A partial blockade of a Russian exclave ensconced between Lithuania and Poland along the Baltic coast could cause a dramatic escalation in the Ukraine war.
The Kaliningrad region is sandwiched between the two NATO member countries, and it has been Russian territory since the end of World War II in 1945. Its eponymous capital was formerly one of East Germany’s main cities before it was captured by then-Soviet Union in April 1945, with the Potsdam Agreement later that year placing it under Soviet administration. The region, which is armed with nuclear-capable missiles, has about one million residents.
The exclave could spiral into a new flashpoint of the war in Ukraine, as the Kremlin has warned Lithuania of “serious consequences” for its application of European Union sanctions on certain products, including Russian coal, iron, oil, and steel. However, the Baltic state has vowed to stick with the blockade, which is part of the EU’s sanctions response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The conflict is dragging into its fifth month and has seen thousands die and millions displaced in a European refugee crisis.
The Kremlin has said that the sanctions are illegal and unacceptable and has accused Lithuania of blocking a railway line that joins the exclave and mainland Russia. Last week, Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė said that Moscow’s claims of a rail blockade of its outpost in Kaliningrad were untrue. Lithuania insists that people are still able to enter and leave the isolated region. However, panic buying has gripped residents of the Connecticut-sized exclave amid fears of a blockade.
Russia has repeatedly threatened Poland and the Baltic states with military action since the country invaded Ukraine on February 24. Estonian officials have accused Russia of running missile attack simulations against the Eastern European country and violating its airspace with a helicopter on June 18. It marked the first time a Russian helicopter had intruded into Estonian airspace.
As NATO members, Poland and the Baltic States enjoy the security guarantee of Article Five — the premise that an attack on one NATO would constitute an attack on all members — meaning that other countries like the United States with more military might be obliged to defend them and join the war.
Lithuanian state and private institutions were hit by a denial-of-service cyberattack, the country’s National Cyber Security Center said in a statement released by the defense ministry on Monday. Reuters reported that Russian hacker group Killnet had claimed responsibility for the breach, in retaliation for the Baltic state stopping Russian goods from transferring to Kaliningrad.
On State Television Channel 1 on Sunday, pro-Kremlin television host Vladimir Solovyov warned that Russia was only using 18 percent of its army in Ukraine so it was ready for “a direct confrontation” with NATO if necessary.
Andrey Gurulyov, State Duma deputy and former deputy commander of Russia’s southern military district, was speaking to Solovyov on Sunday about the Suwalki corridor, a strategically-important area southwest of the border of Poland and Lithuania, and the shortest land route from mainland Russia to Kaliningrad.
Gurulyov called for the corridor to be enlarged. “We need to break through for a corridor from St. Petersburg along the Baltic Sea coast. Only then will we have a normal supply route for the city of Kaliningrad,” he said.
On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko, who said Lithuania’s blockade on the transit of some Russian goods was “akin to a declaration of war,” Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported. During the meeting, Putin told Lukashenko that he would provide Belarus with Iskander-M missile systems, which are capable of carrying nuclear warheads and have an operational range of up to 500 kilometers.
The Ukraine war is currently centered around the eastern Donbas region after Russia failed to capture Kyiv earlier on in the conflict. However, there were several Russian missiles rained down on the capital on Sunday, for the first time in three weeks. One man was killed and a kindergarten and residential buildings were damaged in the attack.