Russia Sanctions at NATO’s Weakest Point

Map courtesy Bruce Jones Design Inc.

Prior to Covid, the Baltic Sea was a popular cruise destination for travelers from North America and Western Europe.  Saint Petersburg, with its Hermitage Museum and window into the mysteries of Russia, was the highlight for many.

Few people who live outside that region are aware that Saint Petersburg is not Russia’s only port on the Baltic Sea.  There is also Baltiysk, situated further south in the small, isolated Kaliningrad oblast (province) surrounded by Lithuania and Poland.  Kaliningrad is important to Russia militarily, partly because Baltiysk is the home of its Baltic warship fleet.  Cruise ships do not call there. Baltiysk remains free of ice all winter; Saint Petersburg, 600 km. further north, does not.

It is impossible to travel overland between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia without passing through either Lithuania or Poland and Belarus.  Lithuania and Poland are members of NATO and the European Union.  Belarus is heavily influenced by Russia and an ally in its war against Ukraine. Lithuania became an independent democracy following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.  At that time, it agreed to allow goods and persons to transit through its territory between Kaliningrad and Belarus via an agreement known as the “Kaliningrad transfer”.

That narrow stretch of Lithuanian territory, just north of its border with Poland, is NATO’s weakest point.  Should Russia decide to extend hostilities to other neighboring states, it would form a tempting target. Success would mean that the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, former members of the Soviet Union situated between Saint Petersburg and Kaliningrad, would be isolated from the rest of NATO and the EU.  The other members of NATO, including Canada and the United States, would be obligated by treaty to defend them. 

Shortly before Lithuania joined in 2004, the European Union established rules for the free transit of persons and goods through EU territory between separate parts of non-EU nations. The Kaliningrad transfer has been one of the main uses of these rules, though it has rarely been used for goods since 2004. The tension with Russia that surrounded the establishment of these rules are summarized in this excellent 2020 article from the Lithuanian media.

As part of sanctions against Russia announced on April 8, 2022, the European Union prohibited the road transport of Russian goods within EU territory, including in-transit movements between separate parts of Russia. However, an exception was made for the Kaliningrad transfer (except for goods specifically sanctioned, such as those intended for military, aviation or space use). The fact that the European Union was unwilling to risk provoking Russia by canceling the Kaliningrad transfer along with its otherwise severe sanctions shows how politically sensitive that narrow land corridor has become. As Russia has built up its military presence in Belarus, military experts in North America and Western Europe have called for NATO to bolster its defenses there.

Recently, private donations from Europeans, mainly those in former Soviet or Soviet influenced republics, have been used to purchase military supplies collected in a warehouse in Lithuania and shipped through that corridor to another warehouse in eastern Poland.  The supplies are then transported to defense forces in Ukraine.

I would like to acknowledge the significant contribution that my friend and colleague Enrika Naujoke made to researching this article. Enrika is a director of a customs brokerage firm in Klaipeda, Lithuania and co-founder of the Customs Clear e-learning platform and customs journal.

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