Why Russia Is Calling Sanctions on Kaliningrad a ‘Blockade’

Vladimir Putin’s February assault on Ukraine prompted EU sanctions on a range of Russian individuals, entities, and sectors of the Russian economy. For example, EU companies are now banned from selling encryption devices or software to Russia as well as exporting certain types of oil refining technologies there. One sector the EU targeted was Russian transportation. This involved closing EU skies to Russian aircraft, banning the export of navigational goods to Russia, banning Russian ships from making EU port calls, and “A full ban of Russian and Belorussian freight road operations working in the EU,” the EU made sure that there were exceptions for the transport of humanitarian aid, energy, and food.

Some took effect immediately, but there was a three-month transitional period before sanctions took effect for Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave in Europe that dates back to the end of World War II and is home to Russia’s Baltic Fleet.

In mid-June, sanctions took effect for Kaliningrad, specifically those banning the transport of steel and ferrous metals through Lithuania to Kaliningrad. These EU-wide sanctions had been in the works for weeks, so  if Russian experts were surprised then they have not been paying attention. However, Russian propagandists have decided to treat this as a major crisis, a “blockade” (this is the term they are using) of Kaliningrad, possibly even an act of war. Russian propaganda headlines like: “’Casus belli’: What Kaliningrad blockade means for Russia,” “’Violation of Everything’: Kremlin Blasts Lithuania’s Rail Blockade of Russia’s Kaliningrad Region” pepper newsfeeds. Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, made a visit to Kaliningrad and called the “blockade” an example of the “unprecedented political, informational and economic pressure from the West”:

at the suggestion of Western countries, in violation of the norms and principles of international law, of the transit through its territory to the Kaliningrad region of a large group of goods. This example shows that one cannot trust not only the oral statements of the West, but also written ones. Russia will certainly react to such hostile actions. Appropriate measures are being worked out in an interdepartmental format and will be taken in the near future. Their consequences will have a serious negative impact on the population of Lithuania.

Patrushev was not specific about the “written” agreements that Lithuania was violating. This is probably because it does not exist. As the Lithuanian government has reiterated, there is no transport treaty guaranteeing the shipment of all kinds of freight across Lithuanian territory. There is a transport treaty for passengers, and this is still in effect, and Russians can still transit across Lithuanian territory to reach the enclave. 

Rising to the bait, many Western journalists responded with headlines like “Moscow and NATO could be about to clash over Russia’s European exclave Kaliningrad.” The subsequent article mentions the much more complicated picture behind the “crisis,” but most people won’t bother reading beyond the headline. 

Kaliningrad was once an important Prussian port city called Königsberg, the home of the German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. After World War II it became part of Russia and the entire German population, about 500,000 people, was expelled. It was repopulated with Russians and given a new name in honor of Mikhail Kalinin, the official head of state of the Russian socialist republic. The Soviets made it the headquarters of their Baltic fleet, as the port is ice-free year round. The Russian Baltic fleet is still based there today. When the USSR fell apart and split along the borders of the various socialist republics that made up the USSR, Kaliningrad remained part of Russia because it was part of the Russian socialist republic, even though it was more than 200 miles from Russia’s border. Kaliningrad is accessible by the Baltic Sea, but on land it is bordered by Poland and Lithuania. Both of these countries joined the EU and NATO after the breakup of the Soviet Empire, and Kaliningrad has become an awkward strategic fact since then. 

The enclave became known for its thriving market in cars stolen from EU countries and for regular threats that Russia made to station nuclear weapons there. (The flight times of Russian nuclear-tipped missiles from Kaliningrad to many European capitals would be significantly less than any launched from “mainland” Russia.) Russia publicly deployed nuclear-capable missiles to Kalliningrad in 2018, but has since still regularly made the threat that if some NATO/EU country or other didn’t do what they wanted, that they would deploy nuclear weapons there. After Russia expanded its invasion of Ukraine and Sweden and Finland began seriously discussing joining NATO, Dmitry Medvedev threatened, again, to deploy nuclear weapons to Kaliningrad. In response, the Lithuanian defense minister said that this threat “seems rather strange” as nuclear weapons “have always been kept there. … They keep nuclear weapons, delivery vehicles, and have warehouses [in Kaliningrad]. The international community and countries in the region are perfectly aware of that.” The Russian threat was empty- in this case because the Russians already have nuclear weapons in the enclave. Why did Medvedev say this then? Why has Russia been periodically making this threat for years if there are already nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, and that the countries around Kaliningrad know it? 

The reason for the reiteration of this nuclear non-threat is probably similar to the manufactured hysteria about the Kaliningrad “blockade”—Russian propagandists want to generate maximal press coverage out of the event. By putting “nuclear weapons” in any press statement or interview Russian leaders can almost guarantee headlines. Similarly, caterwauling about “blockades” and implying that war might be imminent they can gin up attention toward Kaliningrad. 

So, after they have generated the headlines they need and ginned up the attention of those not paying much attention, what is the next step? One messaging possibility, the most obvious one from a propaganda perspective, is that this hissy fit over the Kaliningrad “blockade” (of steel) is preparation for a whataboutism argument to push back on the growing realization that Russia is deliberately starving the world by blockading Ukrainian ports and preventing Ukrainian grain from reaching the market. By getting hysterical about Kaliningrand and implanting the idea of a “blockade” in the public mind Russian propagandists can respond to complaints about their actual blockade of Ukraine by repeating “What about Kaliningrad?” The Russian commentator Mikhail Sheinkman of Sputnik Radio (a RU propaganda outlet) made the linkage explicit, and even suggested this “Kaliningrad blockade” was part of some Western scheme to end Russia’s blockade of Ukraine:

“That’s why they go berserk, that’s why they sink to primitive terrorism. Blocking transit from Russia to Russia—what is it if not taking the whole region hostage, if not an act of aggression against it [Russia]? Specifically, they hint at a connection with Ukrainian grain, as if offering us a natural exchange: you will release Odessa for the export of wheat by sea, they say, and then we, perhaps, will decide something with Kaliningrad.”

There is also another domestic reason for this propaganda push: It may be partially for the ears of the Kaliningrad folks who are enduring serious economic hardships because of Russia’s invasion. The ban on imports of steel and also, reportedly, concrete and other building materials has probably affected the construction industry there, and this has already come up in official discourse. In May during a televised conference with Putin, the governor of Kaliningrad blamed a slowdown in the construction industry in Kaliningrad on the “temporary disruption” of logistics caused by the expanded Russian invasion of Ukraine (which of course he called a “special operation”). Putin, irritated, shot back that there was no need to bring this up and instead thought he should blame the slowdown on the recession of 2020-21.  

Russia has so blatantly violated international customs and committed such stunning acts of aggression and atrocities that it will probably be under EU sanctions for quite some time, no matter what the outcome of the fighting is. The Russian leadership is certainly aware of this and, if they are wise about this, will wage a long-term propaganda and diplomacy campaign to roll back the sanctions, reduce them, make them redundant, generate loopholes and clip away at them. This is likely a core reason for the Kaliningrad kerfuffle—by making alarming noises about imminent war against tiny Lithuania, the Russians believe they can create an opening to start wearing the sanctions down, that the Lithuanians or the EU or even the U.S. will react out of fear and help the Russians on their way by dropping the sanctions. While much of the rest of the Russian propaganda apparatus was breathlessly haranguing the world about the possibility of war with NATO, on June 22 Alla Ivanova, the head of the Kaliningrad regional agency for international and interregional relations, proposed some less-than-apocalyptic “solutions” for the “crisis”: 1) Amending EU sanctions, 2) Remove certain items in the EU sanctions clarification packages, such as the line “including transit,” or 3) To have the EU send further “clarifications” to customs officials that the later EU sanctions do not apply to transit to Kaliningrad. 

So far the West seems to be standing firm and is not taking the bait by acting like the Russian leadership is serious about starting a war with NATO while they might be in a stalemate in Ukraine. Good. But this won’t be the last time that Russia drums up a crisis for propaganda points, and they might not even be done with the Kaliningrad push. 

Andrew Fink received his Ph.D. from the law school at Leiden University in 2020 on the history of propaganda, conspiracy theories, and violent extremist ideologies.

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