why a little Russian ‘exclave’ is suddenly so important

Long before Vladimir Putin sent his war machine across the border into Ukraine, the Russian president and his henchmen raved about NATO encircling his country, setting up hostile military bases in his backyard and cornering it.

Ukraine’s ever-closer ties to the West and the prospect of it joining NATO was one of Russia’s greatest fears, along with resentment that NATO had attracted countries once firmly within the old Soviet sphere of influence. So this week’s decision by Lithuania, one of the Baltic states, to impose sanctions on certain goods transported between Russia and Kaliningrad, a small Russian “exclave” sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic coast, has raised the temperature raised a notch.

As you might expect, Russian rhetoric has typically been robust, with imminent “appropriate measures” that would have a “serious negative effect on the population of Lithuania”. Moscow calls it a “blockade” – which has a specific meaning under the Geneva Convention, which is prohibited when it comes directly to starving a population. But, as Stephen Hall – who studies post-Soviet space at the University of Bath – points out, this is not a block. Non-sanctioned goods (including food and essential supplies) can still move freely from Russia to Kaliningrad via Lithuania, as can people. But reality has so far not played a major role in Russia’s statements about the war.

Read more: ​​​​Ukraine war: all eyes on Lithuania as sanctions block Russian land access to Kaliningrad. Close

Coincidentally, Kaliningrad is home to the Russian Baltic Fleet. And one of the things analysts are picking up is the increasing focus on the maritime aspects of the conflict. By blocking Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea, Russia is exacerbating a global food shortage that is pushing up prices and threatening a major famine, especially in Africa. But Basil Germond, an expert on naval power and maritime security at the University of Lancaster, reports that there is mounting evidence that Ukraine’s naval operations are causing problems for both the Russian navy and civilian shipping operations. In a long war, Germond writes, naval power generally gives the nations that use it a significant advantage, and in this confrontation Russia, a continental power, is under pressure from a series of seafaring nations, ultimately contributing to the strategic failure of Moscow.

Read more: Ukraine war: As conflict at sea intensifies, Russia’s prospects of victory seem further away than ever

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the ground war

Back on dry land, the war of attrition in the Donbas region continues to be a battle for every meter of territory. One aspect of this slow, bloody battle that is becoming increasingly apparent is the difficulties Russian ground forces face when it comes to crossing the various rivers in the region, especially where – as usual – Ukrainian defenders have destroyed all the bridges.

As military strategist Christopher Morris of the University of Portsmouth writes, river crossings were an important part of Soviet military tactics, playing a major role in the Red Army’s plans to penetrate Europe. Many of Russia’s armored vehicles and tanks – amphibious in design – take advantage of this legacy and have access to bridging equipment that must be fit for purpose. But as we’ve read so many times during Russia’s misguided “military special operation,” poor planning, fiercer-than-expected Ukrainian resistance and inability to take control of the skies have caused the Russian military to pack a bad punch when crossing the road. of rivers, which is causing significant damage to his campaign in the region.

Read more: Ukraine war: Russian military campaign hampered by rivers in Donbas

In the north, meanwhile, there was speculation that Russian ally Belarus could come to Putin’s aid – and there has certainly been a troop build-up on the Belarus-Ukraine border, while Russia and Belarus have held joint exercises in the past. have kept. Stefan Wolff of the University of Birminham and Anastasiya Bayok of the University of Hamburg believe it unlikely that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko – who has faced enormous unrest since the controversial elections that brought him to power in 2020 – will deploy troops want to commit to war in Ukraine when he feels so insecure at home.

Read more:​​Ukraine war: Fears that Belarus could invade on Russia’s side are mounting

the bigger picture

An unexpected by-product of this conflict is the impact it is having on global insurance markets. Western insurers are already facing serious losses from sanctions issued in March banning the provision of various types of cover for Russia-related activities, not least in the maritime sector. Industry losses are expected to run into the billions of pounds depending on how long the war continues. Premiums are therefore rising across the board.

But our team of financial and banking experts from the University of Nottingham note that Russian insurers are filling in the gap left by Western companies, much like the same problem has been addressed by Iran under tough Western sanctions.

Read more: How the war in Ukraine is benefiting Russian insurers – and driving up insurance premiums everywhere

Finally, historians are already trying to understand what this conflict means in the continuum of longer-term world events. Lancaster University historian Paul Maddrell sees parallels between the way Putin is now waging this war and trying to divest territories that could either be incorporated into Russia itself or as puppet republics under Moscow’s control, with the way Joseph Stalin shattered Germany. after WWII, which is how Russia ended up controlling Kaliningrad in the first place.

Read more: Why Putin’s policy towards Ukraine has strong parallels to Stalin’s plan for Germany after World War II

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