Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Russian Security Council, was in Kaliningrad on June 20, where he declared that Moscow was preparing a serious response to what he called Lithuania’s (already three-day-long) “transportation blockade” of that Russian exclave (Ren.tv, June 21). Hours earlier, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs called in the head of the Lithuanian embassy in Moscow to protest what Vilnius had done. Meanwhile, the Kremlin declared Vilnius’ action absolutely impermissible: Lithuania must reverse its stance in the coming days, or Russia will be compelled to respond forcefully (RIA Novosti, TASS, New Kaliningrad, June 20).
In fact, what Lithuania has implemented is not a blockade but rather restrictions on passage by rail, though not other means of transportation, between the Kaliningrad exclave and Russia proper. Those restrictions cover a 66-page-long catalog of goods that had already been on the European Union’s sanctions list (Moskovsky Komsomolets, June 21). EU officials have confirmed that Vilnius did not act unilaterally and have denounced Moscow for calling the Lithuanian action a blockade and for linking this case with that of Ukraine—a move they called completely unjustified (RIA Novosti, Life.ru, June 20).
Intriguingly, however, officials in Kaliningrad have said only that while the Lithuanian action is unfortunate, it is not critical, because it affects only about half of the trade between the exclave and mainland Russia. The oblast will still have sufficient supplies for the next few months. And the Kaliningraders point out that there are alternative ways to move the goods their region needs, including by ship (Vzglyad, June 18). Still, those assurances have done nothing to calm the outrage in Moscow. There, politicians, officials and commentators are saying that even this restriction violates earlier agreements between the EU and Russia as well as the recent EU sanctions regime, which explicitly exempted goods moving between Kaliningrad and Russia. This constitutes a “blockade” and an “act of war” against Russia, the Moscow voices thunder.
Such a Russian perception is, of course, highly worrisome for the region, particularly against the background of earlier Russian musings about a conflict with the West—including a hypothetical effort by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to seize Kaliningrad and a possible Russian countermove involving the seizure of the Suwałki corridor between Belarus and Kaliningrad (see EDM, March 10, 2022; see Eastern Approaches, June 17, 2020). The current situation also brings to mind memories of the way in which the controversy over the Danzig corridor, between Germany proper and the German exclave of East Prussia, triggered the start of World War II in Europe (Kasparov.ru, June 19, 2022).
But at the same time, because Patrushev’s words remain a threat rather than the announcement of any specific action, and because the Russian side does not appear completely united on this issue, it is important to keep in mind exactly what has happened and what has not. To be sure, the problem of transit between Kaliningrad and the Russian Federation has been a potential bone of contention ever since Lithuania recovered its independence in 1991. It was repeatedly been the subject of negotiations and agreements among the Russian Federation, the European Union and Lithuania. Not surprisingly, there have been disruptions at various times, and the situation has deteriorated in recent months because of Putin’s war in Ukraine (see EDM, June 16). But until the end of last week, all sides appear to have viewed these problems as neuralgic rather than likely to generate a crisis.
Then, on June 18, Lithuanian Railways announced it would not allow the transit of goods between Kaliningrad and the Russian Federation that were on the EU’s sanctions list, outraging Moscow-based observers, politicians and officials, who saw this as a violation of Brussels’ latest sanctions list, which had explicitly excluded Kaliningrad–Russian Federation traffic. These commentators began warning of counter-sanctions against Lithuania and even the renunciation of Russia’s recognition of Lithuanian independence (RIA Novosti, June 20). Some ominously mentioned the possibility of military action, although those voices are in a clear minority so far (Kasparov.ru, June 19). Yet even those have indicated that Moscow would not undertake any military action unless the Lithuanian blockade involved 100 percent of all trade between Kaliningrad and Russia; and for now, that is far from the case (Svpressa.ru, June 19).
At the same time, not only have Kaliningrad officials played down the impact of what Lithuania has done and talked about expanding the movement of goods by ships (Komsomolskaya Pressa, Svpressa.ru, June 19), but certain Moscow analysts have begun talking about other, non-military, means of resolving the problem, including the reopening of traffic on the Neman River through Belarus. While such traffic would flow through Lithuania, they argue, it would be governed largely by the same international rules under which traffic on the Danube operates and, thus, be exempted from the EU sanctions regime (Gazeta.ru, June 18). Whether such proposals or others like them will gain traction in Moscow remains to be seen—developing the Neman would be expensive and require Belarusian approval. But the fact that they are under discussion at least suggests that there is a real debate going on behind the scenes in the Russian capital over what to do and that the most aggressive comments of officials and politicians there may not determine the outcome.
In any case, Kaliningrad is at the center of a new crisis, one that may prove more serious than anyone wants to imagine. After all, it is a crisis between Russia on the one hand and NATO on the other—an alliance in which an attack on one is deemed to be an attack on all. If Moscow does go ahead with some strong move against Lithuania, it will at a minimum have crossed a red line and further united the West against Moscow. But if the Kremlin does nothing, it will have to explain to those in Russia who want a far tougher line against the West why it sat on its hands. Consequently, perhaps the most likely outcome, at least in the immediate future, is that the Kremlin will maintain a tough line in its propaganda but not yet follow it up with the kind of actions some Russians clearly want.