It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

Will the Kaliningrad Crisis Lead to War?

Lithuania’s muscular move to enforce EU sanctions by blocking Russian rail cargo could risk escalating the Russia-NATO conflict.

By , a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Photographs of Russia's war in Ukraine are displayed as part of an exhibition at the railway station where trains from Moscow to Kaliningrad pass by on Apr. 26, 2022 in Kalveliai, Lithuania.
Photographs of Russia's war in Ukraine are displayed as part of an exhibition at the railway station where trains from Moscow to Kaliningrad pass by on Apr. 26, 2022 in Kalveliai, Lithuania.
Photographs of Russia's war in Ukraine are displayed as part of an exhibition at the railway station where trains from Moscow to Kaliningrad pass by on Apr. 26, 2022 in Kalveliai, Lithuania. Paulius Peleckis/Getty Images
It's Debatable

Matthew Kroenig: Hi Emma! I am back from my month in Europe—and just in time. Things are really heating up in Kaliningrad. How are you?

Emma Ashford: Not too bad. Just settling into a Washington D.C. summer: thunderstorms, humidity, and enough mosquitoes to drain your blood in the first 30 seconds you’re outside. I blame former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, who apparently thought it would be a good idea to build the capital in a former swamp.

But while I’m happy to hear you’re back from Europe, I feel like I shouldn’t have to remind you that nuclear wars are liable to be global. Things are definitely looking escalatory again in Europe. Care to fill us in?

Matthew Kroenig: Hi Emma! I am back from my month in Europe—and just in time. Things are really heating up in Kaliningrad. How are you?

Emma Ashford: Not too bad. Just settling into a Washington D.C. summer: thunderstorms, humidity, and enough mosquitoes to drain your blood in the first 30 seconds you’re outside. I blame former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, who apparently thought it would be a good idea to build the capital in a former swamp.

But while I’m happy to hear you’re back from Europe, I feel like I shouldn’t have to remind you that nuclear wars are liable to be global. Things are definitely looking escalatory again in Europe. Care to fill us in?

MK: Believe it or not, D.C. summers are actually cool and refreshing compared to my hometown of St. Louis.

But turning to the issue at hand. Lithuania is enforcing EU sanctions, which means cutting off Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ability to send coal, metals, construction materials, and other restricted items by land through Lithuanian territory to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea coast. Putin is angry and threatening retaliation. The U.S. State Department has reaffirmed NATO’s commitment to defend Lithuania from any aggression, and many are worried that this could be a spark for a direct Russia-NATO conflict.

What is your take?

EA: It’s dangerous. Kaliningrad, which became part of the Soviet Union only at the end of World War II, is surrounded by NATO and European Union countries and not connected by land to the rest of Russia. In recent years, it’s become a clear defensive problem for NATO: an infamous Rand Corporation wargame from 2016 highlighted the ability of Russia to use the territory to inhibit NATO reinforcements from reaching the Baltics in the event of a war. It’s always been one of the more likely flash points for conflict between Russia and NATO.

Lithuania is certainly within its rights to enforce EU sanctions, but we should be clear that it’s also an extraordinarily dangerous choice. Many of the supplies that people in Kaliningrad rely on come overland via train from Russia; the Russians are describing this as a blockade, and that’s not entirely inaccurate. So it’s a pretty clear escalatory step from a U.S. ally.

It shouldn’t be up to Lithuania to create a loophole in EU sanctions to appease a dictator on the warpath.

MK: The extraordinarily dangerous choice was made by Putin when he decided to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. These are the consequences. If he doesn’t like it, the solution is simple: He can withdraw his invading forces.

Short of that, Russia could still ship supplies to Kaliningrad by sea from St. Petersburg, Russia. Or, given Russia’s obsession with reclaiming possession of historic lands, it could simply return Kaliningrad to Germany, Poland, or the Teutonic Knights.

But it shouldn’t be up to Lithuania to create a loophole in EU sanctions to appease a dictator on the warpath.

EA: Yeah, but unless you have a time machine, the world we’re currently living in is one with a devastating war being fought in Ukraine. And I haven’t heard from the Teutonic Knights in a few years.

You might be right that it isn’t up to Lithuania to create a specific loophole for Kaliningrad, but someone in Brussels should have created one. This isn’t trade into the European Union; it’s trade within Russia that has to cross European territory. Accommodations should be made for that reality. After all, the European Union and Russia are not at war. This has the potential to tip that balance.

MK: I disagree on both points. The purpose of the sanctions is to be as costly as possible to ensure Putin pays a price for his aggression. The threat of tough sanctions was clearly signaled to Putin before the invasion, and he decided to go ahead with his unprovoked attack anyway. Now, he needs to pay the price, and the free world should enforce its deterrent threat. Creating a Kaliningrad loophole would be counterproductive to the Western strategy.

In addition, I am not overly worried about escalation. Putin has his hands more than full with the Ukrainian army in the Donbas. He doesn’t want to pick an additional war with NATO. The Kremlin is flummoxed, saying it will retaliate, but it needs to study the situation first. Moscow feels the need to do something, but it doesn’t know what. I suspect Russia will aim for some kind of calibrated response like a cyberattack or a travel ban on Lithuanian officials—in short, something that Lithuania and the West can easily absorb as they maintain the economic pressure.

This seems like a potential case of alliance entrapment to me—when a smaller, weaker party succeeds in pulling their bigger alliance partner into a fight that isn’t in that partner’s interest.

EA: If we’re talking about what Russia will do in response, then it’s a clear step to escalate. I have to wonder if the Lithuanians consulted with their allies in Western Europe or with the United States before they made this choice? This seems like a potential case of alliance entrapment to me. That’s when one alliance member—typically the smaller, weaker party—succeeds in pulling their alliance partner into a fight that isn’t in that partner’s interest.

There’s been a lively scholarly debate on the question of entrapment and whether it happens frequently, but this seems like an excellent real-world example of a state (Lithuania) that appears to be more risk-tolerant and willing to see conflict than some of its allies (i.e., France, Germany, or the United States).

And while we’re on an academic note, the controversy over Kaliningrad is another reminder that this war in Ukraine is in many ways a war of Soviet succession. The territorial disputes and little oddities of the Soviet collapse that haven’t yet been resolved—Crimea, Kaliningrad—end up being the sparks for new conflict today. But in the case of Kaliningrad, it’s a real shame. The city was increasingly integrated with its Baltic and Polish neighbors and is a thriving port city; it even played host to one of the games of the World Cup in 2018! It’s a reminder of the costs of the failure on both Russian and Western sides to find solutions to better integrate Russia in Eastern Europe.

MK: U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price was prompt and unflinching in his statement about NATO having Lithuania’s back. It didn’t seem like an administration surprised or disappointed by an ally enforcing multilateral sanctions.

What is odd is not that Lithuania is enforcing some targeted sanctions now but that Vilnius has allowed Russia so much unfettered access across Lithuania for so long. Even now, the vast majority of shipments continue. I have talked to Lithuanians in the past who sheepishly acknowledged the absurdity of Russia shipping whatever it wants—including military equipment—by land through Lithuania to Kaliningrad that could be used to threaten Lithuania’s NATO allies. I think this might be the beginning, not the end, of the discussion about prohibiting Russian shipments across Lithuanian soil.

EA: Look, the Lithuanians are certainly in a difficult spot here. It’s a Catch-22: If they shut off supplies transiting their territory, then they potentially make it harder for Russia to use Kaliningrad effectively in the case of future conflict. But in shutting off the supplies, they risk actually provoking that conflict. Given that—as you point out—the Russians can still supply Kaliningrad by sea, I don’t think I’d take that gamble if I were in Vilnius.

After all, can you imagine any great power reacting well to a blockade of part of its territory? How would the United States react if suddenly informed by China that Guam could now only be supplied by air? That’s the stakes we’re talking about.

MK: That is not the best analogy. Lithuania is a sovereign country, and it has the right to control what comes across its borders. To cut off Guam, China would have to blockade U.S. ships in international waters.

And we have seen how the United States reacted in such a situation when Moscow cut off ground access to West Berlin in the early days of the Cold War. The solution was the Berlin airlift. Let’s see if Putin’s Russia is as resourceful.

EA: I’m not sure invoking the example of the Berlin crisis—one of the most dangerous cases of nuclear brinkmanship in history—makes the point you want to make here.

But with Europe gearing up for a series of high-level summits next week, perhaps we should talk a little about the broader issues leaders will be addressing.

MK: Yes, I am very much looking forward to the release of NATO’s new Strategic Concept at the Madrid summit. This is essentially NATO’s national security strategy, and the last one was published over a decade ago in 2010. Much has changed since then, and I expect we will see some major updates.

Things to watch for include: Does NATO disavow the NATO-Russia Founding Act? Will NATO change its force posture to include a heavier and permanent forward presence? Will it say anything about NATO’s outdated nuclear posture or punt because it is too difficult politically? And what will it say about NATO’s approach to China?

The European Union and Russia are not at war. This has the potential to tip that balance.

EA: Yes, the NATO discussions at Madrid should be interesting. I’m less concerned about what the Strategic Concept says about China—I’m still of the opinion that NATO should keep its business confined to the North Atlantic region—and more interested in learning how it talks about burden-sharing and how European member states will coordinate their spending and defense buildup in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis.

I’m also curious what it will say about cooperation with the European Union on security. The French, in particular, have had a strong hand in this Strategic Concept, and they are keen to see increased security ties within the European Union as a complement to NATO.

The two bodies have 27 members in common, and while you might think that the European Union building up its own defense capabilities might undermine NATO—by diverting resources away from the broader alliance—most folks in Europe are now in agreement that what is needed is a partnership between the EU and NATO to build more native European defense capacity. But there are many questions about how that would work: Would it be a division of labor, where NATO focuses on Russia and the EU focuses on the Mediterranean, or a division in capabilities? And does the European Union in practice have the unity of purpose to actually move toward a more concrete, shared defense capability?

These are all important questions, as they will shape the extent to which the United States can divest itself of burdens in Europe in coming years to focus on Asia.

I think it would be a mistake for the United States to divest itself from Europe and also wrongheaded for NATO to ignore China in the Indo-Pacific.

MK: There is a lot to respond to there, but let me focus on the big disagreement. I think it would be a mistake for the United States to divest itself from Europe and also wrongheaded for NATO to ignore China in the Indo-Pacific. Both should do both. Yes, Washington should prioritize the Indo-Pacific and NATO’s European members must do more for Europe’s defense, but NATO doesn’t work without U.S. leadership. The United States should remain committed to European security.

And yes, NATO should prioritize Europe, but NATO’s European members have a role to play in deterring China. Chinese President Xi Jinping needs to know that aggression in Asia would mean a rupture with the entire free world. NATO’s European members are already taking concrete steps to make this clear. The Dutch, British, and French conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea. Denmark is sending forces to the big Rim of the Pacific (or RIMPAC) military exercise in Asia this summer. And I think it would be great if the NATO Strategic Concept included a statement endorsing peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and warning the Chinese Communist Party against any military action.

EA: That approach leaves everybody stretched thin with no strategic depth anywhere. European states sending some ships or submarines to the South China Sea is hardly a major contribution to regional defense in Asia. And if that is substituting for increased capabilities in Europe—a hole that the United States then has to plug—it is not a net win. By all means, we should encourage Europe to take an active hand in Asia on trade and diplomacy, but I think encouraging them to focus on China in the defense space, when they already don’t have sufficient capabilities to defend their own territory at home, is just foolish.

Trying to make everyone do everything just isn’t the best use of resources. And you could say the same about all the European summits next week. The G-7—an organization composed of the world’s biggest advanced industrialized economies—will meet shortly before the NATO summit, and leaders are expected to discuss sanctions on Russia and support for Ukraine.

It’s a potentially huge waste of an important opportunity to discuss broader macroeconomic problems. Support for Ukraine will have already been discussed by NATO and the European Union summits. Leaders at the G-7 should take the opportunity to talk instead about the war’s economic impacts and how to mitigate them: the oil price crisis, the global food crisis, and the potential for a third-world debt crisis in the coming months.

MK: Well, speaking of everybody being stretched thin, I need to dig out of a pile of work after my month gallivanting around Europe. Let’s wait and see what happens at the NATO and G-7 summits and argue it out next time?

EA: Now it’s my turn for a European vacation. I am off to the Brussels Forum, where I hope to discuss weighty global matters and also eat as many Belgian waffles as I can manage. We’ll see how our leaders do at all these summits in the meantime.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, and the author of Oil, the State, and War.

  Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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