Russia controls this vital strategic exclave in the heart of NATO-allied eastern Europe

The Russian exclave of Kaliningrad is a political and geographic anomaly. Separated from Russia and situated on the Baltic Sea, the region is surrounded by NATO-member states Poland and Lithuania. It’s closer to Berlin and Prague than it is to Moscow and St Petersburg.

Until 1945, Kaliningrad was known as Königsberg, the former capital of East Prussia. But after its World War II victory over Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union annexed the city and the surrounding area, which served as a strategically vital warm-water port on the Baltic. The Soviets mounted a policy of Russification, and what was once an overwhelmingly German quickly took on its current, Russian character.

Throughout the Cold War, Kaliningrad was as a dagger pointed at Scandinavia and Central Europe. That part of the Baltic coast was one of the most heavily militarised regions in the USSR. The exclave still has great military and strategic value for Moscow, especially given Russian president Vladimir Putin’s appetite for stirring up trouble with his neighbours.

Russia’s new military doctrine named Kaliningrad as one of three fronts for militarization and Moscow sent nuclear capable missiles to the region as part of war games last week.

Annexed in 1945, K√∂nigsberg’s primarily German population either fled or was deported after World War II in a policy of Russification.

KaliningradGoogle Maps/Amanda Macias/Business InsiderKaliningrad is a seaport city and the administrative center of Kaliningrad Oblast, the Russian exclave between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea.

The city was soon renamed Kaliningrad in honour of Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin, who was one of Stalin’s top lieutenants. His statue still stands in the city.

Statues of Lenin also decorate the city. Here’s one posed in front of a former German Baltic resort building in Kaliningrad.

Other statues celebrating Mother Russia and the Russian space program also stand throughout the city. Here’s a statue of a cosmonaut.

Until the widespread destruction of the city during World War II and its subsequent annexation, Kaliningrad was strongly German. Old German buildings still stand in various places throughout the city.

Philosopher Immanuel Kant, a lifelong resident of Kaliningrad, is also buried in the city beside the Kaliningrad Cathedral.

Kaliningrad’s ultimate strategic value to Russia is that it functions as a warm-water port …

… As well as a staging area for military exercises.

Russia has held frequent exercises in the region and Moscow has often threatened to place nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, which borders multiple NATO states.

Immediately after the collapse of the USSR, Kaliningrad became one of the most economically depressed regions of Russia. Organised crime, drug use, and the prevalence of AIDS skyrocketed.

KaliningradREUTERS/Sergei KarpukhinA man arrives at a hostel for immigrants from the former Soviet Union at a former Luftwaffe airbase in Kaliningrad February 19, 2008.

In response, Russia made Kaliningrad a free-trade zone. In return, citizens in the region were given easier access to neighbouring Lithuania and Poland. By 2007, the economy was in a full recovery.

KaliningradZaytsev ArtemVictory Day celebrations in Kaliningrad.

Today, European influence is steadily growing in Kaliningrad as its approximately 1 million citizens can freely visit and shop in the surrounding NATO states. But the standoff between Russia and NATO-allied Europe has only heightened its strategic value to Moscow.

NOW WATCH: This 26-year-old from Baltimore took a 35,000-mile road trip and ended up fighting in the Libyan revolution

NOW WATCH: Briefing videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.