A new crisis front is shaking Europe and threatens to definitively spark a conflict between Russia and Western countries. While in Ukraine the Russian army reports that is has conquered Severodonetsk and there is a resurgence of missile attacks on Kyiv, Odessa, Kharkiv, and most lately Kremenchuk, the tug-of-war currently taking place between Lithuania and the Russian Federation risks unpredictable consequences.
As of June 18th Lithuania announced it was blocking Russian goods transported overland between Kaliningrad and Belarus. These include construction material, cement, metal products, coal, hi-tech elements but also vodka and caviar. From a Lithuanian perspective this decision is justified by the application of a fourth package of European sanctions approved last March. It is a position shared by the EU Commission as explained by spokesperson Eric Mamer who said, “Lithuania is implementing the European Union’s restrictive measures unanimously imposed on Russia by the Council in the last months, in response to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. This is of course not a “blockade”. Supplies of essential goods to Kaliningrad will remain undisturbed.”
Russia sees this situation in a very different manner. The governor of the oblast of Kaliningrad, Anton Alikhanov, has made it known that he considers it the most serious violation there has ever been of the right to free transit. The Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Maria Zakharova raised tension even more, making it known that the Kremlin’s reaction will be practical and not diplomatic. These were words that leave the field open to various options, ranging from retaliation in the energy field – there has been talk of a cut in the electricity grid – to the more extreme option involving military intervention.
The United States immediately made it known that their support for Lithuania is written in stone and reminded everyone of the importance of NATO’s Article 5, which commits member nations to intervene if one of its members should be attacked.
A special exclave
The criticality of the situation originates in the particular status of Kaliningrad, an exclave of the Russian Federation, set between Lithuania and Poland, overlooking the Baltic Sea to the West. It is a territory that became part of Russia’s area of influence at the end of World War II while until then the region had historically been German. For 690 years, the current city of Kaliningrad, from which the oblast gets its name, had in fact been called Konigsberg. Founded in 1255 by Teutonic knights, its lands were part of Eastern Prussia of which it was an important cultural centre. In 1544 the Albertine University was founded and it was here that Immanuel Kant lived. Furthermore, for centuries Konigsberg was the largest and most fortified garrison in Prussia, due to its privileged position controlling the Baltic Sea. Conquered by the Red Army in 1945, Stalin enforced the mass expulsion of the native population and repopulated it with people from the Soviet Union. The name was changed to Kaliningrad in honour of Mikhail Kalinin, president of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet who died at that time.
The idea was to turn the territory into a stronghold on the Baltic, which in the intentions of the Georgian dictator was to become a kind of Soviet Mare Nostrum. The key decision, with repercussion still ongoing, was that of not associating Kaliningrad to the Lithuanian SSR but to the Russian one. In this way, the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the USSR resulted in the isolation of the oblast from the rest of the country. Treaties on the circulation of people and goods signed with Poland and Lithuania in the early 1990s have however allowed the region to live peacefully for many years, to the point that Kaliningrad had been able to discover its vocation as a tourist destination. In 2018 is was one of the nations that hosted the Football World Championships organised by Russia.
However, things started to deteriorate over the past decade as diplomatic relations between the Russian Federation and Western countries got nastier. The occupation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in the Donbas meant that Kaliningrad increasingly acquired the role of a strategic outpost in the heart of Europe. The headquarters of Russia’s Baltic Fleet are located here and the fearsome Iskender missiles, which can hit targets within a 500 km radius, were installed here four decades ago. In early May, Russia carried out a simulated nuclear missile attack precisely from Kaliningrad, alarming neighbouring countries.
On several occasions in recent months, Russia has threatened Poland and the Baltic countries with reprisals for their position in the conflict in Ukraine. Poland and Lithuania are among the European countries that have offered the most military aid to Kyiv. Last June 9th the Russian MP Yevgeny Fyodorov presented a draft law to the Duma so as to annul the acknowledgment of Lithuania’s independence. This may have encouraged Vilnius to assume an even more rigid position.
The spotlights are now shining on what is known as the “Suwałki gap”, a Polish town less than 50 km from the border with Kaliningrad which lends its name to the strip of land shared by Poland and Lithuania that separates Russian territory from Belarus. For years international analysts have identified this as the weak point that could jeopardise the security of NATO’s eastern flank. An attack on this area would isolate the Baltic countries from the rest of the alliance and cut them off from supply lines, since Poland and Lithuania are only connected by two motorways and a railway.
Concern has increased in recent months due to the fact that Belarus has de facto been militarily joined to the Russian Federation. As Foreign Policy reported, on the eve of the conflict Moscow had deployed 30,000 soldiers to Belarus, including the Spetsnaz elite units, Su-25 attack planes, assault helicopters, drones and an S-400 air defence system. Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime has not so far offered direct military assistance in the attack on Ukraine, but has allowed his country to be used as an operational base for launching missiles and allowing the Russian Army’s aircraft and helicopters to take off from there. It is feared that the country may also be used for launching an attack aimed at linking Kaliningrad to Belarus.
Amidst fear and reassurance
Such concern is reflected on those who live there. On the Polish side an organisation of citizens has asked the authorities in Warsaw to build emergency shelters to be used should war beak out there. Three opposition MPs made the same request to the Defence Ministry which however made it known that such responsibilities belong to local authorities and the National Civil Defence that is led by the Fire Brigade.
The lack of shelters is a national problem and not just a local one. A recent survey revealed that in the whole country there are only 62,000 facilities of this kind, enough to guarantee the safety of only 1.3 million people and hence 3% of the population.
The government has recently tried to be reassuring, sending a message that underground parking facilities and cellars can be used for this thanks to high building standards. Colonel Andrzej Kruczyński, a former official in the Special Ground Forces – GROM – told the news website Wirtualna Polska that Russia is not capable of attacking another country following the losses suffered in Ukraine. “It will take years before they recover.” The war scenario is generally considered improbable, but Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned that “If Russia ever had the intention of attacking Poland, the Kremlin needs to know that there are 40 million Poles ready to use weapons to defend their homeland.”
Cover Photo: A cargo terminal in the port of Kaliningrad, Russia (Mikhail Golenkov / Sputnik via AFP).
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