Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow has worried about maintaining transportation links with its non-contiguous exclave of Kaliningrad. These worries intensified when the two countries cutting Kaliningrad off from the rest of the Russian Federation (and Moscow-aligned Belarus)—Poland and Lithuania—became members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union. Moreover, the conduct of Russian military exercises last fall spotlighted the Kremlin’s anxieties that, in the event of war, the West would at a minimum blockade Kaliningrad by sea and might even seize this heavily-fortified Russian outpost outright (see EDM, October 12, 2021 and November 2, 2021). Now, because of Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine and the West’s sharp response, Moscow’s fears about its vulnerable links with Kaliningrad have reached a crescendo. And so the Russian authorities are taking a variety of steps, both defensive and offensive, to ensure that it will maintain supplies to and control of a region that historically was part of Germany but was annexed by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.
Moscow’s concerns about these links have grown in recent days, after the EU closed its airspace to Russian flights, forcing planes to fly much further between Kaliningrad and Russia proper (MosFM.com, February 28). This was exacerbated by bomb threats that forced at least one Russian plane on this route to turn around, even though the threats proved to be false (KGD.ru, March 9). Moscow has insisted that the closure of European airspace does not amount to a blockade, because Russia can still supply Kaliningrad by rail and road through Lithuania, albeit with increasing delays, and by sea as well. Using this last means, over the last few weeks Moscow boosted supplies of food to Kaliningrad as well as components needed for the local industrial sector. Nonetheless, commercial production there has decreased, suggesting these supplies may not be enough (Smotrim.ru, February 26; LogiRus.ru, February 28; Komsomolskaya Pravda, March 10; Kalningrad Today, March 9).
Moscow clearly is also apprehensive about the possibility of social unrest in Kaliningrad during this crisis. It has cracked down hard on local anti-war protesters (KGD.ru, March 7). Moreover, the authorities appear nervous that recent increases in migration to this detached region from other parts of the Russian Federation could spark inflationary food prices that surpass inflation levels hitting the rest of Russia. Those spiraling costs could cause not only widespread public anger but even hunger (RBC, March 9, 2022; Regnum, October 13, 2021).
Yet there are clear signs Moscow is preparing for still a worse outcome, and it is both improving its capacity to supply the exclave and to punish Lithuania and Poland if they slow Russian supplies passing through their territory. In an article in Vzglyad on Tuesday (March 8) entitled “Kaliningrad Prepares for a Blockade,” journalist Olga Samofalova says that “the question of maintaining connections between Kaliningrad Oblast and the rest of Russia has become more important than ever before.” She then provides details on what Moscow is doing both now and over the longer term to guarantee that these links are not broken (Vzglyad, March 8).
Last week, Russia launched a new ship, Samofalova continues, Marshal Rokossovsky, capable of carrying cars and trains between Russian ports near St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad. The ship can do so even in icy conditions, without an accompanying icebreaker. It replaces ships built at the end of Soviet times and is to be joined by a second similar ship in the future. At the launch, Putin said “this means that regardless of how events develop, we will provide worthy conditions for the life of people [in Kaliningrad] and the possibility for a further strengthening of the industrial, social and tourist infrastructure” there (Kremlin.ru, March 4). Kaliningrad officials, Samofalova reports, hope this will force neighboring countries to stop delaying trucks on the ground and allow the oblast to end what has been a massive buildup of reserves of food and industrial components (Vzglyad, March 8).
The Vzglyad journalist writes that Moscow is also taking steps to ensure the energy security of Kaliningrad. Natural gas now flows there via a pipeline that passes through Lithuania, but the Russian government fears that it could be blocked. So it has been making plans to rely more heavily on coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG), which can be supplied by sea. To this end, it is making plans to convert some of the electric generating plants in Kaliningrad from oil to coal, putting more LNG ships on the route between Russia proper and Kaliningrad, and it has docked a floating re-gasification plant in a Kaliningrad harbor. Even if no new energy supplies do arrive, Kaliningrad officials say, they have reserves for 75 days of normal operation already in hand. In addition, officials are now talking about laying an undersea cable to supply the exclave with electricity from mainland Russia without going through Lithuania (Vzglyad, March 8).
At the same time, Russian officials have been warning Lithuania and Poland that they will hurt themselves more than Kaliningrad if they continue to slow down or even block transport between Russia and its Baltic exclave; and Moscow will take steps to punish them. Politically, people in those countries may feel good, but they will lose access to the cheap gasoline they have been buying across the border in Kaliningrad, and they will lose both Russian and Chinese transit trade through their ports. Both Russia and China are already redirecting traffic away from Baltic ports to the detriment of the Baltic economies. And Moscow is sending signals that it has the capacity to hurt these countries by restricting the transportation advantages they earlier had by denying them rent of warehouses and stations on Russian territory (Transport-centre.ru, March 8).
Looming behind such small moves is the threat, long considered by Western analysts, that in the event of a blockade of Kaliningrad, Moscow may try to forcibly take the “Suwałki corridor” between Belarus and Kaliningrad—a possibility that makes Russian control of Belarus even more critical and that could lead to the outbreak of a larger war between Russia and the West (see Jamestown.org, July 17, 2020 and January 29, 2021; Golospravdy.edu, February 13, 2022). Either way, Russia’s moves on Kaliningrad to date show that the Kremlin is preparing for a far longer and deeper conflict with the West than many now assume.