With Lithuania sanctioning Russian goods transported to its exclave, we must not be lured by talk of de-escalation. That's dangerous.
Russia—and more pertinently Putin—is threatening Lithuania with non-diplomatic retaliation in reply to the Baltic state’s sanctioning of goods from Russia to its exclave Kaliningrad. As if things weren’t precarious enough to Europe’s east, the situation is on the brink of some frightening escalation.
But this is no time to de-escalate.
What has happened with Lithuania and Russia
Kaliningrad is an exclave of 430,000 people on the Baltic Sea, being surrounded and cut off from Russia by Poland and Lithuania. Lithuania has recently decided, in line with EU sanctions, to halt transport from “mainland” Russia to Kaliningrad of certain goods (over the Suwalki Gap). This started with halting road transport and has moved to rail. The Lithuanian Prime Minister claimed it amounts to only 1% of all goods that Kaliningrad import, including coal, metals, construction materials and advanced technology (although other reports state 50%, based on claims from the Kaliningrad governor). Medical items and food are not sanctioned.
On Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the ban “unlawful,” stating: “This decision, indeed unprecedented, is a violation of everything and then some. We understand that it is connected to the relevant decision of the European Union to extend the sanctions to transit [of goods]. This we also consider unlawful.”
Lithuania replied that this was not a “blockade” but merely an implementation of the EU sanctions, given that Lithuania is a member of the EU. Kaliningrad can still be accessed and supplied by sea. Fun fact: This is something Russia is itself preventing for Ukraine such that they are unable to feed the world with maritime grain exports. The question remains as to whether Lithuania will switch off the gas that comes from Russia through to the exclave.
On Wednesday, the Kremlin responded, saying its retaliation would “not be diplomatic” and that the Lithuanian people would suffer the consequences of their government’s actions.
This is serious stuff.
Some think we should de-escalate the situation between Lithuania and Russia
But some in the West think this is ill-advised. Instead of demanding that Russia back down, they demand that Lithuania back down:
We should instruct Lithuania to stand down? Isn’t there such a thing a sovereignty, even in adhering to EU sanctions guidance? Who are “we”?
You might not know that Lithuania was the largest country in Europe in the 14th century, long before the U.S. was a thing, and is no one’s tail, as one commenter replied. Also, Article 5 has only ever been invoked once, by the U.S. (David Sacks attempts to justify his position here, but with some very dubious logic.)
Ukrainian reporter Ilia Ponomarenko for the Kyiv Independent (both worth following on Twitter) produced an analogy:
Putin’s Peter the Great speech
What’s really frustrating about these appeasement approaches (as if we never learned anything from the outbreak of WW2), is that such proponents appear to be blindly unaware of what happened last week.
This news should have on every news station, front and center, for days. What happened? Putin gave his Peter the Great speech.
“It seemed he [Peter the Great] was at war with Sweden, he took something from them. He did not take anything from them, he returned [what was Russia’s]…. When he founded the new capital, none of the European countries recognized the territory as Russian. They all recognized it as Swedish territory…. He went there to take it back and strengthen it, that’s what he was doing. Well, it seems it has also fallen to us to take back and strengthen [territories]…”
It is at this point that Putin smiled a smile we are all too familiar with.
“…and if we take these basic values as fundamental to our existence, we will prevail in solving the issues we are facing.”
Russia’s basic values are intrinsically involved in Empire-building in order to supposedly strengthen states that they think somehow naturally belong to them?
Can the Swedes lay claim to St. Petersburg (as Nyenskans) or Viborg on this logic? Indeed, Peter the Great ruled for 43 years and gave his name to the new capital, St. Petersburg (ordered built on land he conquered from Sweden), which is unsurprisingly Putin’s home town.
In this speech, Putin has laid out a justification to invade any country, hinting that he will not stop even if he wins in Ukraine. He compared himself to Peter the Great, and thus Ukraine to Peter’s invasion of Sweden. In this context, we should be able to better understand Russia’s series of land grabs in Georgia, Moldova, Crimea, Donbas, and now Ukraine. It is a pattern.
Don’t hand Putin what he wants
Putin’s idea of strengthening Ukraine appears to be in flattening it first, killing untold people, and then starting again. The man has to win and he will not be calmed until he is content that he has won.
There was no de-escalating Jaws.
Let’s be clear: Putin is an imperialist warmonger who will not stop, so we have to stop him. The energy and cost of living crises (one and the same, effectively) are Putin’s friends, as the economic chaos looks to grind down the West’s desire to financially and politically support Ukraine.
But we must stand resolute. We must not put Ukraine on the backburner. It will be costly but how much more costly will the alternative be? The West is already democratically backsliding, and capitulating to autocratic Russia, and by extension China, is a recipe for global catastrophe.
This is a zero-sum game: If we de-escalate, Putin’s Russia escalates. And defeating Putin is the only chance for long-term peace.