Following the ban on the transit of certain goods between Russia and Lithuania (a NATO member), tensions between Russia& NATO have increased.
Russia threatened to strike back against Lithuania’s hostile actions and warned of serious consequences. NATO members have confirmed their support of the country.
This is a brief overview and explanation of what’s occurring, and why it matters.
Last week, Lithuania declared that it would block certain EU-sanctioned Russian products from entering its territory and transferring them to Kaliningrad.
The government declared that all EU-sanctioned goods would be affected by the blockade. This effectively blocks the flow from the mainland of metals, coke and construction materials to the Russian port on the sea. Lithuania explained that the decision was taken after consulting the European Commission, which is an executive arm of the EU. The EU has imposed sanctions on Russia following the unprovoked invasion and occupation of Ukraine by the latter on February 24.
Russia’s response to Lithuania being a former Soviet republic was to call it an “unprecedented” or “hostile move. Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued Tuesday a statement informing that “if the Kaliningrad and other Russian Federation territory through Lithuania isn’t fully restored in the immediate future, Russia reserves right to take action to protect its national security.”
What is Kaliningrad, exactly?
Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea is a tiny Russian exclave. It lies between Lithuanian, Polish and other languages. It is home of around 487,000 people. It covers an area measuring approximately 86 mi.
It belonged once to the German Empire. It was taken by Soviet troops of Nazi Germany in 1945. Since then, it’s been in Russian hands. It has since been an important sea port for Russia, providing easy access to the Baltic Sea. Kaliningrad Oblast, or Province, is Russia’s Baltic Fleet’s headquarters.
Regular military drills are conducted in the Baltic Sea by this fleet. The exercises included 60 warships, and 10,000 military personnel and lasted 10 days.
On Friday, Lithuania declared a ban on transshipments of EU-sanctioned products and it was put into effect on Saturday. Kaliningrad became panicked by this news. Anton Alikhanov (region governor) said that Russia would increase its cargo ships transporting goods between St. Petersburg and the exclave over the remainder of this year.
What comes next?
It isn’t clear how Moscow will deal with Lithuania’s actions.
Dmitry Peskov (Press secretary to President Vladimir Putin), called Monday’s move “illegal” and stated that “this unique decision was truly made.”
He said that “The situation is much more serious than it seems… Before we can devise a solution, we need to conduct an extensive analysis.”
Monday’s statement was made by the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry, stating that “the transit for non-sanctioned or passengers to and from Kaliningrad through Lithuanian continues uninterrupted.”
The statement stated, among other things, that Lithuania had not placed any unilateral or individual restrictions on transit. It also said that it has consistently applied EU sanctions.
Josep Borrell (EU’s chief foreign policy officer) also supported Lithuania Monday. While defending Vilnius, Borrell said he was concerned about the form and frequency of Russian retaliation. He claimed that he was always concerned by Russian retaliation and insisted that there wasn’t a blockade.
He stated that Lithuania doesn’t have any unilateral restrictions placed on its territory. Instead, it applies sanctions on EU countries.
BlueBay Asset Management’s senior sovereign strategist Timothy Ash stated Tuesday, that Kaliningrad was a strategic imperative to Russia and that it is crucial to defend as well as sustain.
He pointed out that Russia would be responding, but that it was not impossible to predict how it will turn out… [and] what Russia might do militarily.”
“A land-based attack on a corridor through Lithuania could possibly be considered an attack against Lithuania. It would trigger NATO Article 5 defense. Putin knows that this is a war against NATO. Putin cannot afford this, especially when he is trying to achieve his low-level strategic goals in Ukraine. He also stated that he would need a military attack on Belarus to break his troops and stretch his supply line.
Ash suggested Russia might use its large Baltic Sea naval assets to block trade between Lithuanians. However, NATO and the EU would consider this an escalation. He said that it would be difficult to determine whether this would trigger NATO Article 5 Defense.
Maria Zakharova was the spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry. They won’t be diplomatic but will be practical.
“Retaliatory Measures are currently being considered in an Interdepartmental Setting.
Both Lithuania and the EU were informed in Moscow by their diplomatic missions of the inadmissibility. They also needed to change the steps taken for the situation to have resorted to legal,” she stated.
“If this is not done, then, evidently, then, as was stress at all levels Moscow, retaliatory activity will be inevitable.”
What’s the point?
Tensions between Russia (NATO), China and Russia are already high following the war in Ukraine. Lithuania’s recent move only escalated tensions further and could lead directly to a confrontation between Russia and NATO.
Article 5, also known as collective defense, is a key pillar for NATO. This means that any attack on a member of a group can be considered an attack on the entire group. All members have a responsibility to protect each other.
NATO has been supporting Ukraine against Russia’s invasion. Members of NATO have sent various military equipment and weapons to the country, as well as humanitarian assistance. NATO repeatedly stated it would not send troops because it doesn’t want to directly confront Russia’s nuclear power.
Russia will need to calibrate its response against Lithuania carefully since any direct attack from Russia on NATO member countries will be interpreted by the organization as an attack.
NATO allies in Lithuania declared that they will continue to support the country even if there are threats from Russia.
Ned Price of the U.S. State Department spoke out saying that “Lithuania had been a NATO member” and that the United States stands behind the NATO alliance commitments. This included a commitment to Article Five, the foundation of NATO, during a daily press conference.
Price stated that Lithuania has been an important partner. He stated, “We stand with NATO, NATO Allies, and We Stand for Lithuania.”