Kaliningrad standoff could reveal if Russia wants to ‘escalate’

Al Jazeera speaks to geopolitical expert Agnia Grigas on the tensions between Russia and Lithuania.

This file photo taken on June 21, 2018 shows the city center of Kaliningrad, during the Russia 2018 World Cup football tournament
Russia on June 20, 2022 demanded Lithuania lift 'openly hostile' restrictions on the rail transit of EU-sanctioned goods to Moscow's exclave of Kaliningrad [File: Patrick Hertzog/AFP]

Last Saturday, Lithuania banned the transit of goods subjected to European Union sanctions through its territory to the Russian exclave Kaliningrad, which is on the Baltic Sea and about 1,300km (800 miles) from Moscow.

Lithuania said the move was in line with European sanctions. Infuriated, Moscow called it a “blockade” and promised to respond.

The banned goods include coal, metals, construction materials and advanced technology, which make up 50 percent of Kaliningrad imports, according to the region’s governor, Anton Alikhanov.

Russia has demanded the restrictions are lifted, slamming Lithuania’s actions as “openly hostile” against Kaliningrad.

Sandwiched between EU and NATO members Poland and Lithuania, the region receives supplies from Russia via rail and gas pipelines through Lithuania.

Kaliningrad was part of Germany until the end of the World War II, when it was given to the Soviet Union at the Potsdam Conference in 1945. Russia’s westernmost state has roughly 1 million residents, mainly Russians but also a small number of Ukrainians, Polish and Lithuanians.

And critically, it viewed essentially as a Russian military base. The exact number of soldiers stationed there is unknown; estimates range from 9,000 to up to 200,000 military personnel.

Russia, Kaliningrad map
Map of Kaliningrad, Poland, Lithuania, Russia [Al Jazeera]

The rising tension is fuelling fears over the Suwałki Gap, an 80km (50-mile) land corridor crossing southeastern Poland and Lithuania, which is critical to the security of the Baltic states as it could connect Russia’s Kaliningrad and Belarus.

Al Jazeera spoke with Agnia Grigas, a senior fellow and expert on energy and geopolitics at the Atlantic Council, regarding the situation in Kaliningrad, its possible implications on the war in Ukraine, and the future of the region.

Al Jazeera: How would you characterise Lithuania’s ban?

Agnia Grigas: This is certainly not solely a Lithuanian decision, but a decision made in Brussels to sanction the transit of certain Russian goods through the European Union territory.

Now, the fact is that Lithuania is the only country within the European Union, where this transit of goods takes place regularly from mainland Russia through Belarus, through the territory of Lithuania into the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. You could argue that Lithuania could have sought exemptions as some European Union countries have sought exemptions from the various elements of Russian sanctions. In a way, Lithuania made a decision not to seek exemptions from the sanctions.

Al Jazeera: Russia has said Lithuanian citizens will “feel the pain” over Kaliningrad. How might Moscow respond?

Grigas: Russia could enact its own sanctions on the sale of goods to Lithuania. The key Russian exports are oil and gas, and electricity, and Lithuania has already made a decision much earlier before this conflict, that it will not be purchasing any Russian energy sources. There could be a question of fertilisers and other elements but there is already a broad blanket of European sanctions against Russian goods.

I view Russia’s statements more as threats and posturing for the Russian domestic audience because a lot of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s statements tend to be aimed to show the resolve and the strength of the Kremlin, rather than necessarily specifying any sort of actions they would take or for the external audience.

What is concerning is that Russia used or the Kremlin use the terms that Lithuania has enacted a blockade, either the word choice is important, because blockade could be perceived as a military already action, and therefore, Russia could try to, you know, justify some sort of [military action], as well.”

Al Jazeera: Could Kaliningrad and its economy be affected? What are possible scenarios for Kaliningrad and Russian authorities to overcome this tension?

Grigas: Kaliningrad already is a highly isolated militarised region. Even within the context of the Russian economy, this is highly economically underdeveloped. We can expect more stagnation and more isolation for this region. Certainly, the inhabitants of Kaliningrad, who are already having a difficult time economically, are going to continue to face more hardships.

Al Jazeera: What is the importance of Kaliningrad to Russia and the region, especially in terms of geopolitical safety? The Suwałki Gap is often considered the weakest point of the NATO alliance. Why is this?

Grigas: Kaliningrad is highly important from a strategic perspective and it can really be called the Achilles’ heel of NATO as well. There are armed naval and air forces that Russia hosts there. It’s essentially a military base separated from Russia’s mainland.

A key importance here is a strip of land that connects Poland and Lithuania – the Suwałki Gap. If Russia chooses to use the territory of Belarus for a military operation, as they have done so, in the case of Ukraine, they could also send the forces from Kaliningrad, essentially cutting off Lithuania and Poland from each other, cutting off the Baltic states from the rest of NATO territory.

Al Jazeera: How do you think the Kaliningrad situation can impact the war in Ukraine?

Grigas: I think this situation in Kaliningrad will show whether Russia is willing to escalate further this conflict against the West, the European Union and NATO.

Al Jazeera: The United States has said that it will stand behind Lithuania and its NATO commitments to defend it …

Grigas: NATO, the United States and European Union countries have been very cautious not to get involved in this war. There’s a real fear of potential escalation of conflict with Russia directly because one, Russia remains a nuclear state. Second, because of the fact that it’s controlled essentially by a single man with a very small circle of advisers, who has essentially a free hand to take whatever decisions he may wish.

Al Jazeera: Russia has said Lithuania’s decision aggravates global food shortages. To what extent do you think the ban could contribute to the crisis?

Grigas: I think the global food crisis is a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the blockade of the Black Sea, and specifically the port of Odesa. Russia could try to link these two issues. Nonetheless, I think the Kremlin has made a decision to exacerbate the world food prices, inflation and access to food to strengthen its negotiating position.

Al Jazeera: Lithuania and Russia already had weak diplomatic relations, and the war in Ukraine has worsened them. How will their ties be affected by the ban?

Grigas: Lithuania has been a very vocal supporter of Ukraine since the very start of the war this February and, frankly, since Russia’s occupation of Crimea [in 2014] and the initial invasion of the Donbas.

Earlier this summer, Russia and Duma deputies were discussing whether they should revoke Lithuania’s independence that was agreed to by the Soviet Union in 1991. This is part of kind of a broader package of the Kremlin’s threats on a smaller neighbouring country.

I don’t think Lithuanian-Russian relations will improve in the near future. Frankly, European and Russian relations will not improve in the near future, nor will NATO and Russian relations, particularly as long as the ongoing war in Ukraine continues.

Editor’s note: The interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Source: Al Jazeera