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Inside Nato's frontier with Putin where short bridge crosses border like Berlin Wall as Russians taunt West with Z sign | The Sun

EVERY morning the residents of this tiny border town wake up to the chilling knowledge that they are separated from Russia by just a 200 metre bridge.

They live in fear as a giant painted "Z" – the symbol of Vladimir Putin's twisted war in Ukraine – leers at them from across theNemunas River.

And they tremble at the thought that one day their bridge will see tanks and soldiers streaming across – just like what happened last year in Ukraine.

It is by strange quirks of geography and diplomacy as they find themselves a stone's throw with Russia's Kaliningrad.

Kaliningrad is an isolated stretch of land cut off from Russia and left sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.

The region is heavily militarised, at its peak being home to more than 200,000 Russian soldiers.


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And so The Sun Online headed to the Lithuanian border town of Panemune – which has a population of less than 200.

It is just a few minutes walk across the river from the town of Sovetsk in Russia, which is home to around 40,000.

And the narrow bridge that separates them is the closest thing to a no man's land between Nato – which Lithuania joined in 2004 – and Russia.

One building on Russia's side of the riverbank has been bedecked with the enormous "Z".

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It is painted in orange and black, the colours of the Ribbon of Saint George, another Russian military symbol.

The gesture is deliberately provocative, just next to the Queen Louise Bridge.

It is the only road crossing between Lithuania and Russia.

Lithuanian border guard Gedas Zagorskas tells The Sun Online that the giant Z appeared shortly after the Russian invasion last year.

As we take pictures on the bridge, he also warns us that the Russians are almost certainly filming us.

He adds that we should keep an eye out for spotting the same people multiple times.

They could be a Russian tail, he warned.

Panemune is officially registered as a town, despite its tiny population.

It sits on the north bank of the Nemunas River in the southwest of the country, around 140 miles west of Lithuania's capital Vilnius.

If Russia starts a war against Lithuania, Panemune will probably be swept away

Last April, Russia banned the movement of vehicles over the Queen Louise Bridge to Panemune.

Gedas tells us the Z appeared shortly after the Russian invasion.

For locals in the tiny town, a mixture of fear and frustration pervades.

Fear that, in their words, if Ukraine falls then they are next for Russia's imperial ambitions.

Frustration that they have lost their ties to their nearest big town and trading partner as a result of the crisis.

One Panemune resident, 64-year-old Alfredas, couldn't be any closer to the Russian border.

His sprawling house, a former German customs building constructed when Kaliningrad was still the East Prussian city of Konigsberg, is just metres from the border separating Russia and Lithuania.

Alfredas said he feared that the conflict in Ukraine would "grow into a much bigger war" in the spring.


The Sun’s man in the Baltic, Anthony Blair, travelled to Panemune, on the border with Lithuania and Russia

It is less cold than it has been on the trip, but blustery winds mean there is still a chill in the air.

After speaking to Lithuanian border guard Gedas Zagorskas, we are warned that if we are filming the Russians, they are almost certainly filming us.

He also tells us to look out for any possible Russian tails.

If we see the same person multiple times in the small town, they could have been sent to keep an eye on us.

Indeed, we do spot a lone man watching us closely with a camera at several stages during our time in Panemune.

However, in a town of just 200 people, that might not be too surprising.

He added: "If Russia occupies Ukraine, the next target will be the Baltic."

If the unthinkable happens, what will become of his life and his small town?

He said: "If Russia starts a war against Lithuania, Panemune will probably be swept away."

Antanas, a 77-year-old Soviet army veteran, also feels worried about the future.

He was stationed in Ukraine during his military service and has "huge respect" for the country.

Before the war, he had a number of friends in Sovetsk on the Russian side of the river but admits relations with some of them have become strained since the start of the conflict.

He wants nothing to do with his pro-war Russian friends anymore.

As for the giant "Z" facing straight at his town, Antanas says he "cannot even look at it," it makes him feel sick.

Now Antanas feels under "constant stress". He says that older people in Panemune are particularly anxious about what comes next.

"Putin is unpredictable," he says. "Some people think Lithuania is the next target."

Sigitas, 58, is a customs worker who has lived in Panemune for some 20 years.

With Panemune being the only road connection between Lithuania and Russia, he feels anxious about living in the town.

"If Russia invades, it will happen here," he says.

The uncertainty is also nerve-wracking.

Panemune lies close to the Suwalki Gap, the 40-mile-long border between Lithuania and Poland, stretching from the Kaliningrad enclave of Russia in the west to Putin-friendly Belarus in the east.

This is a highly vulnerable spot in NATO's defences.

Sigitas was stationed in Lviv, modern-day Ukraine, during his time in the Soviet army, and knows the Ukrainians very well.

"They are very tough, but they face a very strong enemy," he says. "What we are seeing now is just the start."

And, like many others in Panemune, he worries about his country's future if Ukraine is defeated by Russia.

"If Ukraine falls, Lithuania will be the next target," he says.

But if Russia is defeated, and pushed out of Crimea and the Donbas, what will that mean for Kaliningrad?

Sigitas believes the existence of the Russian territory will become untenable if Russia is defeated.

At first, he was emotional seeing the Z sign, but now he is numb to it.

He believes the current crisis is something deeper than just the war in Ukraine.

"The Russian mentality is very different," he says. "Before the war, Russians and Lithuanians had things to talk about.

"Now the Russians are more standoffish."

Kaliningrad was annexed by Germany in 1945 – and was closed military zone throughout most of the Soviet era.

It is still home to a military base and a key naval port, and has housed nuclear-capable missiles over the last 10 years.

But even the isolated region is not free from the impact of Vlad's war in Ukraine.

It is believed around 30,000 Russian troops were stationed there – and now only 6,000 are left.

Thousands are believed to have been redeployed to Ukraine.

And they are now in the process of being replaced by hastily mobilised conscripts called up by Putin.

Kaliningrad is also of great importance to Russia as it houses the country's only ice-free port to access Europe.

Koenigsberg, as the city of Kaliningrad was once known, was founded by Teutonic knights in the 13th century.

It became one of the cities of the Hanseatic League and was once the capital of Prussia – a prominent German state.

The Hanseatic League was a confederation of merchant guilds and market towns in northwestern and central Europe.

Kaliningrad was still part of Germany until its annexation by the USSR following World War 2 when it suffered extensive destruction.

The German population was expelled or fled after the war ended – leaving it in the hands of Russia.

Putin is believed to be preparing for a massive new offensive in the coming weeks to coincide with the first anniversary of the war on February 24.

Vlad's future is now believed to be tied to his success or failure in Ukraine.

Russia expected to be welcomed as conquering liberators when they staged their invasion nearly one year ago.

But instead of flags and cheering crowns, they were met with gunfire and brave resistance.

Vlad is believed to be desperate to try and achieve something in Ukraine – especially with the anniversary so close.

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