Why Russia Calls Kaliningrad Sanctions a ‘Blockade’
Vladimir Putin’s February assault on Ukraine sparked EU sanctions on a range of Russian individuals, entities and sectors of the Russian economy. For example, EU companies are now prohibited from selling encryption devices or software to Russia, as well as exporting certain types of oil refining technology there. One of the sectors targeted by the EU was Russian transport. This involved closing EU skies to Russian aircraft, banning the export of shipping goods to Russia, banning Russian ships from calling at EU ports and “A total ban Russian and Belarusian road freight operations working in the EU”, the EU made sure that there were exceptions for the transport of humanitarian aid, energy and food.
Some came into effect immediately, but there was a three-month transition period before the sanctions took effect for Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave in Europe that dates back to the end of World War II and is home to the Russian Baltic Fleet.
In mid-June, sanctions entered into force for Kaliningrad, in particular those prohibiting the transport of steel and ferrous metals via Lithuania to Kaliningrad. These EU-wide sanctions had been in the works for weeks, so if Russian experts were surprised, they paid no attention. However, Russian propagandists have decided to treat this as a major crisis, a “blockade” (this is the term they use) of Kaliningrad, perhaps even an act of war. Russian propaganda headlines like: ”Casus belli’: what the blockade of Kaliningrad means for Russia,” “‘Violation of everything”: Kremlin denounces Lithuanian rail blockade of Russian Kaliningrad regionPepper Newsfeed. Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Russian Security Council, visited 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, 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 declarations of the West, but also the written declarations. Russia will certainly react to such hostile actions. Appropriate measures are being developed in an interdepartmental format and will be taken in the near future. Their consequences will have a serious negative impact on the Lithuanian population.
Patrushev was not specific about which “written” agreements Lithuania was breaking. It’s probably because it doesn’t exist. As repeated by the Lithuanian government, there is no transport treaty guaranteeing the shipment of all kinds of goods through Lithuanian territory. The is a transport treaty for passengers, and this is still in force, and Russians can still transit through Lithuanian territory to reach the enclave.
Rising to the bait, many western journalists responded with headlines like “Moscow and NATO could be on the verge of a clash over the Russian European enclave of Kaliningrad.” The following article mentions the much more complicated picture behind the “crisis”, but most people won’t bother to read past the title.
Kaliningrad was once an important Prussian port city called Königsberg, the home of German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. After World War II it became part of Russia and the entire German population, around 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 all year round. The Russian Baltic Fleet is still based there today. When the USSR collapsed 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 the Russian border. Kaliningrad is accessible via the Baltic Sea, but on land it is bordered by Poland and Lithuania. These two countries joined the EU and NATO after the break-up of the Soviet Empire, and Kaliningrad has since become an inconvenient strategic fact.
The enclave has become known for its thriving market for stolen cars EU countries and for the regular threats that Russia has made to place nuclear weapons there. (Flight times of Russian nuclear-tipped missiles from Kaliningrad to many European capitals would be significantly lower than those launched from “mainland” Russia.) Russia publicly deployed nuclear-capable missiles in Kalliningrad in 2018, but has always threatened that if a NATO/EU or other country does not do what it wants, it will deploy nuclear weapons there. After Russia expanded its invasion of Ukraine and Sweden and Finland began serious talks about NATO membership, Dmitry Medvedev threatened again, to deploy nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad. In response, the Lithuanian Defense Minister said that this threat “seems rather strange” because nuclear weapons “have always been kept there”. …they keep nukes, delivery vehicles and have warehouses [in Kaliningrad]. The international community and the countries of the region are fully aware of this. The Russian threat was futile – in this case because the Russians already have nuclear weapons in the enclave. Why did Medvedev say that then? Why has Russia periodically made this threat for years if there is already nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, and that the countries around Kaliningrad know about it?
The reason for the reiteration of this nuclear non-threat is probably similar to the manufactured hysteria around the Kaliningrad “blockade” – Russian propagandists want to generate maximum media coverage of the event. By putting “nuclear weapons” in any press release or interview, Russian leaders can almost guarantee headlines. Likewise, by joking about “blockades” and hinting that war might be imminent, they can draw attention to Kaliningrad.
So, after generating the headlines they need and catching the attention of those who don’t pay much attention, what’s next? One message possibility, most obvious from a propaganda point of view, is that this whistle on the “blockade” (of steel) of Kaliningrad is the preparation of a whataboutism argument to push back awareness growing than Russia is deliberately starve the world by blocking Ukrainian ports and prevent Ukrainian grain from reaching the market. By becoming hysterical about Kaliningrand and planting the idea of a “blockade” in the minds of the public, Russian propagandists can respond to complaints about their actual blockade of Ukraine by repeating “What about Kaliningrad?” The Russian commentator Mikhail Sheinkman from Sputnik Radio (a UK propaganda outlet) made the connection explicit, and even suggested that this “blockade of Kaliningrad” was part of a Western plan to end Russia’s blockade of Ukraine:
“That’s why they go mad, that’s why they sink into primitive terrorism. Blocking transit from Russia to Russia – what is it if not holding the whole region hostage, if not an act of aggression against it [Russia]? Specifically, they hint at a connection with Ukrainian grain, as if they were offering us a natural exchange: you will free Odessa for the export of wheat by sea, they say, and then maybe we will decide something with Kaliningrad.
There is also another internal reason for this propaganda surge: it is perhaps partly for the ears of the people of Kaliningrad who are enduring severe economic hardship due to the Russian invasion. The ban on imports of steel and also, it seems, concrete and other construction materials has probably affected the construction industry there, and this has already been mentioned in official speech. In May during a televised conference along with Putin, the governor of Kaliningrad blamed the downturn in the construction industry in Kaliningrad on the “temporary disruption” of logistics caused by the expanded Russian invasion of Ukraine (which he of course called a “special operation”). Putin, irritated, replied that there was no need to talk about it and instead thought he should blame the slowdown on the 2020-21 recession.
Russia has so flagrantly violated international customs and committed such staggering acts of aggression and atrocities that it will likely be under EU sanctions for some time to come, regardless of the outcome of the fighting. . Russian leaders are certainly aware of this and, if they are wise about it, will wage a long-term propaganda and diplomacy campaign to roll back the sanctions, reduce them, make them superfluous, create loopholes and remove them. This is probably one of the main reasons for the Kaliningrad kerfuffle – by making alarming noises about an imminent war against little Lithuania, the Russians think they can create an opening to start exhausting the sanctions, whether the Lithuanians or the EU or even the US will react in fear and help the Russians on their way by removing the sanctions. As much of the rest of the Russian propaganda apparatus harangued the world breathlessly about the possibility of war with NATO, on June 22 Alla Ivanova, head of the Kaliningrad regional agency for international and interregional relations, offers some less than apocalyptic ‘solutions’ for the ‘crisis’: 1) Change EU sanctions, 2) Remove some elements of EU sanctions clarification packages, such as the ‘including transit’ line , or 3) Ask the EU to send additional “clarifications” to customs officials stating that the latest EU sanctions do not apply to transit to Kaliningrad.
So far, the West appears to be standing firm and not taking the bait by acting as if Russian leaders are seriously considering starting a war with NATO when they may be at an impasse in Ukraine. Good. But it won’t be the last time Russia stirs up a crisis over propaganda points, and they may not even be done with the Kaliningrad push.
Andrew Fink earned his Ph.D. from the Faculty of Law of Leiden University in 2020 on the history of propaganda, conspiracy theories and violent extremist ideologies.