The Kaliningrad Corridor: Moscow’s old dream and Lithuania’s great fear

Kaliningrad
RIA/Scanpix

Lithuania has found itself trapped in turmoil over the imposition of sanctions on some goods going to Kaliningrad. Russia is unhappy with the bans, and the European Commission, which oversees the sanctions, is throwing a fit. According to experts, Lithuania may lose the right to decide which goods pass through its territory. That would be a real gift to Russia, Jūratė Važgauskaitė writes in TV3.lt.

Lithuania is waiting breathlessly for the EC’s “clarification” on the transit of goods to Kaliningrad, or through the Kaliningrad Corridor, but there are already fears that it will not be favourable to Lithuania. This, experts say, will undermine confidence not only in the sanctions themselves and the institutions that impose them but also in Lithuania’s ability to decide who and when passes through its territory.

Foreign Minister Gabriel Landsbergis says that concessions to sanctions on the transit of some goods through Lithuania would create additional legal problems with the Kaliningrad Corridor and that Lithuania will not be able to veto this additional EC interpretation. Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė also stated that Lithuania has a number of comments to make on the forthcoming EC interpretation, which has not yet been made public. 

The Kaliningrad Corridor – Moscow’s old dream?

Legal and political experts interviewed by Tv3.lt are unanimous: allowing Russia to transport anything, anytime, would mean “opening the Kaliningrad Corridor”, which Russia has been dreaming of for years. This is dangerous and disadvantageous for Lithuania.

According to Raimundas Lopata, who was interested in Kaliningrad when Lithuania was just preparing to join the EU and NATO, this enclave has always been a headache for us, but we have managed to come to an agreement with Russia and manage the situation. We do not know what the future holds. 

“The Kaliningrad Corridor happens when we change the rules under pressure from the Russians when it is not us but them who control the movement through Lithuania. In this particular case, we are talking about sanctioned goods. But more broadly, the Kaliningrad Corridor is not dangerous as long as we control it”, the politician said. 

It is a place where various provocations can take place, for example, when passengers or goods are travelling, he said. There have been different interpretations of provocations, so the transit of passengers, goods or military transit through the Kaliningrad Corridor must be in line with our rules.

“Theoretically, military transit also exists, but it takes place under our law of sovereignty. It has taken place but is under our control. It is true that we have not seen any military transit movements for some years now”, Lopata said. 

According to the expert, if the Russians strictly demanded to transport whoever they wanted, whenever they wanted, through that corridor, it would be a demonstration of elementary force. He added that the threat of provocations also remains.

“Theoretically, it is possible that someone will jump out and start, say, shooting. Such things cannot be ruled out”, the politician said. He admitted that Kaliningrad was a big problem for us when we joined the European Union and NATO, but we managed to turn it to our advantage. 

“Without talking about the problem, we said that it is not a problem but an opportunity. We said that we could ensure cooperation with Russia through Kaliningrad. Let us remember, in those days, it was a big problem for us that before joining NATO, there was talk that we were defenceless. Kaliningrad was the most serious trump card in that argument.

We had to prove that we knew how to get along with Russia. That was done, plus we tried to ‘integrate’ Kaliningrad into Europe. There were various cooperation schemes. That worked for us until we joined, and then it died down a bit. Even before the Crimean aggression, there was talk of visa-free zones with Kaliningrad. The Poles had taken a decision similar to the one we took with Belarus, which was about 80 kilometres,” said Lopata. 

However, everything came to a standstill after Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. He added that, yes, there are various scenarios of exercises involving Kaliningrad, but scenarios remain scenarios, he said. 

“Real experience is real. The situation is really closely monitored, and there are no signs that something unacceptable could happen. But, you know, situations change quickly. Despite the degree of militarisation in Kaliningrad, the most experienced formations are currently in Ukraine,” Lopata said. 

The clarification may not be beneficial for Lithuania

Dainius Žalimas, former President of the Constitutional Court, argued that the confusion caused by the partial transit ban shows how unprepared the European Commission and we were for the implementation of these sanctions and the possible reaction of Russia.

“The EC is responsible for the implementation of sanctions, but this is where it is ungrateful. When you yourself start to question what you are trying to do and you need clarification, I am afraid that this clarification might not be good for Lithuania. And it is quite clear to me that no amount of clarification can change the place where it says that products of Russian origin cannot pass through the EU. Although the other clause, than others, as it were, can, seems illogical to me. We are not really being told what that clarification is needed for. <…> If it is for other goods than metals, well, maybe. Or maybe it is meant to imply that everything can be transported?” said Mr Žalimas.

The sanctions did not drop overnight, he said, so what have we all been doing for three months?

“I am surprised that we seem to have decided today and are doing today. That is not the case. Everything was known three months ago, everything could have been clarified, and everything could have been prepared. It was clear that the Russians were not going to sit on their hands. It’s a joke, of course, but it seems that these are the only effective sanctions because the others have not caused such an uproar”, the lawyer said.

He is convinced that if we give in to Russia now and allow everything to be shipped, in future, Lithuania will no longer have any leverage to restrict the types of goods shipped and other things.

“Because if we are so unclear ourselves, if we allow someone to clarify, then in the future, we will simply be afraid to impose sanctions on Kaliningrad. They will be able to transport whatever they want. Lithuania is a sovereign country. It could unilaterally prevent the shipment of any goods, although I am not saying that it should do so. I think that if there is a clarification that any metal products can be transported, it will be exactly the same for other goods. And that is how the corridor will emerge”, said Mr Žalimas. 

Kaliningrad is an old headache

Kaliningrad has been a headache for Lithuania almost since the beginning of independence. A piece of land cut off from Russia, Kaliningrad has remained a Russian military base to which the Russians have always wanted free access.

Throughout the Soviet era, trains with military and civilian cargo could freely reach Kaliningrad. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the region became isolated but no less important.

The only overland connection with Russia indeed remained the train via Lithuania, and this was always very important to Russia. Already then, the question of what Kaliningrad would become – Hong Kong or a Trojan Horse – was being debated. Now we see that it has not turned into Hong Kong, although there have certainly been efforts by neighbouring countries to integrate the region into Europe, at least in economic terms. 

As Lithuania prepares to join the EU and NATO, we have also heard from Russia, according to experts, that we are not dealing with the ‘Russian problem’, that we are not getting along with our neighbours and that we are violating human rights. All this has been said in order to extract better transit conditions to Kaliningrad or even to ‘offer’ Russian security guarantees, which would have meant some form of the military alliance that would have closed off any route to NATO.

The West was also not very enthusiastic about Lithuania’s chances of a nice deal with Russia on Kaliningrad, but thanks to diplomatic efforts and good timing, Lithuania started negotiations on Kaliningrad transit and successfully concluded them.

On the 1st of July 2003, the rules for facilitated transit to Kaliningrad came into force, and military transit was carried out in accordance with the earlier German lessons learned from the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Berlin.

There have been subsequent attempts to renegotiate military transit. Still, Lithuania has stuck to its guns, and we are the ones who set the rules for such transit. However, recently, the Russians have been transporting a lot of their military cargo by air or sea, and a year ago, they stopped using the trains at all for military transit transport. 

There have been no major incidents with transit to Kaliningrad so far, although our services have been knocked off their feet a couple of times.

The first time was in 2014 when a transit train suddenly stopped at the Kaunas hydroelectric power station, and the police rushed to the train; on that occasion, the train was believed to have had a technical problem, but the time was already sensitive, and the annexation of Crimea had taken place. Another time, in March 2015, a transit train was found to be full of young men passing through Lithuania. In the same week, Russian forces carried out emergency exercises in parts of the country.

According to experts, Kaliningrad has always played a key role in military drills, exercises or “war games” simulating situations in the Baltic region, which is why the Western press and politicians have reacted very sensitively to the current uproar over sanctions because the scenarios have been heard many times before.

What is the history of Kaliningrad?

Formerly known as Königsberg, Kaliningrad was part of Germany until the Red Army took control from the Nazis in 1945. At the end of the war in Europe, it was handed over to the Soviet Union. The city and seaport are now an exclave of the Russian Federation, separated by land from the rest of Russia.

In 1946, Russia renamed the city Kaliningrad, and the Germans were evicted. People from Russia and Belarus flocked to the region. Kaliningrad was closed to foreigners until 1991. 

Kaliningrad had relatively close economic ties with European countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, relations faded during Putin’s rule, especially after Russia’s 2014 attack on Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.

Why is Kaliningrad important for Russia?

Kaliningrad is important to Russia from a strategic and military perspective. It has long been described as the Kremlin’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the Baltic Sea, where the distance from Western Europe is small, and the weapons stored in Kaliningrad are powerful.

The Russian Baltic Fleet is headquartered in Kaliningrad, and the Kremlin brought nuclear weapons to the exclave. Moscow announced in the spring that it had carried out mock launches of its nuclear-capable Iskander missile system there.

After the Cold War, Kaliningrad was imagined as the “Baltic Hong Kong”. It operates as a special economic zone with low taxes and almost no import duties to encourage investment, although the economy there has faltered considerably, especially after Western sanctions were first imposed.

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