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Russia summoned the ambassador of the European Union on Tuesday and sent the number 2 of the regime to Kaliningrad, two days after the entry into force of a sanction, decided by Lithuania, which somewhat isolates this Russian enclave in Europe. A reaction which may seem disproportionate, but which is explained by the importance of Kaliningrad in the eyes of Vladimir Putin.
He arrived in Kaliningrad on Tuesday June 21. Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Security Council of Russia, traveled to this Russian enclave to chair a meeting on “national security issues”, while Moscow has not taken off in recent days.
The Kremlin has not digested the decision taken by Lithuania, Saturday June 18, to block the transit by rail of part of the products sent by Moscow to Kaliningrad. Separated from the rest of Russia by Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus, this enclave is mainly supplied by a railway line that passes through Minsk (Belarus) and Vilnius (Lithuania).
Diet number 2
Gabrielius Landsbergis, the Lithuanian Foreign Minister, recalled that his country “was only applying European sanctions against the export of certain Russian products”, nothing helped. Moscow first threatened Vilnius with “retaliations” – without specifying which ones – if this ban was not “immediately lifted”. The Kremlin then summoned the European Union ambassador to Russia to formally complain.
Nikolai Patrushev’s trip to Kaliningrad is the latest act in this escalation of Russian-European tensions initiated by Moscow. And this is not the most trivial. “It’s almost as if Moscow sent Vladimir Putin in person on the spot”, summarizes Jeff Hawn, specialist in Russian security issues and external consultant for the New Lines Institute, an American center for geopolitical research.
Nikolai Patrushev is not only considered close to Vladimir Putin’s relatives, he also succeeded him at the head of the FSB, the powerful intelligence service, in 2000 and until 2008. He is therefore a man in whom the Russian president has confidence.
So much so that it is also he who should temporarily replace Vladimir Putin if the latter had health concerns preventing him from performing his duties. “In fact, he is number 2 in the regime,” writes Filip Kovačević, a specialist in Russian political issues, on the New Lines Magazine website.
Thus, this trip is “an example of a demonstration of political force as Moscow likes to organize them to show the world that it takes a situation very seriously”, underlines Jeff Hawn.
But why ? The European Union has been imposing sanctions on Russia for months over its invasion of Ukraine, while most EU member countries are providing logistical and military support to kyiv. And Moscow had, for the moment, never reacted so vehemently, multiplying the threats and involving the dolphin of Vladimir Putin.
Symbol of Russian impotence
Above all, this embargo imposed by Lithuania is only partial and only affects materials such as steel or coal. Moscow can continue to supply Kaliningrad with foodstuffs and other everyday consumer goods. “It’s clearly not the Berlin Blockade [épisode de la Guerre froide durant lequel l’URSS avait bloqué tout accès à Berlin pendant un an, NDLR] ! Especially since Russia can still send all the goods by sea,” says Jeff Hawn.
This sanction may, in fact, be simply the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The partial embargo would then only serve as a pretext for Moscow to complain about the whole of the European work since the start of the war in Ukraine. In this scenario, “if the Kremlin raises its tone, it is in the hope of pushing the EU to make concessions elsewhere to try to ease tensions,” notes Jeff Hawn.
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But he finds it hard to believe this explanation because Kaliningrad is too important in the eyes of Vladimir Putin to serve only as a pretext. “It is a crucial geopolitical city for Moscow, because it represents a Russian presence in the heart of Europe,” confirms Oscar Jonsson, an expert on Russian military issues at the Swedish Defense University.
This strategic position is also accompanied by “geographical fragility, since Kaliningrad is wedged between two NATO member countries (Poland in the South and Lithuania in the East)”, adds Oscar Jonsson. And the imposed embargo is a reminder of this geographical reality.
A reminder that is all the more painful since Kaliningrad hosts part of the arsenal of Russian tactical nuclear missiles. Moscow is therefore very touchy when it comes to access to this enclave. The Russian authorities are so keen to control everything that enters and leaves Kaliningrad that you need a special visa to go there.
All this diplomatic agitation from Moscow is also aimed at concealing under a wave of threats “the helplessness of Russia in this situation”, affirms Jeff Hawn. Russia has no concrete way to force Lithuania to back down and “the fact that a small country like that can impose sanctions on Russia is of the worst effect for Vladimir Putin, who wants to impose the image of a strong country that everyone respects on the international scene”, adds this expert.
Vilnius could not ignore the reputational damage its embargo would cause to Russia. “Lithuania has acted in accordance with the European sanctions, but by doing this, it is taking a risk”, admits Oscar Jonsson. This is not a sanction that Moscow will soon forget. It’s a safe bet that Russia will want to give back to Vilnius one day or another, one way or another. A sword of Damocles under which Lithuania will have to live. And it is Vladimir Putin who holds it in his hands – which is not the most reassuring.