Lithuania’s attempts to ban the passage of sanctioned goods to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad has provoked Putin’s ire. Though the resulting “crisis” has been complex, Vilnius may have emerged as the loser.
What Happened and When?
In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, the European Union (EU) and the European Council adopted several sanction packages against Moscow, covering the financial, energy, transport, and defence sectors. The first two sanction packages did not create much controversy, but the third and the fourth ‒ which concerned prohibition of imports/exports from/to Russia of items such as steel, ferrous metals, cement, liquor, various luxury goods, coal, and extracted fossil fuels ‒ did. When Lithuania implemented EU-mandated sanctions on 17 June, halting the transit of freight trains and trucks carrying banned goods from Russia to Kaliningrad via its territory, Moscow unleashed it’s discontent towards Lithuania, while also becoming a point of controversy between the European Commission (EC) and Vilnius. It is important to note that the transit of unsanctioned goods and passengers between Russia and Kaliningrad continued without any restrictions because Lithuania did not take any unilateral measures to limit transit of unsanctioned goods and Russian passengers.
However, Lithuania’s implementation of EU trade sanctions was a good enough reason for Moscow to accuse Vilnius of “blockading” Kaliningrad. In response to Lithuania’s “hostile actions and aggression” toward Russia, Moscow threatened multiple countermeasures: from the imposition of “painful measures” on Lithuania in economic and energy sectors, to rescinding of Russia’s acknowledgement of Lithuania’s independence, to the potential use of military action (including the use of nuclear weapons stationed in Kaliningrad). As Moscow’s disinformation attacks multiplied daily and tensions mounted in Vilnius, the EC signalled that it would produce further guidelines to the EU member states on how EU’s adopted sanctions against Russia should be implemented. On 13 July, the EC issued such guidelines giving permission for Russia to transport sanctioned goods to Kaliningrad via rail transit, noting that Member States (read, Lithuania) have legal obligations to prevent circumvention of EU sanctions and should monitor trade flows between Kaliningrad and the Russian Federation. The EC July guidelines produced a small-scale political earthquake in Lithuania with significant ramifications not only for Vilnius, but also the EU. But before this point is expanded upon, it is necessary to briefly explain Kaliningrad’s history, why it is important for Russia, and how Lithuania became a tool in the latest Kremlin’s disinformation campaign.
Kaliningrad’s Historical Legacy and its Importance to Russia
Until 1946 the area today referred to as Kaliningrad oblast was known as Konigsberg and for nearly 700 years was part of Prussia (today’s Germany). Since the end of World War II, this exclave currently sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania with unrestricted access to the Baltic Sea, yet detached from the rest of Russia, was ceded to the ex-USSR under the Potsdam agreement. Renamed to Kaliningrad, during the Cold War years, the area became a major industrial centre and a military port of the USSR. The region was resettled with Russians and Belarusians upon the Soviet eviction of the entire German population from the area.
During the USSR times and presently, Kaliningrad gained historical, geopolitical, and symbolic importance for Moscow. Perceived by the Kremlin as a WWII trophy of sorts, the area symbolises one of the USSR’s victories against the Nazi Germany. Given its geostrategic location, Kaliningrad serves as the most important military base of Russia on the western flank. Indeed, the region is a fully militarised zone complete with about 30,000 Russian soldiers, a naval base and fleet. In fact, though Moscow denies it, nuclear weapons have been stationed in Kaliningrad. Despite enjoying the status of a special economic zone, which exempts the Kaliningrad region from export and import customs duties, and operating three ice-free ports ‒ more than enough for the exclave to be provided with all the resources it needs ‒ Kaliningrad is highly dependent on Moscow’s subsidies. Rather than contributing to, Kaliningrad has drained Russia’s federal budget for the past several decades. The area is also vulnerable because it lacks strategic depth and is difficult to defend given its remoteness and the absence of direct border with the Russian Federation.
With the collapse of the USSR, Kaliningrad became a flashpoint for Russia’s relations with Lithuania, and, upon Lithuania’s accession into the EU in 2004, with Brussels’ too. In the early 1990s Russia insisted that it had a right to traverse Lithuanian territory as it pleases, seeking to establish an extraterritorial corridor through Lithuania to Kaliningrad. The then Lithuanian leadership managed to withstand Moscow’s pressure and did not succumb to Russia’s demands that would have compromised Lithuania’s territorial integrity and sovereign rights. Lithuania had negotiated a bilateral agreement with Russia with all matters pertaining to Kaliningrad transit via its territory to be only decided in, and by, Vilnius. With the country’s accession into the EU, decision-making power on transport and transit was apparently delegated to the EU institutions. Transit and transport of goods from Russia to and from Kaliningrad via the EU (Lithuania) did not raise any concerns until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and EU’s adoption of sanctions against Russia.
The Kaliningrad “Crisis” that Wasn’t: Who Lost, Who Won, and Why?
When on 17 July Lithuania began implementing the EU’s mandated sanctions by banning the passage of sanctioned goods across its territory into Kaliningrad, the Kremlin immediately labelled Lithuania’s actions as a “blockade.” Reacting to Moscow’s accusations, Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement that Vilnius had not imposed any “unilateral, individual or additional” restrictions, was not “blockading” Kaliningrad ‒ Russia can access the exclave via the Baltic Sea and/or Poland ‒ and was enforcing EU restrictive measures only on sanctioned goods originating in Russia. More importantly, in anticipation of EU sanctions, even before the invasion of Ukraine, Moscow had performed a “redistributive switch:” the majority of dual-usage and potentially to-be-sanctioned goods were moved to ferries and transported via the Baltic Sea to Kaliningrad, while non-sanctioned goods that used to be transported by ships were switched to railway transit that went through Lithuania to the exclave.
Over the next three and a half weeks, Russia unleashed a massive campaign of disinformation against Lithuania, insinuating that Vilnius’s “blockade” of Kaliningrad threatened not only to escalate further tensions between Russia and the EU, but could potentially spark WWIII in Europe. Moscow purposefully used the word “blockade” for two reasons: first, it sought to evoke painful memories among the Russian population that is vividly associated in popular consciousness and memory with the WWII Leningrad’s blockade carried out by Nazi Germany, which resulted in death-by-famine of nearly 80,000 city residents. Kremlin’s use of historical memory is one of the tools that it uses to mobilise society and provide justification for Russia’s military assault on Ukraine. Second, Russia has successfully exploited the naïveté and lack of knowledge exhibited by the Western populations and the media who know little about Kaliningrad and frequently fall into Moscow’s disinformation traps. The latest one was about Kaliningrad “crisis” allegedly caused by Lithuania’s “hostile” actions. As Russia’s outrage mounted with each day, by late June European officials scrambled “to douse Kaliningrad tensions.”
Indeed, initial evaluations by Lithuanian analysts, the media, and politicians from the opposition parties blamed Lithuanian authorities for the escalation of tensions between the EU and Russia. Lithuanian government and Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs were accused of incorrect interpretation of the EU’s third sanctions’ package, even if the EC confirmed that Lithuania acted in full compliance with the European Council resolutions. Members of opposition parties in Lithuania maintained that they plan on launching an interpellation to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and may potentially initiate a vote of no confidence as the next step.
Meanwhile, several Lithuanian and European Parliament members took the position that the EC acted irresponsibly and unjustly by allowing Russia to rail transport sanctioned goods through Lithuania to Kaliningrad and in doing so, the EC guidelines contradicted the sanctions approved by the European Council. Parliamentarians also voiced suppositions that Russia had successfully pressured a few of EU countries (presumably, Germany and France) that in turn exerted pressure on the EC to issue guidelines that would soften the extent of EU sanctions on goods transiting to Kaliningrad. Amid fears that Kaliningrad “crisis” could escalate, and that Russia would amplify its weaponisation of gas against Germany, Brussels and Berlin allegedly succumbed to Moscow’s pressure.
As Brussels, Berlin, and Washington D.C. opted for appeasement in the name of de-escalation of Kaliningrad “crisis,” Lithuania may have ended as the ultimate loser — not only in the eyes of the public and the international media, but also because Vilnius was humiliated by the EC, while Lithuania’s sovereignty got traded by Brussels and Berlin — all of which may be setting a dangerous precedent for the future.
Dr Ausra Park is an associate professor of international relations at Siena College, a Fulbright Scholar. She spent an academic year at the Faculty of Political Science & Diplomacy, Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.