THE European Union just can’t get enough of sanctions against Russia. Several member governments are pushing for a whole new package in addition to increased military support for Kiev. This will be Sanctions Round Seven.
Not all the EU nations are so gung-ho. Germany would prefer getting more out of the sanctions already in place. Then there’s the sensitive business of how the oil- and gas-guzzling members are going to cope with their self-inflicted ‘half rations’. Their newly drafted proposals include a definite commitment to military and financial support. Sweden and Poland are pressing for immediate disbursement of additional funds to Ukraine, drawn from the EU’s ironically named ‘European Peace Facility’. Even this makes Germany a bit nervous.
As well it might, since the gas supply crisis is already exacerbated by the rise in the price of imported coal from a pre-conflict $80 per ton to over $330; at the same time Green parties throughout the EU see their climate goals compromised by the re-opening of notoriously polluting brown coal mines. Hungarian PM Viktor Orban has rejected EU criticisms of his divergent nationally protective energy policy as being ‘supportive of Putin’, stating that the sustainability of Hungary’s economy is also in the interests of the EU’s.
From a policy intended to unite its members more closely and facilitate further eastward expansion, Brussels finds itself instead confronted by internal bickering and outright policy rejection. You have to wonder if the EU understands what it’s doing, particularly since the revelation that it has been pressing Lithuania – a member of the EU and of Nato – to institute an effective blockade of the Russian exclave Kaliningrad.
The Kaliningrad region historically belonged to East Prussia. It was annexed by the Soviet Union after WW2, although since the independence of the Baltic States it has been physically separated from the Russian mainland. You can see a map here. The Suwalki Corridor, a 71-mile land border between Lithuania and Poland, connects Kaliningrad with Belarus, a staunch Russian ally, and is protected as a communications corridor between Russia and its exclave by the 2002 Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the EU.
Kaliningrad’s geostrategic location has always been regarded as a potential flashpoint. It enables Russia to maintain its Baltic Fleet bases, allowing control over the Baltic Sea region and access to the Gulf of Finland, while at the same time restricting Nato access to the same, and affecting the potential security of Sweden and Finland. Memories in this region are long, and old conflicts easily resurrected. At this time of outright conflict and relentless provocations, any move affecting the security of Russian territory can easily be seen as pushing Russia towards the last line of escalation.
Now that Lithuania has blocked vital deliveries of coal, metals and construction and technology materials from reaching Kaliningrad, Moscow has taken the bait, vowing never to trust the West again. For its part, Lithuania claims it is only ‘obeying orders’ by following the EU sanctions rule to which it is pledged. But to Moscow, this could well be the last straw. When retired general Evgeny Buzhinsky was asked ‘Is this a war with Nato?’ he replied, ‘Yes – what else do we do? Otherwise they’ll simply strangle us. We can’t stop, otherwise they’ll deprive us of Kaliningrad.’ He sees ulterior motives in the development. ‘This is a long game to push us out of the Baltic, and attempt to block and cut off Kaliningrad, and finally take it away from us.’
While contact can be maintained via sea transport, Russian State television has warned that the attempt to isolate the region is – from the point of view of international law – a casus belli, a formal reason to declare war. (Latin-loving PM Boris Johnson should have no difficulty in understanding the implications of this.) General Buzhinsky has already called on President Putin to dispatch nuclear weapons.
Is Brussels genuinely up for this? In his book Flashpoints, George Friedman emphasises the keg-of-powder vulnerability of these regions, especially regarding Putin as Russian President, and Nato as the only opposing military force of any potential.
US and European policies have worked consistently, since the fall of the Soviet Union, to turn former Soviet Republics into constitutional democracies, and have had success in the Baltic states and other Eastern European new members. This, claims Friedman, was always ideological rather than military. Putin, on the other hand, is a former KGB man, and his world view is one of ruthless realism but little ideology. He has a deep loyalty to the state and a commitment to his country. ‘Intelligence people are cynical by nature . . . but they have not taken civil service jobs with mediocre pay and, for some, potential personal risk because they see this as a path to wealth and glory. Wealth doesn’t come with the job, and glory is rare in a life invisible to the world. Underneath everything is a patriotism coupled with a deep professional pride that makes losing unbearable.’
Friedman believes that under Putin, Russia is looking to secure itself, not expand. In trying to expand, it would be faced with the potential power of Nato and the EU. However, he sees Nato as a shadow of its former self, and constrained by its requirement to operate by consensus. The EU he considers a shambles. Even so, he considers that Russia benefits as much from a genuinely neutral buffer zone as from outright occupation. It does not want to dominate the region overtly, but it does want to limit the powers of Nato in the East, and wishes to limit further EU integration.
Finally, he emphasises that the Russians are inherently drawn west out of fear. It is difficult to defend Russia from the north, and Belarus is indispensable as a buffer. But the fear stems from the three small Baltic states, including Lithuania. The countries themselves are not the problem, it is their geography: ‘The Baltic States are a bayonet pointing at St Petersburg.’ They could be used as a base from which to attack Russia. Hence the crucial significance of holding on to Kaliningrad. ‘The Baltics are the one place where Russians cannot relax. This is the immediate flashpoint in the borderland between the peninsula and the mainland.’
While the US remains a willing supporter of the West’s position, through finance and military equipment, this conflict remains for it a proxy war, being waged until the last Ukrainian standing. No US boots on the ground. The American administration is content to see the EU and Russia bogged down by military and economic mayhem, preventing either from assuming a global role which could challenge the US hegemony.
So, for the EU to goad Putin into military action against a Nato country, triggering the US’s obligation to come to its military defence, is the behaviour of a potentially fragmenting political entity ‘punching well above its weight’.
The Times reports that the EU will attempt to de-escalate the dispute with Russia over Kaliningrad, citing senior diplomatic sources in Brussels. One was quoted as saying: ‘It is not a climbdown but is about avoiding an escalation. The EU is not trying to blockade Kaliningrad.’
Soeren Kern, senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute, writes that the EU, which was praised for displaying determination, unity and speed in its response to Putin, was said to be facing a transformative moment that would allow the bloc to become a geostrategic actor on the global stage. One observer is quoted as saying the EU had become a top geopolitical protagonist and had discovered that it is a superpower.
But as the war has dragged on, European unity has collapsed and these superstate ambitions have been exposed as delusions of grandeur. While France and Germany have sought to appease Putin at the expense of Ukrainian sovereignty by going to the negotiating table, and thus reserving effective trading activities, the Eastern states see mediation as humiliation for them and Ukraine. The Latvian PM Arturs Karins has stated that ‘peace at any cost is what we have done for 20 years with Putin. Peace at any cost means Putin wins. We end up losing’. And according to John Sawers, former head of MI6, failing to uphold Ukrainian sovereignty leaves Russia empowered to launch new military adventures in the future, while the Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung reminds us that the only check on Russia remains US military strength, which means that Nato is more important for the free West than it has been for decades.
Has Brussels really thought all this through, while at the same time facing a potential recession, threats to the euro’s stability, a commitment to massive post-conflict reconstruction costs, and an overly optimistic expectation of Nato/US willingness to be drawn actively into a third world war? Is it prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with that iconic example of emerging constitutional democracy – Ukraine – while its President Zelensky has just banned the country’s main opposition party and seized all its assets, while locking up its leader and threatening to round up other political dissenters?
Is this really the ‘Beacon of Democracy’ that justifies a nuclear conflagration?