While Russia continues to blockade Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea, the Kremlin has begun circulating the narrative that it is itself the victim of a blockade at Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.
The reality is very different, as the facts show.
A (very brief) history of Kaliningrad
Kaliningrad became a city and oblast (administrative region) of Russia in 1945 when the then German city of Königsberg and its surrounding area were placed under Soviet administration as part of the Potsdam Agreement at the end of World War 2.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kaliningrad remained part of Russia while its neighbouring states of Lithuania and Poland later chose to become EU member states.
It’s worth noting here that, despite the Kremlin’s longstanding and ongoing claims that Russia is encircled by a hostile force, it has actually heavily militarised Kaliningrad next to a narrow land strip through which the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are connected to the rest of the EU and NATO. Russia has also deployed nuclear weapons to Kaliningrad, even though it has also puzzlingly threatened to do this in response to the prospect of Finland and Sweden joining NATO.
Despite this precarious position, the Baltic nations have never engaged in foreign aggression nor been interested in the prospect of it based on those real security issues.
In fact, while Kaliningrad remained open to the rest of Russia by sea, the EU recognised its unique situation and agreed a transit regime through Lithuania to provide easier access for Russia’s people and goods to enhance relations. Their joint statement in 2002 included the recognition by both Russia and the EU that “the transit regime will not infringe upon the sovereign right of the Republic of Lithuania to exercise the necessary controls and to refuse entry into its territory.”
As tensions have risen as a result of Russia’s war on Ukraine,
Why is the Kremlin now talking about a “Kaliningrad blockade”?
On 15 March, EU member states agreed sanctions on Russia in response to its illegal and unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine.
Following a 3 month transition period to give everyone affected both notice and time to prepare, these sanctions now apply to the movement of Russian steel and ferrous metals through the EU, which Lithuania began enforcing.
Lithuania has taken no unilateral actions affecting the transit regime and, according to the Government of Lithuania, its enforcement of EU sanctions on steel and ferrous metals affect less than 1% of Russia’s rail freight through its country. The transit of Russian citizens and all other non-sanctioned Russian goods, including essentials such as food and medicine, remains unrestricted through the EU including between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia.
In addition, Kaliningrad remains accessible by international air and sea routes.
As Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte explained, “there is no Kaliningrad blockade. Lithuania is implementing EU sanctions.” This was backed up by the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell who explained that “Lithuania has not taken any unilateral national restrictions and only applies EU sanctions. Lithuania is doing nothing else but implementing the guidelines of the commission”.
Despite this, Russian officials have sought to frame this situation as a “blockade” somehow organised by the US.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that “this decision, indeed unprecedented, is a violation of everything and then some. We understand that it is connected to the relevant decision of the European Union to extend the sanctions to transit. This we also consider unlawful”.
Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement somehow blaming not the EU, but “the so-called ‘collective West’, with the explicit instruction of the White House”, which it says “imposed a ban on rail transit of a wide range of goods through the Kaliningrad region.”
Does the Kremlin have a point?
It remains unclear what the Kremlin believes has been violated with regards to Lithuania’s transit regime arrangement.
Lithuania’s enforcement of EU sanctions are within its sovereign rights, as acknowledged by Russia through its joint statement on Lithuania’s transit regime, which is still available on the Kremlin’s own website here.
Russia is essentially demanding new conditions in which it has the automatic entitlement to transport goods on a shortcut through Lithuania, overriding its border control rights, even when those goods are forbidden in the EU based on sanctions. Understandably, neither Lithuania nor the EU are willing to accept this.
Is anyone buying it?
While reporting has been generally balanced, the Kremlin’s rhetoric of a “Kaliningrad blockade” has been repeated in media headlines globally, sometimes without even inverted commas to show it is a disputed claim like here in the Daily Mail, the Sun, Yahoo News.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s most influential online supporters have been further amplifying the perception of a blockade while nonsensically blaming the US or NATO for creating the situation and claiming that it is a provocation that risks a world war.
This has been amplified by influencers who regularly repeat Kremlin talking points such as RT writer Caitlin Johnstone who mocked the US for supposedly wanting to “start World War Three over a NATO country that most Americans don’t even know exists” and Michael Tracey who claimed that “foreign policy professionals” think “we should fight World War Three over Lithuania”.
Some commentators have even circulated the false claim that Russia was granted free transit right through Lithuania as either a condition of its EU membership or, even more bizarrely, as a condition of Lithuania’s independence and that Russia has a justification to invade Lithuania as a result.
The first claim is based on an erroneous interpretation of a 2004 pledge that the EU would help facilitate the free transfer of goods between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia, although clarifies that is only to avoid “unnecessary restrictions”, which would not include sanctions in response to wars of aggression. Obviously, Russia does not have a right to decide EU sanctions on Russia. Also, this shouldn’t need to be said, but Lithuania exists as an independent state under international law and former imperial rulers do not have a reserved right to reabsorb states into their empire even if there was a legitimate trade dispute.
Media outlets and online commentators, including Michael Tracey, have also repeatedly referred to Kaliningrad wrongly as an enclave.
An enclave is a territory located entirely within a separate state, while an exclave is surrounded by multiple states, and a semi-exclave, like Kaliningrade, is surrounded by multiple states and also has sea access. So incorrectly referring to Kaliningrad as an enclave reinforces the false narrative that it is dependent on one nation that can blockade it. In reality, the transit regime for Kaliningrad is actually only intended to create a shortcut to the semi-exclave that is still accessible without passing through Lithuania’s sovereign territory.
These talking points have had some effect on even fairly neutral public figures, such as the prominent US venture capitalist David Sacks who tweeted that the situation could develop into a ‘world war’ and so “we should instruct Lithuania to stand down immediately”.
In general, however, support for Lithuania has been overwhelmingly strong globally, although better education on the details of its transit arrangement and enforcement of EU sanctions is urgently needed.
Isn’t it comparable to the Berlin Blockade?
Kremlin supporters have also tried to compare Russia’s opposition to Lithuania’s alleged blockade to the West’s opposition to the Soviet blockade of West Berlin in 1948, which they claim reveals Western hypocrisy. However, a serious comparison of the two issues further highlights the absurdity of claiming Kaliningrad has been blockaded.
In 1948, the Soviets blocked all road, rail, and canal access to West Berlin in order to deprive the 2.5 million inhabitants of access to all external goods, including electricity, food, coal, and other crucial supplies. This engineered humanitarian crisis was an attempt to gain leverage and negotiate concessions from the West during the Cold War. It ultimately failed due to the success of an air lift campaign, which became an increasing international embarrassment to the Soviet Union.
In contrast, the people of Kaliningrad continue to have free access through Lithuania to all essential supplies, as well as the vast majority of goods, and their own free movement, while there is also still free access through international airspace and waterways without transiting through Lithuania.
There is also a current example of a real blockade, which the Kremlin and its supporters are less willing to mention.
As part of its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, Russia is currently blockading Ukraine’s Black Sea coast after laying mines around its ports and rivers. Ukraine is a major wheat and grain exporter, and 98% of these exports are dependent on transport through the Black Sea as the infrastructure does not exist to move it elsewhere by land.
As a result, this blockade is strangling Ukraine’s economy while also pushing up global food prices and leading to devastating humanitarian consequences globally. The International Rescue Committee outlines here the countries, mostly in East Africa, that are due to experience the worst of this disaster.
The final word
If Russia is concerned about a blockade, it must immediately end its illegal and devastating blockade of Ukraine. And, if Russia is concerned about the impact of sanctions in response to its illegal and unprovoked war of aggression on the sovereign nation of Ukraine, then it must end the war too.
But the final word must go to RT’s Caitlin Johnstone, mentioned earlier as one online influencer heavily promoting the Kremlin’s narrative that Kaliningrad has been blockaded.
Back in February, Johnstone was promoting another Kremlin talking point that any talk of Russia (further) invading Ukraine was absurd western propaganda. In one tweet, she wrote: “I want you to promise me you’ll completely revise your worldview and drastically change your media consumption habits when March gets here and the invasion still hasn’t happened”.
As Johnstone has now reinvented herself as an expert on the war she insisted could never happen, we’d suggest that she and anyone else who believes Kaliningrad has been blockaded, rather than Ukraine, should take that advice.