new heights, Lithuania may be hoping its fence project will signal its determination to resist Russian pressure and help keep the peace.