The European checkerboard grew increasingly complex over the weekend as economic sanctions over Ukraine continue to progress from talk to physical. The latest round of EU sanctions bans the shipping of products such as coal, metals, construction materials, and advanced technology between EU territories and mainland Russia.
The Russian city Kaliningrad, the headquarters of the Russian Baltic Fleet and home to around 500,000 people is a pocket territory of Russia taken by the Soviet Union at the end of World War Two. After the end of the Cold War, Kaliningrad became isolated from the rest of Russia, an island with the Baltic Sea on one side and the now NATO countries of Poland and Lithuania between the territory and mainland Russia.
Kaliningrad’s position is similar to that of Crimea, the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea fleet, which was also geographically isolated from mainland Russia by Ukraine until it was annexed by the Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation with operations beginning in February 2014 and a treaty signed by the 18th of March.
For many years, the flow of goods between mainland Russia and Kaliningrad was via rail lines passing through the former Soviet republic of Lithuania, now independent and a member of the EU and NATO.
And so is created this latest crisis.
The sanctions declared by the West stemming from the Russian invasion of Ukraine are beginning to move from the preparations phase to the implementation phase where goods and services would begin to be physically restricted.
Beginning in June 2022, Lithuania started imposing the sanctions regime on goods shipped by rail through their territory to and from Russia, which in this case is from mainland Russia to isolated province Kaliningrad. Lithuania has stated that it is only restricting items that are on the EU’s sanction list per the timeline of restrictions implementation; the transport of people and all other non-sanctioned goods remain free to move.
According to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, Vilnius is complying with the sixth round of sanctions imposed by the European Union. Borrell is quoted as saying, “Lithuania has not taken any unilateral national restrictions and only applies the European Union sanctions.”
This seems to have caught the Russians unprepared. Kaliningrad Governor Anton Alikhanov has noted that Russia had begun operating two ferries between Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg to handle the restricted traffic but would not have an additional seven ferries in operation to compensate for Lithuania’s rail restrictions until later this year.
Moscow is said to be summoning diplomatic representatives from both Lithuania and the European Union to discuss the matter.
But Moscow is also saber-rattling. On Monday, the Russian foreign ministry stated that: “If in the near future cargo transit between the Kaliningrad region and the rest of the territory of the Russian Federation through Lithuania is not restored in full, then Russia reserves the right to take actions to protect its national interests.”
Moscow has said this before. It said so in 2014 when it annexed the Russian Navy base in Crimea, an act that ultimately led to the war in Ukraine.
The trouble with this naval base on the Baltic Sea is that taking and holding territory to “protect its national interests” goes through land that triggers NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense pact, even if Lithuania, like Ukraine, is a former Soviet republic.
My RedState colleague Streiff also published a piece on this development this morning: Lithuania Enforces EU Sanctions on Kaliningrad and Putin’s Toadies Lose Their Minds – RedState
I’m a bit more focused on how Lithuania is a potential matchstick. The stakes for tension escalating to igniting a major war from what is beginning to happen in Lithuania are more serious for world peace than what is happening in Ukraine.
Ukraine is still technically a non-aligned country. It is not yet a member of either the European Union or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which means all sides can roughhouse in it and, quite literally, get away with murder.
The fact of the matter is that, despite all the media coverage of the bravery of Ukraine in its fight against Russia, the advantage of the war has shifted in favor of the Russians. The world fought the battle of the Fulda Gap earlier this year and the NATO defense strategy to stop a mobile tank army in its tracks using man-portable anti-tank missiles worked perfectly. The Western militaries celebrated vindication of their investment in defense that began with the invention of the US TOW missile first used in Vietnam.
But that phase of the war has ended. It has transitioned to the defense of Ukrainian cities against something the Russian army is particularly good at — the meat grinding siege craft of rolling artillery barrages. The Ukrainians are slowly but surely buckling. The Russians have also learned the lesson from their own logistic blunders of the importance of interdiction of the supply lines between the West and the Ukrainian Army. Sadly, things will play out with many Ukrainian lives lost until a peace treaty, urged by the West, forcing the Zelensky government to accept, eventually ends the active conflict.
Picking up the pieces of the mess in Ukraine will then begin. Repairing the damage done to the European economic landscape will take decades. The animus between West and East will perpetuate tensions and threaten political stability on both sides of the Ukrainian hole in the ground.
The key question is: Will it end before other flashpoints on the European checkerboard explode? The US and the EU, and indeed the Russians as well, need to navigate sanctions-induced tension with care. Lithuania instantly triggers calamitous treaties if something goes wrong. As the remainder of this year plays out, I would rate it as a dangerous flashpoint on the same order as Sarajevo was to trigger World War One. Other fractures are likely to emerge both in the West and in Russia.
This begins to shift the focus of the narrative from keeping the Ukrainians viable to keeping Europe and America alive. How quickly the mainstream media figures it out and starts to ask hard questions, I don’t know.