Lithuania-Kaliningrad Transit Row: A Broader EU and NATO Perspective

  • Jun 30, 2022
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Through much of the end of June, Lithuania has been embroiled in a row with Russia over the implementation of EU sanctions on certain kinds of goods in transit between Russia and its Kaliningrad exclave. Russia has claimed that Lithuania’s actions are a “violation of everything,” and has promised a response that is “not diplomatic.” In turn, Lithuania has argued that it is simply putting into practice the EU sanctions regime agreed upon as early as March, and that contrary to Russian claims, its actions will not halt all transit between Russia and Kaliningrad; rather, it will only stop the flow of sanctioned goods. Since then, Russia has made threats that could be interpreted to include the possibility of the use of force against Lithuania, but which do not necessitate this kind of action. Indeed, Russia has so far primarily stuck to the use of cyberattacks against Lithuanian government institutions, state businesses, and private businesses. Amid a backdrop of international fears of an expanded war with Russia and new developments this month in NATO’s strategic posture and membership, what all does this bode for the future in the Baltics, Europe, and NATO as a whole? Ultimately, it may simply boil down to a test of Western resolve. Will the West stand up to Russia, or back off fearing a conflict beyond Ukraine?

In its displeasure with this particular consequence of the EU sanctions regime, Russia has found an opportunity to test the mettle of Western nations. In making its complaints and its threats, Moscow’s aims are twofold: first, it can seek to influence target populations to believe that it is a victim of the same governments that those populations are, for various reasons, displeased with, effectively getting disgruntled voters in Western countries on its side, and second, it can attempt to intimidate the leadership of those countries into backing down. In this sense, Russia’s framing is much like its two-headed eagle – on the one hand, it presents itself as an innocent victim of the evil machinations of a decadent West, while on the other hand, it presents itself as a mighty Goliath ready to smash anyone who dares to oppose it. As such, it misrepresents both itself and its neighbor in order to ensure that Western responses remain mild enough for it to withstand. In truth, the sanctions regime as implemented in Lithuania will only block the transit of goods that are valuable to the war effort or in the export market. The sanctions target such items as steel, concrete, fossil fuels, and alcohol, but do not prevent ordinary passenger travel or the transit of most basic consumer goods. This comes in stark contrast to Russia’s early claims that Lithuania was blocking all transit, and which framed the decision as a unilateral one.

Meanwhile, there are already some European proponents of making concessions to Russia on the issue of transit to Kaliningrad. Allegedly, some EU officials believe that Russia has greater leverage on this issue, and therefore a compromise needs to be reached. This compromise is said to be in the works at the EU level, with a document prepared by the European Commission, and is backed by Germany, though the details at this juncture remain unclear. Nonetheless, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has already come out in favor of such a compromise, saying that EU sanctions should not apply to goods in transit between Russia and Kaliningrad. In framing the issue as one of intrastate commerce, Scholz appears to have forgotten that these goods must still travel through another sovereign nation. Scholz’s statement should come as no surprise, however, as he has been consistently conciliatory in his approach to Russia. Nonetheless, it is concerning that one of the major power players in Europe is willing to publicly take Russia’s side on this issue and to urge the EU to back off. Even worse, it appears the EU is in agreement with Germany and is willing to make Lithuania the scapegoat. Lithuanian officials, however, are in favor of staying the course, arguing that backing down will only embolden Russia. Petras Auštrevičius, a representative for Lithuania in the European Parliament noted that “if we retreat… Russia will see this as a challenge.” In other words, if Western countries back off on the sanctions, Russia will see opportunities to further intimidate them into a milquetoast policy towards its war in Ukraine.

Speaking to this broader context of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the Western response has been mixed, and has not been strong enough. Notably, several Central and Eastern European nations, including the Baltics, have been among the leaders in aiding Ukraine to the best of their limited capabilities, and the UK has largely been the boldest leader among the allies to the west. Unfortunately, most other countries have been cowed into a position of providing aid that is limited in its usefulness out of fear of escalation or, in some cases, a strategy of realpolitik which views Russia as more important for their own aims. As such, the overall response has been to provide enough weapons and supplies to keep the Ukrainians fighting, but not enough to help them win. In essence, the strategy of many Western countries has been to pretend to help Ukraine while in reality only providing enough aid for it to be destroyed more slowly and expensively. This response has enabled Russia to stay in the fight, and will create a longer war of attrition, costing many more lives and much more money, but political expedience has prevented more impactful aid.

Despite this, the NATO Summit in Madrid and the new strategy put forth this year do provide encouraging news that the alliance is getting more serious about the threats posed by Russia. After last year’s shift towards greater complacency and mission creep, this year’s focused, succinct, and largely more practical strategy is overdue, but welcome. The allies have agreed to focus on improving the defense and deterrence posture, including force mobility, command and control structures, and a greater forward presence. Russia is now no longer viewed as a potential partner, but as the single greatest threat and the object of the alliance’s focus militarily. As a result, the allies have agreed to bolster the forward presence of troops and heavy equipment on the Eastern Flank, including the Baltics. Notably, Britain has agreed to send an extra thousand troops and one of two new aircraft carriers to Estonia, a very important contribution not only to the existing ground forces in the Baltic theater, but also for a long neglected and often outright nonexistent forward presence in the maritime domain. These contributions come after years of an inadequate forward presence in the Baltics, which would have likely been overrun before reinforcements of troops and supplies could come in. Departing from a strategy of “lose then retake,” will be critical for defending the Baltics; between the commitments made at the Madrid Summit and the improvements outlined in the 2022 Strategic Concept, it appears that NATO is finally taking the Eastern Flank seriously.

While NATO and the EU appear to be going in opposite directions at the moment, and while individual nations’ responses are varied, one key piece of the strategic picture remains: Russia is mired down in a costly, resource and manpower consuming war in Ukraine. It is neither close to winning nor to losing, and it will likely remain that way for some time yet. It is greatly encouraging to see NATO getting serious about preparing for the possibility of future conflict, improving its defense and deterrence posture with a show of strength rather than seeking to appease Russia by limiting its ability to fight if attacked in the East. Yet, the EU appears instead to be ready to cave in the face of Russian threats in mortal fear of escalation. It is precisely this kind of timidity that emboldens Russia, and indeed, timidity in the West provided Russia the perfect time to attack Ukraine again. That, however, is not the only flaw in the EU’s approach to resolving the Kaliningrad transit fight. The primary issue is that, contrary to many dramatic hot takes predicting that this could spark World War III, Russia’s entanglement in Ukraine leaves it in a position where it is unlikely to be either bold enough or desperate enough to open up another theater of operations. It is not winning big, nor is it losing big, making such an operation essentially a pointless suicide. Russia’s decision to stick to hybrid methods, namely cyberattacks, to punish Lithuania further demonstrates that this particular issue is not big enough for Russia to send men and tanks to another front over products it can also send to Kaliningrad by ship. Rather, it is testing the limits of Western resolve to see what it can get away with and what it can potentially reverse.

NATO has, at last, demonstrated commitment to its mission. The EU and national governments in the West, however, continue to waver. As a result of this wavering, Russia will continue to be emboldened, will continue to push at buttons to see what it can get in its favor, and will continue its deadly war of attrition in Ukraine with little to stop it. If this trend continues, Russia will seek more and more, and Western nations and the European Union will have the ignoble distinction as its enablers. That is the most dangerous thing. Russia is unlikely to attack Lithuania if the sanctions regime remains in place – it simply is not worth the trouble. On the contrary, it is far more likely to attack when it believes its opposition is weak. NATO is moving in the right direction. The EU and national governments should follow suit.

Cover Photo: Russian transit train between Moscow and Kaliningrad. Source

By Matthew Thomas