Crisis in the Baltics: geopolitical ramifications of Russia’s last Oblast

Kaliningrad was named after a passive-loyalist of Lenin and Stalin- Mikhail Kalinin, who died in 1946, before which, it was known as Konigsberg.

Crisis in the Baltics
Kaliningrad is critically important for Moscow. Image Credit: Reuters

By Rajoli Siddharth Jayaprakash

With Lithuania blocking sanctioned Russian goods from entering its territory en route to a Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, Moscow has threatened retaliation, causing the residents in Lithuania to embark on panic buys in preparation for the worst. With tensions looming amidst an ongoing invasion in Ukraine, it is crucial to understand the politics around the tiniest federal subject of Russia and see how it affects Russia’s interactions with the nations around the vicinity while attempting to trace out the possible repercussions of Lithuania’s so-called ‘defiant stand’ against Russian aggression.

Kaliningrad was named after a passive-loyalist of Lenin and Stalin- Mikhail Kalinin, who died in 1946, before which, it was known as Konigsberg. The Soviet red army captured it towards the end of World War II. Upon capture, the German citizens were deported, and the region was renamed Kaliningrad. In the next four decades, Kaliningrad would remain an essential point for the Red Navy, linking St Petersburg to the port city of Lubeck in East Germany, stretching the Soviet Navy’s influence to the Western fringes of the Baltic Sea.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kaliningrad became the Westernmost oblast of the Russian Federation, which is also known as the ‘World’s largest aircraft carrier’ that overlooks the Baltic Sea and sits sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania in the Suwalki corridor, through which people and goods cross into Belarus onto mainland Russia, visa-free.

Kaliningrad is critically important for Moscow. It remains Russia’s only gateway to the Baltic Sea in the winter months. Furthermore, Russia has deployed Iskandar and Kalibr missiles which are dual-capable (conventional or nuclear) and are within striking range of several European capitals. The Baltic nations and Poland see Kaliningrad as a significant threat to their security: the domestic attitudes in these regions are primarily anti-Russian. Because of the Soviet repressions. And in the case of Poland, their insecurity is due to a lack of natural boundaries and being subject to invasions in the past. 2021 a military exercise- Zapad, between Russia and Belarus across the two Slavic nations simulated a conflict scenario involving its neighbours, causing a trust deficit with the Baltic nations and hence their inclination to join NATO immediately upon the dissolution of the USSR because they needed security guarantees in the event of an attack from Russia.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there were greater hopes for the economic integration of Kaliningrad with Europe to bring mainland Russia close to Europe- thinking of Kaliningrad as the future ‘Baltic Hong Kong’ However, the region has not fared well in economic development, as the state intervention in the development of the area in non-military terms has been minimal. Employment prospects are better in the Russian mainland for the people of Kaliningrad. Trade was hampered with E.U. due to the sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The situation was so dire that in 2016, Aleksey Zalivatsky, the mayor of the small coastal city of Yantarny, put the city hall up for sale! Despite a large number of Kaliningraders strongly identifying themselves as Russians, they travel to European nations more than they travel to the Russian mainland.

Lithuania and Russia

A few weeks ago, a bill was tabled in the Duma, questioning the recognition of the sovereignty of Lithuania, as it went against the erstwhile constitution of the USSR. The ministers in Lithuania dismissed the claims of Yevgeny Fyodorov as hysterics. Upon the shipping blockade incident, the foreign minister of Lithuania was quick to state that only goods sanctioned by the E.U., such as timber, cement, steel, coal, and several other goods, were not allowed into the border. But, the movement of the people and essential goods was not restricted. He further asserted that Lithuania was legally obligated to implement E.U. laws.

Emma Ashford, a senior research fellow at the Atlantic Council, asserts that Lithuanian actions seemed like a ‘classic case of alliance entrapment’ where smaller and weaker nations succeed in pulling their more significant alliance partner into a fight that isn’t in their interests.

Lithuania is a NATO member protected by article 5; a Russian attack on Vilnius could potentially escalate the conflict to the point of no return in the Baltics, which is why we’re seeing NATO making plans to move away from its “tripwire” strategy- of rotating units in the Baltic nations, to a “forward defense posture” wherein rapid militarization of NATO divisions in the Baltics will take place, which will unnerve Moscow and even potentially see an intensification of tensions.

Lithuania being a member of NATO curtails Moscow’s choice of action. The possibility of any overt military action on Vilnius is improbable. But Moscow will resort to calibrated responses such as imposing a travel ban on Lithuanian officials or initiating a cyber-attack. The sea route to Kaliningrad may remain open, but Kaliningraders are already putting up with the brunt of the sanctions; now, a blockage in one passage could affect them massively. As for Vilnius, they are treading on hostile ground, which will not only make it difficult to end the conflict in Ukraine but bring Europe back to the times of the Iron curtain.

(Author is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Russian and Central Asian studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New DelhiViews expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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