Relations between Russia and the European Union are going from bad to worse. After Brussels imposed heavy sanctions on the Russian economy over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, EU member Lithuania banned the transit of some goods across its territory to the Russian Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad. How will the Kremlin respond?
According to the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Lithuania’s decision requires “some serious analysis following which Russia would develop retaliatory measures”. Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, for her part, claims that Vilnius will face “serious consequences” for restricting railroad transits of goods, while Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, insists that Moscow will “certainly respond to such hostile actions”. He visited Kaliningrad on June 21 and pointed out that citizens of the Baltic state would “feel the pain”.
As a member of NATO, Lithuania is protected by collective defense treaties. At this point, there are no signs of military-political escalation in the region, and it is extremely improbable that Moscow will invade the Baltic nation in order to create a land corridor to Kaliningrad. There are, however, fears that Russia could eventually attempt to establish control over Suwalki Gap – the 50 mile strip of Polish and Lithuanian border land that lies between Kaliningrad in the west and Belarus to the east.
Such an action would undoubtedly lead to a direct military confrontation between Russia and NATO. Given that Moscow has a hard time seizing the Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine, it is not very probable that its troops would manage to defeat NATO forces and create a land bridge to Kaliningrad. Thus, the Kremlin’s response – if Moscow decides to respond at all – will unlikely include any serious conventional military activities.
Still, the Kaliningrad region could become one of the most important territories in the face of rising tensions between NATO and Russia. While the West fears that Putin could soon invade the EU, Russian analysts warn that it is NATO that could invade Russia’s semi-exclave which covers 5,800 square miles and is situated on the Baltic coast between Lithuania and Poland.
“Any NATO attempts to invade the Kaliningrad region would provoke Russia to use nuclear weapons”, said Vladimir Evseev, the military expert of the Institute of CIS countries.
“If Russia feels that Kaliningrad could be captured by NATO countries, it will use nuclear weapons and create a land corridor through the territory of Lithuania”, Evseev stressed.
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Although Moscow deployed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad in 2016, that does not necessarily mean that the Kremlin will use such weapons. Moreover, chances for NATO to attack Russia’s westernmost oblast are rather small. Still, tensions in the region will likely continue to grow.
It is worth remembering the former Polish Deputy Minister of Defense Romuald Sheremetiev recently called for the demilitarization of Kaliningrad. Such an action could take place only in post-Putin Russia if the Kremlin previously suffers a defeat in Ukraine. Otherwise, the West will not likely risk a nuclear war over Kaliningrad – formerly the port of Koenigsberg, captured from Nazi Germany by the Red Army in April 1945 and ceded to the Soviet Union after World War Two.
Some Western experts see the Russian semi-exclave as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier”. Indeed, the Russian Baltic Fleet is based in Kaliningrad, but that does not mean that NATO could not do a serious harm to the Russian navy in the region. If Ukraine managed to sink several Russian ships, in case of a potential confrontation in the Baltics NATO forces would almost certainly inflict huge losses on the Russian Baltic Fleet.
But neither Russia nor NATO seem to be interested in such an escalation. Although Lithuania’s restriction of transit to the Kaliningrad region could have an impact on the region’s economy, there is not much the Kremlin can do against the Baltic state. Vilnius has already stopped purchasing Russian oil, natural gas and electricity, which means that Russia cannot use energy as a weapon against Lithuania. Thus, Moscow’s response will likely be a symbolic one.
Finally, Lithuania’s move does not represent a full blockade of Kaliningrad. The transit ban is part of the EU’s fourth sanctions package on Russia, and it involves steel and other metal products. Restrictions are due to expand to include cement and alcohol on July 10, coal and other solid fuels on August 10, as well as oil on December 5. Russia, for its part, is expected to continue supplying goods to its exclave by ferry services from St Petersburg, and also by air, although Kaliningrad Governor Anton Alikhanov claims that the region would lose up to 50 percent of its transit goods because of the ban.
In spite of that, the EU’s and Lithuania’s decision is rather calculated and limited, but it is not improbable that the West will eventually impose a total blockade of Kaliningrad, and put Russia’s leadership in a very difficult position.
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