Moscow and NATO may soon clash over Russia’s European exclave of Kaliningrad

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A new front in the conflict between Russia and NATO has opened up after one of the Western military alliance’s members, Lithuania, banned the transit of some Russian goods to its Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad.

Russia has vowed retaliation for Lithuania’s “hostile actions,” threatening “serious” consequences, while NATO members have reaffirmed their support for the country.

As the Russia-Ukraine conflict rages on in the background, here’s a quick rundown of what’s going on and why it matters.

What exactly happened?

Lithuania announced last week that it would prohibit the transit of certain EU-sanctioned goods from Russia through its territory to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

The government stated that the blockade would apply to all EU-sanctioned goods arriving by rail from the mainland, effectively blocking the transit of metals, coal, construction materials, and high-tech products to the Russian sea port.

Lithuania stated that it made its decision after consulting with the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, and that it is enforcing sanctions imposed on Russia following the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Russia responded to Lithuania, a former Soviet republic, by calling the move “unprecedented” and “hostile,” issuing a statement Tuesday in which it said “if in the near future cargo transit between the Kaliningrad region and the rest of the Russian Federation’s territory through Lithuania is not fully restored, then Russia reserves the right to take actions to protect its national interests.”

What exactly is Kaliningrad?

Kaliningrad is a small Russian exclave situated on the Baltic Sea, between Lithuania and Poland. It has a population of over 900,000 people and an area of about 160 square miles.

It was once part of the German empire but was captured by Soviet troops from Nazi Germany in 1945 and has remained in Russian hands ever since, becoming an important seaport for Russia with direct access to the Baltic Sea. Indeed, Russia’s Baltic Fleet is headquartered in Kaliningrad Oblast (or province).

The fleet conducts regular military drills in the Baltic Sea, having completed a 10-day exercise involving 60 warships and 10,000 military personnel on June 19.

Lithuania’s ban on the transit of some EU-sanctioned goods, announced last Friday and put into effect on Saturday, sparked panic buying in Kaliningrad. Anton Alikhanov, the region’s governor, insisted that Russia would increase the number of cargo ships transiting goods from St. Petersburg to the exclave throughout the rest of the year.

What might happen next?

Moscow’s reaction to Lithuania’s move is unknown.

Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, called the move “illegal” and said “this decision is truly unprecedented” on Monday.

“The situation is more than serious. … We need a serious in-depth analysis in order to work out our response,” he added.

According to a statement issued by Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry on Monday, “the transit of passengers and non-sanctioned goods to and from the Kaliningrad region through Lithuania continues uninterrupted.”

It also stated that Lithuania “has not imposed any unilateral, individual, or additional transit restrictions” and that it is consistently enforcing EU sanctions.

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, also backed Lithuania on Monday, saying he was concerned about the nature of retaliation while defending Vilnius’ position. “Certainly I am always worried about the Russian retaliations,” Borrell said, but he insisted there was no “blockade.”

“Lithuania has not taken any unilateral national restrictions and only applies the European Union sanctions,” he said, adding that any reports in Russia claiming Lithuania was imposing its own sanctions were “pure propaganda.”

Timothy Ash, senior sovereign strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, said on Tuesday that “it’s fair to say that Kaliningrad is a strategic imperative for Russia,” emphasizing the importance of defending and sustaining it.

“Russia will react for sure, the only question is what that will be … [and] what Russia could do militarily,” he said.

“A land attack to drive a corridor through Lithuania would be a direct attack on Lithuania triggering NATO Article 5 defence. Putin knows this – that’s war with NATO. Can Putin afford that when he is struggling to deliver on even his now much-reduced strategic objectives in Ukraine? He would also have to launch an assault through Belarus, stretching his supply lines, and splitting his forces,” he added.

Ash suggested that Russia could use its substantial naval assets in the Baltic Sea to impose a tit-for-tat blockade on Lithuanian trade, which would be viewed as a significant escalation by both NATO and the EU. “It would then be a fine dividing line whether that would trigger the NATO Article 5 defence,” he added.

When asked if Russia’s response would be strictly diplomatic or go further, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said on Wednesday, “the answer is no. They will not be diplomatic, but practical.”

“As for retaliatory measures, now possible measures are being worked out in an interdepartmental format. It was stated to both Lithuania and the EU through their diplomatic missions in Moscow about the inadmissibility of such actions and the need to change the steps taken and return the situation to a legitimate course,” she stated.

What difference does it make?

Tensions between Russia and NATO are already high as a result of the Ukraine conflict, and Lithuania’s move has heightened them even more, potentially putting a NATO country (and the entire alliance) in line for a direct confrontation with Russia.

The concept of collective defense is a key pillar of the NATO alliance: Article 5 states that if one member is attacked, it is considered an attack on the entire group, and all members are obligated to protect one another.

While NATO has been assisting Ukraine in fighting Russia’s invasion, sending military equipment and weaponry as well as humanitarian aid, NATO has repeatedly stated that it will not send troops into the country because it does not want a direct confrontation with nuclear power Russia.

Russia will have to carefully calibrate its response to Lithuania, knowing that any direct attack will be interpreted by NATO as an attack on all of its members.

On February 17, 2022, vehicles from the German armed forces Bundeswehr arrive at the NATO enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group Battalion in Lithuania in Rukla, Lithuania.

Following the Kremlin’s threats, Lithuania’s NATO allies have stated that they will stand by the country.

“Lithuania is a member of the NATO alliance, and we stand by the commitments that we have made to the NATO alliance, including, of course, a commitment to Article 5, which is the bedrock of the NATO alliance,” said US State Department spokesman Ned Price during a daily press briefing.

“Lithuania has been a stalwart partner, we stand by NATO, we stand by our NATO allies and we stand by Lithuania,” Price added.

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