The rhetorical escalation can be frightening. Moscow has accused Lithuania of “hostile acts” for applying EU sanctions against Russia to trade between Russia and its Kaliningrad outpost via Lithuanian territory.
Yes, what else? Lithuania is no longer a Soviet republic, but a sovereign state and a member of the EU and NATO. Of course, it enforces the sanctions. Russia is now threatening “acts to protect national interests”.
How great is the danger that the war of words will turn into a hot conflict: the escalation of the fighting in Ukraine into a war between Russia and NATO?
In the West, everyone from Chancellor Olaf Scholz to US President Joe Biden says they want to prevent this at all costs. But does that also apply to Vladimir Putin?
Is he threatening only because he speculates that by doing so, like the occasional reference to nuclear weapons, he could instill fear in Western European societies and thus force their governments to appease? Or is he serious?
The EU and NATO have no choice but to take both options seriously and take precautions. On the one hand, Putin must have lost his mind if he calculates that he can win a war against NATO.
On the other hand, the Suwalki Corridor – the narrow land bridge that connects NATO territory in Poland with that in Lithuania – is the strategic weak point on the alliance’s eastern flank. To the east are Russian troops in Belarus, to the west are Russian troops in Kaliningrad. If Russia attacks there to cut off Lithuania from NATO territory and force the uncontrolled movement of goods from Russia to Kaliningrad, the defense would be difficult.
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NATO’s deterrence rests on the threat that it would recapture lost territory with its superior forces. To do this, however, she must move troops there.
Until then, the main burden lies with Lithuania – and with the Bundeswehr. Germany is the lead nation in NATO for the defense of Lithuania. And the Bundeswehr contingent there is the core of the strategy.
In the past, Putin has repeatedly shown a tendency to doubt the West’s resolve. He relies on threats – in extreme cases apocalyptic scenarios such as the use of nuclear weapons – and hopes that the West will give in despite its superiority.
Some allies, especially in the east, are concerned that the Germans are particularly susceptible to this kind of psychological warfare. And would buckle first.
The most important tool left to Germany, NATO and the EU to prevent war is to reaffirm their resolve. And to use the remaining communication channels to Moscow for this.
Developments since Putin’s February 24 attack on Ukraine make things easier for them. And harder for Putin. Even then, some feared his next target would be the Baltics if his troops overran Ukraine with little resistance.
Since then, Germany has strengthened its units in Lithuania. And NATO its rapid reaction force. The successful resistance of the Ukrainians has shown the weaknesses of the Russian armed forces.
The accession of Finland and Sweden to the alliance is a major security gain for the Baltic States. They are no longer a vulnerable appendage of the alliance, but are also given direct access to NATO territory in the north.
In the new situation, a Russian advance on Lithuania would be suicidal. He would also raise the question of how the Russian leadership intends to defend Kaliningrad.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov named the loss of all trust as the core of the conflict. This also applies vice versa.
Germans, Lithuanians and other allies can be thankful that they have allies in danger. Russia has none. Of course, the advantage only comes into its own when Putin also believes that NATO countries can have blind faith in the promise of assistance.