Lithuania’s action – deliberately or ignorantly – could drag the European Union or NATO into the current Ukraine War, and could even trigger World War 3. Kaliningrad, which is on the Baltic Sea and about 1,300km (800 miles) from Moscow, is actually a Russian province. Historically, the city was under the Old Prussian settlement, the Poland (1454-1657), the German (1657-1945) and Russian (from 1945 onwards).
From the beginning, Kaliningrad was founded as a “military fortress” in 1255 after the Prussian Crusade by the Teutonic Knights against Baltic Prussians. Known as Königsberg, it was renamed Kaliningrad after Soviet Red Army captured it from Nazi Germany 1945 and later ceded to the Soviet Union. Home to about 500,000 people, Kaliningrad is not just a piece of useless city.
On the contrary, the Kaliningrad Oblast became a strategically important area during the Cold War. The Soviet Baltic Fleet was headquartered in the city in the 1950s. In fact, the city is so strategically and important that the Kaliningrad Oblast was closed to foreign visitors. The town of Baltiysk, just outside Kaliningrad, is the only Russian Baltic Sea port that is “ice-free” all year round.
When Poland and Lithuania became members of NATO and subsequently the European Union in 2004, the isolated Russian province became even more critical. In July 2007, Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov declared that if US-controlled missile defence systems were deployed in Poland, then nuclear weapons might be deployed in Kaliningrad.
As the U.S. continuously enlarges NATO by expanding to the east, despite promise not to do so, Russia felt threatened, leading to Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014 and the deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad in 2016 (upgraded in 2018). The U.S. protested, but Moscow said it can do whatever it wants since NATO also deployed missiles.
The military city is equipped with radar systems which provide aerial surveillance of central Europe. In 2012, it was already equipped with the S-400, an anti-aircraft missile defence system that has a long-range coverage – up to 400 kilometres and a height of up to 30 kilometres. The Russian S-400 and S-500 defence systems have always been a nightmare for the U.S. and NATO.
NATO, on the other hand, worries that Russia could invade Poland and Lithuania to create a land corridor from the territory to Belarus. While Lithuania argued that it was just complying with the European Union sanctions against Russia, it could be used as an excuse by both sides – E.U. and Russia – to escalate the Ukraine War. It could be the U.S.’ deliberate attempt to prolong the war.
At the same time, the Kremlin could use it as an excuse to attack either Lithuania or Poland in an attempt to test the NATO’s Article 5, which says that an attack on one member of NATO is an attack on all of its members. But the burning question is – will the U.S. really sends its precious troops to finally fight the Russians if one of the NATO members is being attacked?
Unless the U.S., E.U. and NATO are really serious about the Article 5, Lithuania’s latest blockade could backfire if Vladimir Putin calls the West bluffs and decides to invades and captures “Suwalki Corridor” or Suwalki Gap – the shortest land route measuring 64 kilometres (40 miles) which connects between Kaliningrad Oblast and Belarus, Russia’s ally.
If Putin uses the territory of Belarus to launch another special military operation to “liberate” Kaliningrad the same way the Russian president has done with Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland could essentially be cut off from each other. Worse, it could provide justification for Moscow to also cut off the Baltic nations – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – from the rest of NATO territory.
The Lithuania’s ban effectively violates an agreement signed in April 2003 (ahead of Poland and Lithuania joining the E.U. in 2004) between the European Union and Russia, which allowed people and goods from Kaliningrad to obtain a transit document for train travel across Lithuania to Russia. On June 8, Russian Lower House of Parliament discussed about revoking the Soviet Union’s recognition of Lithuania’s independence.
It doesn’t matter whether the decision to block Kaliningrad has the endorsement from the U.S., E.U. or NATO. The Western nations’ over confidence that Russia will not dare attack a NATO member, such as Lithuania, could be severely misplaced. Putin probably bets that neither the U.S. nor the E.U. wants another war after the havoc the Ukraine War has done to the global economy.
Thanks to Lithuania, Putin said Russia will send “Iskander-M” – nuclear capable short-range missile systems – to ally Belarus. The system, with a range of up to 500 kilometres, can fire ballistic and cruise missiles, both conventional and nuclear types. Speaking in St Petersburg, Mr Putin also said Russia would help to modify Belarusian SU-25 warplanes so that they could carry nuclear weapons.
On Saturday (June 25), Ukraine surrendered the key city of Severodonetsk after losing Mariupol, a major industrial hub, to Russia on May 20. Russia now controls nearly all of Luhansk region and much of neighbouring Donetsk – the two regions that form the vast industrial Donbas. To save face, some western analysts called the loss of the major strategic city as merely “symbolic victory” to Russia.
More importantly, the readiness of Russia to escalate the Ukraine War to the Baltic nations appears very real after Estonia complained that Russian MI-8 helicopter, which switched off its transponder, has violated its airspace on June 18, the same day Lithuania blocked Kaliningrad from receiving goods such as coal, steel, construction materials and advanced technology.