COLUMN-Kaliningrad line points to gradually increasing Baltic war risk: Peter Apps

BBy far the bloodiest fighting is taking place in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, where several hundred Ukrainian and Russian soldiers die every day in artillery, tank and urban battles.

But the broader chessboard of global confrontation continues to grow.

This includes Wednesday’s alleged Ukrainian drone attack on a Russian oil refinery in Russia, Lithuania’s ban on transit of key industrial materials to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, talks about joining the Ukraine to the EU and the ever-deepening battle for hearts, minds, food and fuel around the world. Provisions.

The rhetoric and activity around the Baltic States brings particular new dangers. Along with Poland, the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been Ukraine’s staunchest supporters and have pushed the hardest line against Moscow, fearing the Kremlin will target them once the current war begins. ended or subsided.

The United States and its allies sent additional troops to the Baltics after the February 24 invasion, while NATO jets rushed in several times a week to intercept Russian planes approaching NATO airspace. Most of these actions have taken place off the coast – direct Russian overflights of NATO ground territory, such as the one reported on Saturday over the Koidula region in southeastern Estonia, have been relatively rare. Estonia immediately protested, summoning the Russian ambassador.

On Wednesday, Russia summoned the EU ambassador to the Kremlin to protest Lithuania’s ban on shipping sanctioned goods from its territory to Kaliningrad, a Russian port closed by Poland and Lithuania. Russian authorities have condemned the attempted “economic strangulation” of the port, long seen as a potential flashpoint between NATO and Moscow.

This week, Russian TV talk shows accused the US and Britain of cultivating confrontation, pressuring the Baltic states to open a ‘second front’ to distract Russia from Ukraine. .

SUPPLY BATTLE

Lithuania says the inclusion of steel and ferrous materials in the latest round of EU sanctions has left it with no choice but to block their transit to Kaliningrad, which until the invasion used rail links between Lithuania and Belarus as a key supply line, including for the resupply of the Russian army. with weapons.

EU officials take a slightly different line, with spokesman Eric Marner saying Lithuania is obliged to implement ‘proportionate controls’, with other officials suggesting metals should be allowed through if they transit from the Russia-Belarus free trade zone to the Russian “domestic market”. ” in Kaliningrad.

Whether Lithuania will back down if the EU starts pushing that line further is another question. Despite all the EU’s expressions of support and solidarity with Ukraine – including accession talks – Germany and France in particular are seen as eager to retain opportunities to defuse tensions with Moscow.

Other goods and passenger crossings would remain allowed – but Lithuanian media have warned that Russian media “hysteria” could be a sign that Moscow could use the incident to justify a military attack or other action, saying that Vilnius should call for more NATO troops. permanently stationed in its territory.

Russia has increased its military activity in the region since Sweden and Finland applied to join NATO, with some Baltic military experts saying a further increase in sea and air activity is likely. Some Russian experts have suggested that Russia could launch its own outright blockade of the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda, although Lithuanian officials have rejected such suggestions.

Russian media have suggested removing Lithuania, and potentially the other Baltic states, from a Soviet-era electricity supply network that allows them to buy Russian electricity, part of a trend growing in which essential supplies are used as weapons by both sides.

POLITICAL IMPLICATIONS

In Kaliningrad, Russian media quoted local authorities as saying they were considering increasing sea shipments from St. Petersburg to make up for any shortfall in rail deliveries. Prior to the invasion, the Russians and the enclave traded extensively with neighboring Lithuanian border regions, but this stopped when sanctions were imposed.

Building energy and greater independence from Russia was a key theme at the Three Seas Initiative meeting in the Latvian capital this week, a gathering of 12 EU states from the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Sea, with Polish and Latvian leaders also calling for better rail links. between states to better manage the movement of troops and supplies in the event of a future crisis.

In the short term, this means increased reliance on foreign gas from suppliers like the United States and Japan. However, in the future, the three Baltic States and Poland are investing resources in renewable energy to reduce their dependence on Russia.

However, perhaps the most complex implications are those for local politics. Both Latvia and Estonia have large Russian-speaking minorities, and the months following the invasion have seen the press criticize Russian-speakers for their alleged support for Putin as newspaper editorials warn of “collaborators and collaborators”.

How realistic these worries are remains unclear – the invasion saw an outpouring of support for NATO and anger against Russia, including from many Russian-speakers in the region. Earlier this month, Estonia’s ruling coalition crumbled in part over a desire to build a new government without the predominantly Russian-speaking Center Party, as tensions with Russia and language education Russian and Estonian have worsened.

For now, the risk of an outright conflict over the Baltic states seems limited, mainly because the Kremlin lacks resources. However, if it ever did happen – and the risk is clearly increasing – it would pit NATO and the European Union directly against Moscow in a way that could be more dangerous than the current war.

** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan and non-ideological think tank. Paralyzed by a car accident in a war zone in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016 he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labor Party.

(Editing by Nick Macfie)

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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