As economic sanctions against Ukraine progressed from talk to actual, the European checkerboard became more complex over the weekend. The EU has imposed new sanctions that prohibit the shipment of certain products, such as metals, coal, and construction materials, between EU territories and Russia.
Kaliningrad in Russia, which is the Russian capital and home to approximately 500,000 people, is the headquarters of the Russian Baltic Fleet. It was a pocket territory that the Soviet Union took from Russia at the end of World War Two. Kaliningrad was isolated from the rest of Russia after the Cold War. It is an island that borders the Baltic Sea on one side and has the NATO countries of Lithuania and Poland on the other.
Kaliningrad is in a similar position to Crimea, the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s headquarters, until it was annexed into the Russian Federation by Vladimir Putin. Operations began in February 2014, and a treaty was signed by March 18th.
The rail line that ran through the former Soviet Republic of Lithuania, which is now independent and a member of the EU and NATO, was used for the transportation of goods from mainland Russia to Kaliningrad over many years.
This latest crisis has been created.
The West is moving from the preparation phase to the implementation phase of the sanctions imposed by Russia on Ukraine’s invasion are now in the process of implementing the sanctions. Goods and services will be restricted.
Lithuania began imposing sanctions on goods transported by rail from their territory to or from Russia in June 2022. This is in effect from the isolated region of Kaliningrad to mainland Russia. Lithuania stated that it will only limit items on the EU’s sanctions list according to the timeline for restrictions implementation. The transport of people remains free of restriction.
Josep Borrell from the EU’s foreign policy chief said that Vilnius has been complying with the sixth round of sanctions imposed on it by the European Union. Borrell was quoted as saying that Lithuania has not applied any sanctions imposed by the European Union unilaterally and that it does not have any unilateral restrictions.
The Russians seem to have been unprepared for this. Anton Alikhanov, Kaliningrad Governor, noted that Russia had already started operating two ferries between Kaliningrad & St. Petersburg in order to handle restricted traffic. However, the Russians would not have seven additional ferries to offset Lithuania’s rail restrictions until late this year.
Moscow is believed to have summoned diplomatic representatives from Lithuania and the European Union in order to discuss the issue.
Moscow also does saber-rattling. The Russian foreign ministry said Monday that if the cargo transit between Kaliningrad and the rest Russian Federation’s territory through Lithuania is not fully restored, Russia will take all necessary measures to safeguard its national interests.
Moscow has made this claim before. Moscow has said this before when it annexed Crimea’s Russian Navy Base in 2014. This act ultimately led to war in Ukraine.
This naval base at the Baltic Sea has one problem: taking and holding territory “protecting its national interests” is done through land that triggers NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense pact.
I am more focused on Lithuania as a possible matchstick. For world peace, the stakes of tension rising to ignite major war are higher than those in Ukraine.
Ukraine is technically still a non-aligned nation. Ukraine is not yet a member either of the European Union or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This means that all sides have the right to live in it and get away with murder.
Despite all the media coverage about the bravery displayed by Ukraine in its war against Russia, the war is now overwhelmingly in favor of Russia. The battle of Fulda Gap was fought earlier this year. NATO’s defense strategy to stop a mobile army of tanks by using man-portable anti-tank missiles succeeded perfectly. Western militaries rejoiced in the success of their defense investment that began with the US TOW missile, which was first used in Vietnam.
This phase of the war is over. It now focuses on the defense of Ukrainian cities, which is something that the Russian army excels at — the meat grinding siege craft and rolling artillery barrages. Slowly but surely, the Ukrainians are buckling. The Russians also have learned from their logistical blunders the importance of interdicting the supply lines between Ukraine and the West. Unfortunately, many Ukrainian lives will be lost before a peace treaty is signed by the West. This would force the Zelensky government into accepting the agreement that would end the active conflict.
The next step is to pick up the pieces from the Ukraine mess. It will take many decades to repair the damage done to the European economic landscape. An animus between East and West will continue to fuel tensions and threaten the political stability of both sides.
It is important to ask: Will it end before any other flashpoints appear on the European Checkerboard? US, EU, and Russians need to manage sanctions-induced tension with care. If something goes wrong, Lithuania immediately triggers calamitous agreements. As this year progresses, I rate it as a dangerous flashpoint in the same order that Sarajevo was to start World War One. There are other fractures that could emerge in Russia and the West.
This shifts the focus from Ukraine’s survival to Europe and America’s survival. It is unclear how quickly mainstream media will figure it out and start asking hard questions.