How Russia Is Testing the EU’s Resolve on Sanctions

Recently Russia has been screaming bloody murder about the effects of sanctions on its enclave of Kaliningrad. The Russians have declared, baselessly, that EU sanctions restricting the movement of certain goods—so far steel, and ferrous metals—over EU territory to Kaliningrad are a “blockade.” More goods will be restricted in the future as sanctions are further implemented. A blockade is an act of war, and with this language Russia is trying to raise the specter of a war over rail access to Kaliningrad for propaganda effect. Never mind that the ports of Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg remain wide open, with no impediments to transport between them. If they are successful in gaining exceptions for Kaliningrad, still more of these kinds of propaganda campaigns can begin preparing the way for creating even larger loopholes in the sanctions, and eventually to rolling them back entirely. This strategy already seems to be working, and it looks like Russia has already chosen its next target for this fake “blockade” propaganda strategy: the Norwegian island of Svalbard. 

There have been some news reports of cracks in the EU about these sanctions with regard to Kaliningrad. Reuters published a story that goods transit through Lithuania to Russia could return back to normal “within days.” Then Politico reported that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz “sought to cool tensions in the Baltic region by urging Lithuania and the EU to lift restrictions on freight transport from Russia to its Kaliningrad exclave, arguing that EU sanctions against Moscow should not apply there.” Der Spiegel reported that the EU was going to issue a “clarification” that would allow Russia to move all kinds of goods overland to Kaliningrad, though in limited amounts.

This looks like German pressure to get Lithuania to cave, or to get the EU to carve out enough space to weaken the sanctions in a way that would leave Lithuania without diplomatic support if it insists on limiting the transit of Russian goods through its territory. There is already a treaty guaranteeing the transit of Russian passengers through Lithuania to Kaliningrad, and this is already enough of a potential security risk for Lithuania. In addition to punishing Russia for its aggression in Ukraine, the EU sanctions allow Lithuania to deny permits for the transit of some Russian goods across its territory with diplomatic and political cover from the rest of Europe. As the different phases of the sanctions kick in, the transit of products other than steel and ferrous metals will be stopped: On July 10 the transit cement and alcohol will be prohibited, coal in August, and oil in December. If the Russians exploit a rift between Germany and Lithuania—part of the broader rift between Eastern and Western Europeans about how to deal with Russia—Russia might not only stop the implementation of these sanctions but even maneuver Europe into a position in which Russia has even more legal guarantees to the transit of goods than it had before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Russian publications are gleeful about this rift. Multiple Russian news websites are repeating this quote by an upset Ukrainian expert about what is happening with Kaliningrad, saying that the Western European powers were leaving Lithuania out in the cold:

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