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Russia’s territory in Europe is the latest source of Ukraine war tensions

A dispute over sanctions in Kaliningrad is a reminder of the security risks across Europe.

Gitanas Nauseda in a suit and tie in front of a line of flags.
President of Lithuania, Gitanas Nauseda, arrives at the EU Council Meeting on June 23, 2022 in Brussels, Belgium.
Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Kaliningrad is the latest spot in Europe caught up in spillover tensions from the Ukraine war.

That Kaliningrad flared up is not all that surprising considering, well, geography. Kaliningrad is a chunk of Russia wedged between Lithuania and Poland, who are both members of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It is heavily militarized. Russia has deployed nuclear-capable missiles to the oblast, or administrative region, and it is the base for Russia’s Baltic Fleet, and its only year-round ice-free port. Minor close calls have happened before in the region, so when war broke out in Europe, Kaliningrad was always a point of potential volatility.

It is a reminder that Russia’s Ukraine invasion — and the West’s intense mobilization in response — always risked worsening tensions outside of Ukraine.

What set off the spat this time was Lithuania’s enforcement of EU sanctions against Russia after a months-long transition period. Because Kaliningrad isn’t directly connected to the rest of Russia, it gets most of its supplies by land routes or by sea. Lithuania’s state rail operator announced last week that it would no longer allow the transit of sanctioned goods — like steel products and construction materials — through Lithuania to Kaliningrad.

Russia accused Lithuania of staging a blockade, with Russia’s foreign ministry warning of “practical” retaliation. “Both Lithuania and the EU have been notified through their diplomatic missions in Moscow that such actions are inadmissible and that the steps taken should be overturned and the situation put back on the legal, legitimate track,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Wednesday, according to state-run media. “If this fails to be done, then, of course, retaliatory moves will be inevitable.”

Lithuania has said this is not a blockade, and they are just doing additional checks and following the sanctions rules that all EU states agreed on. “First, any talk of a blockade of Kaliningrad is a lie. Second, Lithuania is complying with the sanctions imposed by the European Union on Russia for its aggression and war against Ukraine,” said Lithuania Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė. Only sanctioned items are targeted; food and medicine can still move, and passenger travel continues. Plus, Kaliningrad can get goods from Russia by sea.

The European Union, meanwhile, has tried to de-escalate and is working on guidelines to implement checks “in a clever and smart way,” said Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief. “[There are] two objectives: to prevent circumvention of the sanctions; and not to block the traffic. Both things should be possible, and we are working on that,” Borrell said.

The backdrop for this standoff, of course, is Russia’s destructive war in Ukraine, where Moscow legitimately is blockading Ukraine, damaging the country’s economy and its ability to export food to the rest of the world. Meanwhile, the US and European allies are trying to bolster Ukraine through weapons deliveries, and punish Russia through sanctions, while also trying to avoid a direct confrontation with the Kremlin. But the European map includes plenty of tense areas that threaten to erupt into a greater conflagration. The biggest concern is one of those areas, like Kaliningrad, putting Russia in direct confrontation with NATO countries.

For many reasons — Russia’s war in Ukraine being the big one — that’s likely a long way from happening. Still, the war in Ukraine has shown the fragility of Europe’s status quo.

“Do they want to test NATO retaliation or Article 5 activation? That’s more [a] question to the Kremlin,” said Dalia Bankauskaitė, a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and professor at Vilnius University, in Lithuania. “But the situation — yes, the eastern flank is full of risks and threats, just because we have war in Europe.”

Why Kaliningrad is flaring up now, but (probably) won’t come to anything

Lithuania and Poland and others in the region have had to manage a careful relationship with Kaliningrad, and the Kremlin, for years. But Lithuania’s sanctions enforcement, and Russia’s response, are potentially dangerous, mostly because anytime Moscow and a NATO country have a dust-up, things can escalate, even if unintentionally. And all sides have a little bit to gain in ratcheting up pressure.

For Russia, it makes sense to make a stink, and hype up the impact of Western sanctions on the 430,000 or so Russians who live in Kaliningrad. Russia wants to divert attention from its war in Ukraine, and sell the West as the enemy and aggressor to the Russian public. And Russian President Vladimir Putin can attempt to use the friction to sow doubt in Western societies, and try to fracture public unity as the Ukraine war drags on.

Moscow may also be seizing this particular moment. The upcoming calendar is full of events Russia isn’t invited to, but probably irked about. The European Union just granted EU candidate status to Ukraine, and though a lengthy ascension process follows, it is politically symbolic. Germany is hosting leaders for a Group of Seven conference in Bavaria this weekend, followed by Madrid holding a big NATO summit, where the alliance will unveil its Strategic Concept — basically, its 10-year plan — that Russia’s war has almost certainly influenced.

“The big picture is Russia trying to increase pressure also on the West, but it’s always difficult to do it with military means, so therefore, they use other means, such as disinformation and so forth,” said Martin Hurt, a research fellow at the International Centre for Defense and Security and a former Estonian defense official.

Russia can’t really use military means because it can’t afford a confrontation with NATO right now. As Hurt pointed out, in some ways the Baltic Sea area is less tense now than it was six months ago, because Russia has redeployed so many of its forces and capabilities to the war — and they’re unlikely to return in better shape than they left.

That makes Russia’s threats of retaliation against Lithuania, along with other similar threats, a bit hollow, although Russia has other tools, like disinformation and economic pressure. Lithuania, at least, had already spent years divorcing itself from Russian gas, but it shares a common power grid, though Lithuania has said it will be prepared if Moscow cuts them off.

Lithuania and other Baltic states (Latvia, Estonia) are also aware of Russia’s current military constraints, but they also don’t underestimate the menace of Moscow — and ahead of the NATO summit is a good time to make that case. Lithuania, along with other countries on NATO’s eastern flank, have been some of the staunchest Ukraine supporters, and the most aggressive in wanting to punish Russia. These countries also see Russia’s invasion as confirmation of the threat Putin still poses in ways other NATO countries maybe do not. Kaliningrad is one more reminder of those risks.

Clarification, June 24, 3 pm: A previous headline referred to Kaliningrad as an enclave; it is a semi-exclave.

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