Between Poland and Lithuania, 1000 kilometers from Moscow, the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad – which houses the headquarters of the Russian fleet on the Baltic Sea – is at the heart of a dispute between the Kremlin and the European Union. Since June 17, Lithuania, which is a former Soviet republic, has in fact been applying European sanctions linked to the invasion of Ukraine on the transit by rail of goods towards the enclave bordered by two countries of NATO and the EU. A potentially explosive situation that displeases Russian leaders.
On Friday, Lithuania’s state-owned rail operator, LTG, announced it would no longer allow Russian goods subject to EU sanctions, including coal, metals, building materials, and some tech goods. , to transit through the country to Kaliningrad. Denouncing a “blockade”, the governor of Kaliningrad, Anton Alikhanov, estimated that between 40% and 50% of supplies to the enclave via Lithuania were potentially subject to these restrictions. However, for Moscow, this measure directly violates an agreement dating from 2002 concluded between Russia and the European Union shortly before the integration of the Baltic countries within the European Union (effective in 2004). In particular, this allows Russian citizens to travel without a visa.
The tone therefore quickly rose between Moscow and Vilnius. Visiting Kaliningrad, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev directly threatened the country hostile to his policies: “Russia, of course, will react to such hostile acts. Appropriate measures are being worked out at inter-ministerial level and will be adopted soon. They will have serious negative consequences for the people of Lithuania”. In the aftermath, the Kremlin accused the European Union of encouraging an “escalation” of tensions, demanding an immediate restoration of transit to the oblast (region). “Transit by land between Russia and Kaliningrad has not been stopped or prohibited. The transit of passengers and goods continues. There is no blockade”, replied the head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, without succeeding in calming the tensions.
Although Kaliningrad is only a small territory of barely 15,000 square kilometres, consisting mainly of forests and moors where less than 1 million people live, it has become, over the years, one of the of the new confrontation between Russia and the West. The oblast is of particular strategic importance for Russia: Kaliningrad is the only maritime access free of ice all year round on the Russian western seaboard. Putin made it the home port of Russia’s mighty Baltic Sea fleet.
Last year, the Kremlin installed there, “as part of military exercises”, medium-range ballistic missiles Iskander, capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Enough to put Berlin, Warsaw, Copenhagen, Stockholm, in addition to the territories of the Baltic countries, within firing range. In February, shortly before the entry of its troops into Ukraine, Russia also deployed hypersonic missiles there, before asserting in early May that its army had simulated the firing of nuclear-capable missiles from the enclave, raising the threat nuclear power to Europeans.
Founded in the 12th century by the Christian order of the Teutonic Knights, the oblast of Kaliningrad (formerly known as Königsberg) was one of the main cities of the Kingdom of Prussia before becoming part of the German Empire, from 1871, and to be conquered by the Soviet Union after a bitter struggle against Nazi Germany in 1945. Since the fall of the USSR, the enclave of Kaliningrad has been completely cut off from the rest of Russia. The region is heavily dependent on the railway line connecting it to the rest of Russian territory, via Lithuania. However, relations between Russia and Lithuania have been delicate for several years, the country having been the first former Soviet republic to declare its independence in 1990, before becoming a member of NATO and the EU in the 2000s.
Presented by the authorities as a kind of “Russian Hong Kong”, the enclave represents a bridge to Europe. NATO has indeed identified a strip of 80 kilometers of Polish and Lithuanian borders, located between Kaliningrad in the west and Belarus – favorable to the Kremlin – in the east, known as the “Suwalki Gap” (the corridor of Suwalki), as being a potential target of Putin in the event of a conflict. “Suwalki is NATO’s Achilles’ heel, recently explained to L’Express Amélie Zima, a researcher in international relations. “In the event of a Russian invasion, this corridor cuts off the three Baltic States from the rest of the Atlantic Alliance. The latter would find themselves on an island, surrounded by Russia, and NATO assistance could then only be provided by air or by sea.”