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Most Kaliningrad Residents Shake Off Moscow's Warnings Of NATO Threats


Russia and NATO seem locked in a round of tit-for-tat arms buildups. In the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea and its ongoing military involvement in eastern Ukraine, NATO opened a new missile defense base in Romania.

It also broke ground on a second site in Poland. Moscow says this is another example of the NATO threat right on Russia's borders. NPR's Corey Flintoff went to Russia's border area with Poland to see how the people there felt about it.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Kaliningrad is the ultimate border area. It's an exclave - a part of Russian territory that doesn't actually touch the rest of the country. It's a region about the size of Connecticut, wedged between two NATO countries, Lithuania to the north and Poland to the south.

Today, it's home to a major Russian naval base. Russian President Vladimir Putin wasn't happy with NATO's decision to put one of its missile defense bases in Poland, not far from the border with Kaliningrad.



FLINTOFF: Putin told his defense chiefs that the U.S.-built Aegis missile system was unleashing a new arms race. The potential for conflict is something that people here in Kaliningrad are keenly aware of. This place was practically flattened during the Second World War, pounded by British bombers and Soviet artillery.

When the Soviets captured the territory, they drove out the German inhabitants and replaced them with Soviet citizens. The city today is the product of a long, slow rebuilding process, including the reconstruction of the cathedral and the medieval gates that were landmarks when this was the German city of Konigsberg.

Even with the recession hitting Russia, Kaliningrad still has an era of relative prosperity built up by low-tax trade with its EU neighbors. I met up with Konstantin Doroshok, an opposition member of the regional parliament, in an upscale cafe.

KONSTANTIN DOROSHOK: (Speaking Russian).

FLINTOFF: He says many people from the region have traveled in Europe. And they can't be persuaded that bad people live next door. In his words, "we've seen them. And we know that they're good people. In general," Doroshok says, "younger people in Kaliningrad tend to be less susceptible to propaganda about NATO threats in the Russian news media."

That's echoed by Anastasia Udovenko, a history student who's studying in a park at Baltic Federal University.

ANASTASIA UDOVENKO: (Through interpreter). It's been tense here, but there's been tension here for ages. The older people worry. But we younger people are less political. And so far, we don't think it's a serious threat.

FLINTOFF: Sitting on a park bench not far away, I met one of those older people, an 80-year-old pensioner who was a child during the war. Galina Fedoseyeva says she's not afraid because she trusts in President Putin.

GALINA FEDOSEYEVA: (Speaking Russian).

FLINTOFF: "Vladimir Vladimirovich is at the helm," she says. "He knows what we need for defense. If it's not enough, he'll increase our might so enemies won't come here." Fedoseyeva hurries to add that what she wants is peace so people like her can live safely.

There were also people in Kaliningrad who declined to talk to me, including anyone from the local governor's office. The head of the local parliament's defense committee said that it wouldn't make sense for him to talk with a foreign reporter.

But a local farmer was willing to talk. Viktor Hoffman says growers have been doing well since Russia's countersanctions blocked many farm imports from the European Union. But, he says, he doesn't want to see continued tensions with NATO.

VIKTOR HOFFMAN: (Speaking Russian).

FLINTOFF: Hoffman says the confrontation could lead to a collapse of all relations. In his words, "I don't want to talk about war. We can't even consider it because there won't be any winners."

Corey Flintoff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.