Kaliningrad crisis: Russia threatens to open a new war front in Lithuania

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda visiting his country’s troops stationed in the town of Druskininkai, on the border with Belarus. (Reuters/Janis Laizans)

Kaliningrad was for a long time a double periphery, despised by both Russia and Europe. It was strategic, but it served no one’s purposes. It ended up being a Cold War tie. Russian territory on the European Baltic coast where the slightest destabilization could unleash the much-feared nuclear war. It could house weapons, ships and spies, but not go into action. The slightest weight made him lose his balance. No one dared to go further and this enclave of 15,000 square kilometers inhabited by a million peopleremained as an obscure fourth Baltic republic, where the Orthodox Church of Moscow had more weight than Stalin.

The Christian Teutonic Knights founded it in 1200 under the name of Königsberg. Very soon it became highly prized, the only port in the Baltic that does not freeze during the winter. Three centuries later, ended up being part of the Prussian Empire and later of Germany. Between 1871 and 1945, the region was successively under the control of the German Empire, the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany. By the Yalta Agreement, after the German defeat, Königsberg remained within the Soviet orbit. It became the 47th oblast (region) of the Soviet Union and named Kaliningrad in honor of the Bolshevik revolutionary Mikhail Kalinin.

Kaliningrad Map War Ukraine Map Infographic

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the independence of Lithuania and Belarus in 1991, this enclave remained part of the Russian Federation. There were some feints of insurrection, but the Kremlin used all its tricks so that nothing happened. She also buried the dreams of those who wanted to turn her into “the Hong Kong of the Baltic”. One country, one system, they said from Moscow. Until Vladimir Putin discovered his whims as the conqueror and successor of Peter the Great.

In 2005, on the 750th anniversary of the establishment of Königsberg/ Kaliningrad, attended by the leaders of the European powers, Putin reaffirmed that the status of the enclave could not be questioned in any way and revealed his interest in creating an anti-American “continental Europe” led by Russia, with Germany and France and this Russian-European territory as the nerve center of that alliance. Obviously, none of that prospered, but it was the beginning of the Russian reaffirmation of her imperial dream and of bringing her borders back to what had been the USSR.

The first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, with the annexation of Crimea and the creation of the enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk, put Kaliningrad back at the center of the Russian bid with the European Union. Among the pro-Russians there began to be talk of a historical territory linking these regions with the Baltic Sea. Two years before, the Kremlin had already deployed the S-400 in Kaliningrad, a long-range missile defense system. And in 2016, sent an Iskander missile system with nuclear warheads able to reach Germany and the Scandinavian countries. Moscow claimed the move was necessary to counter the growing US military presence in the region.

Russian train on the Lithuanian border with Kaliningrad.
Russian train at Kybartai station, on the Lithuanian border with Kaliningrad. That is where most of the Russian products arrive at their Baltic enclave. (Belarus Times)

Kaliningrad relies on a rail corridor linking it to the Russian mainland, via allied Belarus., and where it receives most of the products it needs for its economy. These routes pass through Lithuania and since 2004, when this Baltic republic joined the European Union, maintain the guarantee of free movement of Russian trains. Every day they move from west to east, and vice versa, five cargo and passenger convoys. At the Kybartai station, a small Lithuanian town of 6,000 inhabitants, they cross the border from the EU back to Russian territory or vice versa. To all effects, the train is russian and no one can get on or off in lithuanian territory. Despite the fact that the passengers have been in the carriages for more than 30 hours since they started the trip in Moscow and that the train remains in Kybartai for almost an hour, no one is allowed to get off under any circumstances. Neither passengers nor train staff are allowed to set foot in the European Union.

And it is there, in Kibartai, where it opens a new battlefront of the Ukrainian war. Following the February 24 invasion, the European Union imposed a series of harsh sanctions on the Russian economy. Now, Lithuania put the measures into effect and banned the use of that railway to ship coal, metals, electronics and other sanctioned goods. In this way, Russia is left without the possibility of “exporting” to Kaliningrad almost half of the products that it was carrying until now. A hard blow for the enclave and a threat to Putin who has been militarily reinforcing the region that he considers the spearhead for any type of specific attack on the European Union. He had already concentrated, together with the Belarusians, a significant number of troops on the Lithuanian border in the so-called Operation Zapad. Now, he directly threatens military reprisals against Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital.

Lithuanian border guard on the border with Kaliningrad.
A Lithuanian border guard patrols the border with Kaliningrad. (Lithuanian Times)

The Russian Foreign Ministry demanded that Lithuania reverse the “openly hostile” measure. “If the transit of goods between the Kaliningrad region and the rest of the Russian Federation through Lithuania is not fully restored in the near future, Russia reserves the right to take measures to protect its national interests.”he said in a statement. He also summoned the Lithuanian ambassador and told him that his country was “breaking” the international agreements of 2014. And a Kremlin spokesman spoke of a “provocation” and the need to “respond by all means”.

For his part, the Lithuanian Foreign Minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, accused Moscow of spreading false information and assured that the state railway service was acting legally by limiting itself to applying the EU sanctions regime that prohibits the supply of steel or products made from iron ore to Russia. Lithuania hides behind the EU and NATO by trying avoid the dangerous blow of the Russian bear.

Russian paratroopers board a plane during military exercises at the Kaliningrad airfield (REUTERS / Vitaly Nevar)
Russian paratroopers board a plane during military exercises at the Kaliningrad airfield (REUTERS / Vitaly Nevar) (VITALY NEVAR /)

The Russian governor of Kaliningrad, Anton Alikhanov, said that “we are not isolated anyway”. He announced that two ships were already transporting goods from Saint Petersburg and that seven more would be in service in the coming months. Although he knows that his territory is closed by “the enemy”. With the likely inclusion of Finland and Sweden in NATO, there will no longer be any breakaway states between the Russian mainland and Kaliningrad. The northern Baltic will not be as friendly as it has been for the Russian fleet and the trains will have to leave a good part of the load at the small Kibartai station.

Although the crisis also exposes what some analysts call “the Achilles heel of the European Union”. It is a strip of 96 kilometers that goes from the Polish town of Suwalki, on the border between Lithuania and Poland, to Kaliningrad. At the beginning of this line, there is Belarus. If a war front was started towards the Baltic, it is very likely that Russia would try to occupy this “corridor”. In that way, she would leave the three Baltic states cut off from their NATO partners. With the complicity of the Belarusian dictator, Aleksandr Lukashenko, Putin’s troops could occupy this corridor quite easily. On the other part of the strip is its naval base in the port of Baltisk, in the Bay of Gdansk, and a large military contingent. Thus Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia would be at the mercy of a very rapid occupation without the possibility of receiving help from its partners in the Atlantic Alliance.


Russia threatened Lithuania for closing the traffic of goods to its Kaliningrad enclave: “We reserve the right to act”