why a small Russian “exclave” is suddenly so important
Long before Vladimir Putin sent his war machine across the Ukrainian border, the Russian president and his proxies were fuming about NATO surrounding his country, establishing hostile military bases in its backyard and locking in a corner.
Ukraine’s increasingly close relations with the West and the prospect of joining NATO were one of Russia’s great fears, as well as resentment that NATO had attracted countries that once firmly within the former Soviet sphere of influence. Thus, the decision this week by Lithuania, one of the Baltic States, to apply sanctions on certain goods circulating between Russia and Kaliningrad, a small Russian “enclave” wedged between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic coast, raised the temperature a notch.
Predictably, Russia’s rhetoric was generally robust, threatening to “take appropriate measures” that would have a “serious negative impact on the Lithuanian population.” Moscow calls it a “blockade” – which has a specific meaning in the Geneva Convention, being prohibited if it is directly aimed at starving a population. But, as Stephen Hall – who studies post-Soviet space at the University of Bath – points out, it is not a blockade. Unauthorized goods (including food and vital supplies) can still pass freely from Russia to Kaliningrad via Lithuania, as can people. But reality hasn’t played a huge role in Russia’s statements about the war to date.
Read more: War in Ukraine: All eyes on Lithuania as sanctions close Russian land access to Kaliningrad
Kaliningrad happens to be the base of the Russian Baltic Fleet. And one of the things analysts are noticing is the growing attention to the maritime aspects of the conflict. By blocking Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea, Russia is exacerbating a global food shortage that is driving up prices and threatening widespread famines, especially in Africa. But Basil Germond, an expert in maritime power and maritime security at Lancaster University, reports that there is growing evidence that Ukraine’s naval operations are causing problems for the Russian navy as well as for its civil shipping operations. In a long war, writes Germond, sea power usually gives the countries that hold it a significant advantage, and in this confrontation, Russia, a continental power, faces pressure from a range of maritime nations, which will eventually by contributing to the strategic failure of Moscow.
Read more: War in Ukraine: As conflict at sea escalates, Russia’s prospects of victory seem further away than ever
This is our weekly roundup of expert analysis of the conflict in Ukraine. The Conversation, a non-profit news group, works with a wide range of scholars across its global network to produce evidence-based analysis. Get these recaps delivered to your inbox every Thursday. Subscribe here.
The land war
Back on dry land, the war of attrition in the Donbass region continues to be a struggle for every yard of territory. One aspect of this slow and bloody battle that is taking shape is the problems encountered by the Russian ground forces when it comes to crossing the various rivers of the region, especially where, as is often the case, the defenders Ukrainians have destroyed all the bridges.
As military strategist Christopher Morris of the University of Portsmouth writes, river crossings were a centerpiece of Soviet military tactics, figuring prominently in the Red Army’s plans to push into Europe. Many Russian armored vehicles and tanks – amphibious by design – benefit from this heritage and have access to bridging equipment that should be suitable for their purpose. But as we read so many times during Russia’s ill-conceived “special military operation”, poor planning, fiercer-than-expected Ukrainian resistance and failure to control the air meant that the he Russian army makes a bad fist of river crossings, which is inflicting considerable damage to its campaign in the region.
Read more: War in Ukraine: Russia’s military campaign hampered by the rivers of Donbass
Meanwhile, in the north, there has been speculation that Russia’s ally Belarus could come to Putin’s aid – and there has certainly been a buildup of troops on the Belarus-Russia border. Ukraine, while Russia and Belarus have conducted joint exercises in the past. Stefan Wolff of the University of Birmingham and Anastasiya Bayok of the University of Hamburg think Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko – who has faced huge unrest since the disputed election that left him – unlikely brought back to power in 2020 – please commit troops to the war in Ukraine when he feels such insecurity at home.
Read more: War in Ukraine: fears of a possible invasion by Belarus alongside Russia are growing
The bigger picture
An unexpected byproduct of this conflict is the impact it is having on global insurance markets. Western insurers are already facing heavy losses following sanctions passed in March banning the provision of various types of cover to Russian-related activities, including in the maritime sector. Losses in the sector are expected to run into the billions of pounds, depending on the length of the war. Bounties increase at all levels, accordingly.
But our team of financial and banking experts at the University of Nottingham note that Russian insurers are filling the void left by Western companies, not unlike how the same problem was handled by Iran under strict Western sanctions. .
Read more: How the war in Ukraine benefits Russian insurers and drives up insurance premiums everywhere
Finally, historians are already trying to make sense of what this conflict means in the longer term continuum of world events. Lancaster University historian Paul Maddrell draws parallels between how Putin is currently waging this war, trying to carve out areas of territory that can be absorbed either by Russia itself or as ” puppet republics under Moscow’s control, along with the way Joseph Stalin dismembered Germany after WWII, is how Russia ended up controlling Kaliningrad in the first place.
Read more: Why Putin’s policy toward Ukraine has strong parallels to Stalin’s plan for Germany after WWII
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