Waging War On The Soviet Legacy – Latvia Revises History (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #122)

As the war in Ukraine continues to grind on, there has been one Eastern European nation notably absent from much of the news cycle. The Baltic states of Estonia and Lithuania have constantly been in the news. The former for their fervent support of Ukraine and anti-Russian sentiment espoused by Prime Minister Kaja Kallas. The latter for cutting off all Russian gas coming into the country and holding up sanctioned goods that Russia is trying to transit into Kaliningrad. Whereas Latvia, sandwiched between its two Baltic neighbors, has maintained a low profile. This is nothing new. Estonia is known for perfecting digital services, giving the world Skype and the splendid medieval walled city of Tallin, their national capital. Lithuania once had an empire that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea and helped bring the Soviet Union to its knees when it became the first Soviet republic to declare independence.

As for Latvia it is the middle child of the Baltic. Like many siblings sandwiched in between two more prominent ones, Latvia strikes a largely anonymous pose. During the Ukraine-Russia War, Latvia has continued along on its quiet, dutiful way. A staunch member of the European Union and NATO, firmly supporting Ukraine in their fight to resist Russian aggression. The Latvians are the quiet partner of the Baltic states, but their comparative silence is deceptive. The Latvians are just as determined as Estonians and Lithuanians to rid themselves of Russian influence. For Latvia, that means not just confronting the Russian threat in the present, but also dealing a decisive blow against the Soviet past that did so much harm to the nation.

Going down – Red Army soldiers on monument in Riga’s Victory Park

Stoking Tensions – Post-Soviet Subversion
Like the other Baltic states, Latvia has watched Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with concern. It shares a 214 kilometer (133 miles) border with Russia and a 141 kilometer (88 miles) border with Belarus. Adding to their concerns is the fact that 27% of Latvia’s 1.88 million citizens are ethnic Russians. Since Latvia gained its independence in 1991, the relationship between ethnic Latvians and Russians has been contentious at times. Much of this has been stoked by the Kremlin. Russian media has played a prominent role in reminding ethnic Russians in Latvia that their bigger brother across the border keeps a keen eye on their interests. Sewing dissent and causing friction in Latvia’s government has been a long-standing strategy of the Putin regime. The Latvians may be rather quiet, but they are wise to the attempted subversion. They are also pushing back against any attempts to revive the Soviet past. Lately, they have been working assiduously to relegate the Soviet legacy in Latvia to its rightful place, the dustbin of history.

Latvia’s Parliament, the Saeima, has taken proactive measures to ensure there will no glorification of Soviet history in the country. To this end, they passed a law in mid-June prohibiting the display of any objects that glorify the Soviet and Nazi regimes. Those two totalitarian regimes effectively destroyed any hopes of an independent Latvian state between 1940 – 1991. (Soviet occupation 1940-41 and 1944-91/Nazi occupation 1941-44). The Latvian government is enacting the law with resolute action to be taken as soon as possible. Last week, a committee of experts presented their findings after completing a survey of 162 historical markers, plaques, sculptures and monuments. Their conclusion was that 69 of these would need to be removed. This work will commence in the coming months with the goal of having it completed by November 15th.

Speaking out against Russian aggression – Kaja Kallas

Rallying Points – A Monumental Problem
Removing glorifications of the Soviet Union in the public sphere is a valuable corrective that will help set the historical straight for everyone in Latvia. It is a controversial undertaking due to the sensitivities of the nation’s ethnically Russian population which still leads largely separate lives from Latvians. The potential for Latvia’s ethnic Russians to become a fifth column for the Kremlin is something the government must guard against at all costs. Soviet era monuments in the country have been rallying points for ethnic Russians. Most prominently, the monument in Victory Park located in the national capital of Riga. It contains the statue of a woman representing the Soviet motherland and three victorious soldiers of the Red Army. This has been the scene of large rallies on May 9th, the day when Soviet victory in the so called Great Patriotic War over Nazi Germany is celebrated. One of these rallies brought out an estimated 250,000 people, the overwhelming majority of whom were ethnic Russians.

For Latvia, World War II was not a liberation, but the beginning of a fifty-year imprisonment as part of the Soviet Union. Most of the ethnic Russians in Latvia do not see it that way. Their opinion of the war and its glorification is in line with that of Russia. This divide is a dangerous fault line in Latvian politics, one that the Putin regime has exploited in the past to cause dissension inside of Latvia. The wholesale removal of Soviet era monuments at the direction of Latvia’s government seems like a risky undertaking with Russia already on war footing. Putin and his propagandists are hyper-aware of anything that smacks of anti-Russian sensibilities in their near abroad. In the past, such perceived anti-Russian actions in Latvia would have been met with vehement denunciations by the Kremlin. They would then engage in disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks. That could happen, but this time protests from the Kremlin will likely be little more than verbal disapproval. The reason is obvious, the Putin regime’s focus must stay on Ukraine. They do not want to lose control of the war there. Latvia is also a member of NATO, a fact that limits the options for Russia to non-military measures or else they would be risking a widespread war.

Point of contention – Monument in Riga’s Victory Park for Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War

Window of Opportunity – Revising The Historical Record
Latvia’s government senses a window of opportunity to eradicate one of the worst excesses of the Soviet past. The Kremlin does not have the time, inclination or energy to do much about it. When the war in Ukraine does come to an end, the Putin regime will realize that not only has the world changed, but so has the past. Putin may still lament the Soviet Union’s collapse, but in Latvia they celebrate it. Latvia’s effort to revise the Soviet historical record is not only commendable, but also vital.

Occupational Hazards – Russian Defeat at Snake Island (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #121)

How something starts, often determines how it finishes. Never was this truer then with the tug of war between Ukraine and Russia for control of Snake Island. The battle for that strategic speck of rock in the Black Sea ended a few days ago when Russian abandoned their occupation of it. This came after over a week’s worth of attacks from Ukrainian forces armed with precision missiles provided to them by their western allies. The final Russian forces fled from the island by speedboat to avoid another devastating attack by the Ukrainian military. It remains to be seen whether the Russians will return, but it would probably be in their best interests to stay away from Snake Island for the rest of the war.

While Russian president Vladimir Putin has not yet lost the war in Ukraine, his military forces have lost the power and prestige he covets. Many point to defeat in the Battle of Kyiv or the failure to subdue Kharkiv as the reason for Russia’s loss of reputation. Snake Island might be just as important. It is a stunning defeat for the Russian military and a morale booster for the Ukrainians. It also begs the question of how Russia will win the war if they cannot even hold an island in the Black Sea where they enjoy overwhelming naval superiority. The battle for Snake Island is symptomatic of the Russian military’s failure to subdue Ukraine.

Up in smoke – Image of Snake Island after the departure of Russian forces

Island Fortress – Holding On & Holding Out

The fall of Snake Island to Russian forces should have been quick and easy. In a sense, it was. On the first day of the war, Russian ships radioed Ukrainian forces asking them to surrender. The Ukrainians replied with their now famous retort, “Russian warship, go f*&k yourself.” This vocal symbol of Ukrainian resistance has become the most famous incident in the entire war. A larger point though was missed by many who only focused on this incident. The Russians still took the island and began to militarize it. At only 17 hectares (47 acres), Snake Island may be small. but it was much more important to Russia’s war effort in the Black Sea, then it was to Ukraine’s military forces.

Ukraine hardly has a navy and Russia has one of the world’s largest navies, but when it came to holding onto Snake Island conventional military forces were at a disadvantage. Taking Snake Island was deceptively easy, holding it proved to be extremely difficult to the point that it finally proved impossible. Russia believed that its naval superiority would allow them to fortify the island and protect it. This seemed like a rather simple task since Ukraine did not have the naval forces to take it back. As Russia discovered, Snake Island was vulnerable to asymmetric warfare. Rather than naval battles where large ships oppose one another in open water, the battle for control of Snake Island was fought by stealth.

The Ukrainian’s made it difficult for the Russians to flex their naval muscle after they sank the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship, the Moskva. Other Russian ships proceeded to move further offshore instead of risking the same thing to happen again. They were right to be wary of Ukraine’s ability to launch stealth strikes against the Black Sea fleet. Proof of this occurred on June 17th when one of their supply ships, the Vasily Bekh was unloading an air defense system on the island that would protect it from attack. Suddenly, two western anti-ship missiles shot by the Ukrainians struck and subsequently destroyed the Vasily Bekh. This made the Russians even more skittish about resupplying the island after they stationed marine commandos to run a reconnaissance station. The Russians were able to install rocket launchers on the island. Nevertheless, the island became increasingly isolated which made it vulnerable to further Ukrainian attacks which were soon forthcoming.

Nowhere to hide – Map of Snake Island (Credit: ro.wikipedia.org)

Under Attack – Nowhere To Hide

During the final week of June, Ukrainian attacks with advanced precision weaponry escalated against Snake Island. The Russians could not adequately defend against such attacks. They also knew that the Ukrainians were now getting consistent supplies of these weapons from their western allies which meant attacks on Snake Island would become more common than they already were. At first, the Russians stated they had been able to defend against these attacks. Whether that was so hardly mattered because the island’s size meant that any rockets which get past Russian defenses had a high likelihood of hitting targets. For the Russian commandos there were only so many spots on the island where they could hide from these attacks.

As the Ukrainian attacks became more devastating it did not take long for the Russians to realize that their positions on Snake Island were indefensible. The decision was made to flee the island before the commando unit could be destroyed. The Russians tried to sell their departure in the media by stating that they were being magnanimous by leaving. Official sources stated that they did not want to block shipping lanes. According to the Russians, Ukraine was now free to use the Black Sea in order to transport their grains to markets which might otherwise suffer from famine. Not surprisingly, this skewed the truth and distracted from Russia’s failure to hold the island. Shipping on the Black Sea is still not safe from Russian attack. Furthermore, Ukraine would have to de-mine the waters around their ports. Something, they will not do without iron clad security assurances from their allies. Otherwise, Russia could use them to attack Odessa, Ukraine’s largest and most strategically valuable port.

Beginning of the end – Postage stamp showing an artistic rendering of Ukrainian defiance on Snake Island

Point of Access – An Island’s Importance
Now that Russia has been run off Snake Island, do not expect the Ukrainians to reoccupy it. They would struggle to hold it for any length of time. Their victory at Snake Island is still of great importance. It robs the Russians of a landform that controls a critical point of access in the Black Sea. The Russians know Snake Island is off limits to them unless they are prepared to incur greater losses. The saga of Snake Island has ended for now, but the war goes on. Ukraine should be rightfully proud of their ability to resist Russian occupation of the island. That resistance on Snake Island began on the first day of the war and continued until Russia’s defeat was assured. If only Ukraine could be so fortunate in other theaters of the war.

Click here for: Waging War On The Soviet Legacy – Latvia Revises History (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #122)

Diplomatically Drifting Away – Putin’s Visits Tajikistan & Turkmenistan (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #120)

Vladimir Putin is back to his old self, or at least that is what his propagandists and the man himself would like us to believe. For the first time in over two and a half years, Putin ventured on an overnight trip abroad. While Russia’s focus in 2022 has been on Ukraine and Europe, Putin headed in a different direction, traveling deep into Central Asia for a visit to Tajikistan. This was followed by a trip to the hermit nation of Turkmenistan for the Summit of Caspian States where he would be joined by the leaders of the nations that border the Caspian Sea. Putin’s trip abroad was likely scheduled to coincide with the G7 meeting in Bavaria and NATO Summit in Madrid where leaders from the world’s most powerful democracies further outlined their plans to isolate Russia and lend greater military support to Ukraine.

Coming together – Leaders at the Summit of Caspian States

The Altar of Ambition – Sacrificial Soldiers
While Putin wanted to portray that he, and by extension Russia, was back to diplomatic business as usual with his trip, anyone who has followed the war in Ukraine knows that is not true. Putin appeared to convey an attitude of self-assurance, calmness, and complete confidence while in Central Asia. He looked the part, but with Putin looks are often deceiving. What is really going on in the Kremlin is anyone’s guess. While Russia has made incremental gains in their Donbas offensive, those gains have come at great cost. Putin’s calmness may have been a sign that the Russian Army has done enough to call their campaign a victory. Alternatively, he could be masking his displeasure behind a veil of diplomatic professionalism.

How much longer Russia can sustain their current offensive is not known. One thing is for certain, if it takes a month’s long slog with high casualties to destroy villages, towns and cities which are of transient value, then Russia is on the road to military oblivion. The war continues, but not because the Russian Army is achieving their objectives in the Donbas. It continues because Putin’s ego does not allow him to admit failure. If that means thousands of Russian soldiers are sacrificed on the altar of Putin’s ambition, then so be it.

An air of grim confidence – Vladimir Putin at the Summit of Caspian States

The Pariah State – Putin’s Creation
From the Russian perspective, while the situation on the battlefield in Ukraine has improved, the same cannot be said of their diplomatic situation. Putin’s war in Ukraine has made Russia a pariah state. To see how far they have fallen in power and prestige internationally consider their strategic partners before and after 2014. That was the year when Russia occupied Crimea and militarily began their support for pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas. Prior to that time, Russia was a member of the G8. A valued, if deeply flawed partner with the western world, Russia was welcomed at these meetings despite Putin’s misgivings about NATO and reciprocal feelings by alliance members towards Russia. They were also considered a “strategic partner” of NATO. Now Russia is viewed as an adversary rather than an ally. Thus, while most of the world’s most powerful countries were represented at the G7 and NATO summits, Russia was cultivating relations with such lightweights as Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. How the mighty have fallen.

These days Russia has an asymmetric relationship with its closest allies. The most important of which is China. Unfortunately for Russia they are now stuck selling oil to China at a discounted rate. The “friendship without limits” that Putin and China’s leader Xi Jinping agreed to just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is one sided. China is one of the top two economies in the world.  Any deals they negotiate with Russia will favor Chinese interests. Except for India, which remains largely neutral, Russia is stuck with China as its only powerful ally. The relationship is one-sided and will only grow more so as Russia’s economy weakens. The friendship is without limits in the sense that Russia will have to do whatever China wants it to.

As for Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, Putin’s first trip abroad in several years to these two countries is telling. Tajikistan’s economy is worth $1.89 billion dollars. If it were an American state, economically Tajikistan would rank dead last. To get an idea of just how small its economy is, consider that the smallest economy of any American state is Vermont’s at $34 billion dollars. Turkmenistan is not that much better. At $49.8 billion dollars its economy is only larger than the states of Vermont and Wyoming. Putin has reduced Russia internationally to a mere shell of its former self.

Keeping their distance – Leaders at the Summit of Caspian States

Ship Shape – Sailing The Caspian
While in Turkmenistan, Putin was part of the Summit of Caspian States, a talking shop that included not only the host country, but also leaders from Azerbaijan, Iran, and Kazakhstan. Putin is not happy with Kazakhstan’s President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who flatly stated at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum a couple of weeks ago, that he disagreed with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because it violated the country’s territorial integrity. Kazakhstan has reason to fear Russia since Putin sent troops there in January to support the government in quelling domestic unrest. Tokayev has obviously taken the measure of Russia’s performance in Ukraine and decided he would speak out anyway. What did Putin do about it? Nothing, because he is in no position to involve Russia in another dispute with a neighboring country.

Putin did announce a couple of modest successes at the summit. One was a Caspian Film Festival which for some reason he thought would be a noteworthy accomplishment. It is doubtful such a film festival would be anything more than a propaganda tool for authoritarian regimes in the region. There was also the announcement of the first Caspian cruise ship which would leave from the Russian city of Astrakhan later this year. A pleasure cruise on the Caspian for Russians is not the same as visiting Paris, Rome, or London. It might be better for nationalistically inclined, pro-Putin Russia. They will get to sail the inland sea on a ship named after Putin’s favorite Russian hero, Peter the Great. Since Russians now have limited options while traveling abroad, they can enjoy this opportunity to visit some of their closest allies. That is if they have enough money to afford the journey as sanctions slowly strangle the Russian economy.

Click here for: Occupational Hazards – Russian Defeat at Snake Island (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #121)

Putin’s Nightmare – Finland & Sweden In NATO (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #119)

The longer the Ukraine-Russia War goes on, the harder it becomes to remember a time before the war started. The Russian plan to take Kyiv within 72 hours seems nothing more than a distant memory. Events such as the thirty-seven-day Battle of Kyiv are hard to recall for anyone who was not there. Then there were the horrors of Bucha, Irpin, and Mariupol, just to name a few. The Russian retreat from northern Ukraine and the Donbas Offensive which grinds on to this very day. All these events blur the memory and remind us that war warps time. Last week can seem like last year when dramatic events surge to the forefront and wipe away memory of lesser events that once dominated the news cycle. Such important information as the reasons that Russia invaded Ukraine have been all but forgotten amid the whirlwind of a worsening war.

Putin’s worst nightmare – The Baltic Sea is surrounded by NATO members

NATO Membership – An Antidote For Russian Aggression
One major event this week brought back into the news cycle the subject of NATO membership for nations attacked or threatened by Russia. As I recall, this was of prime importance in the leadup to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That invasion has now led to some serious unintended consequences for Russia. This week it was announced that Finland and Sweden would be accepted as NATO members. The two Scandinavian nations, which share a border with Russia, eschewed 70 years of neutrality for NATO membership. Joining the alliance is a safeguard against Russian aggression. Both nations have seen the true nature of Vladimir Putin’s regime in Ukraine. Finland and Sweden believe the only way their security and sovereignty can be safeguarded is by joining NATO. Vladimir Putin wanted to keep NATO out of Russia’s backyard. His actions caused the opposite to happen.

The idea of NATO expansion is an oxymoron. NATO does not openly solicit members, no matter what Russian propagandists might say. Nations must voluntarily seek NATO membership. When they do, their application will be reviewed by the alliance and a decision rendered on whether they can join. The Putin regime has spent years promoting the fallacy that NATO seeks to expand at Russia’s expense. The truth is that nations in eastern and northern Europe have sought to join NATO in order to protect themselves from Russian aggression. Russia is the nation that seeks to expand. It does this at the expense of nations that might want to join NATO. The most prominent examples of this are the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 and the war in Ukraine. In each of these, Russian forces found a pretense to invade a sovereign nation’s territory.

Strategic mistake -Vladimir Putin helped push Finland & Sweden into NATO

Geopolitical Gaslighting – The Blame Game
The Putin regime’s propagandists are experts at geopolitical gaslighting. Some in the west have fallen for the fallacy that it is NATO expansion which led to Russia attacking Ukraine. Nothing could be further from the truth. NATO did not extend any offer of membership to Ukraine. The same was true for Finland and Sweden. It is Putin’s belligerence which pushes Russia’s neighbors into NATO. Does anyone really believe that Finland and Sweden would have joined NATO if Russia had not invaded Ukraine? Both nations were comfortable with neutral status until they saw what Russia is doing in Ukraine. NATO is a defensive alliance that stands as a bulwark against Russian aggression. Putin despises and fears NATO because it infringes upon his idea of expanding Russia’s sphere of influence in its near abroad. He cannot realize his neo-imperialist ambitions against NATO members. Attacking one would be tantamount to self-destruction for Russia.

One of Putin’s main reasons for invading Ukraine was to keep it from joining NATO. Of course, Ukraine was not applying to join NATO and even if they did, their acceptance would have been in doubt. The discussion of Ukraine and NATO dominated the early weeks of the war. Many wondered if Ukraine had been a member would Russia still have invaded. It is highly doubtful. Consider the fact that Russia has not invaded any NATO member’s territory. Some in the west were relieved that Ukraine never actively sought to become a member. The thinking went that if they had been a member, this would have brought NATO into direct conflict with Russia. Now very few commentators mention Ukraine and NATO in the same sentence. Instead, discussions have turned to supporting Ukraine militarily. Ironically, if Ukraine were to achieve victory in the war, joining NATO would become a distinct possibility.

Partners for peace – Leaders of Finland Turkey & Sweden at 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid

No Way Out – Bottled Up In The Baltic Sea
While the subject of Ukraine and NATO has moved to the backburner, that is not the case regarding Finland and Sweden. They will now become full-fledged members of the alliance. Turkey, which had protested their membership on the grounds that both countries harbored Kurdish terrorists, has now backed their membership in return for promises that they will take a harder line with anti-Turkish terrorists. The strategic consequences for Russia of Finland and Sweden joining NATO cannot be emphasized enough. If Vladimir Putin’s worst fear was Ukraine as a NATO member, Finland and Sweden in NATO is a corresponding nightmare. Overnight, the Baltic Sea will become dominated by NATO forces. When Russian ships sail out into the Baltic, they will see NATO members all around them. There will be no more neutral harbors for their ships. This is a major strategic win for NATO.

After seeing how Russia has dominated the Black Sea in the current war, NATO has acted with foresight to ensure the same does not happen in the Baltic. Russia’s Baltic Fleet is now bottled up. There is nothing that Putin can do about this unless he wants to risk World War III and complete destruction. All his vocal protestations against NATO are nothing more than words. As we all know, actions speak louder than words. Putin and his propagandists can all the threats they want to against NATO members, but the reality is that Russia will now have to deal with NATO along most of their western border. If the Russians are looking for someone to blame for this transformation of the geopolitical landscape, they might want to start with their leader.   

Click here for: Diplomatically Drifting Away – Putin’s Visits Tajikistan & Turkmenistan (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #120)

Targeting Civilians – The Shopping Mall at Kremenchuk (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #118)

On day one of the Group of Seven Summit at Schloss Emlau in Bavaria, the focus was less on the leaders of the free world and more on the message Vladimir Putin sent by renewing missile attacks on Kyiv. The damage in this attack was relatively light, but the message was clear, Putin’s forces could strike anywhere in Ukraine at any time. Tragically, Putin did not stop with Kyiv. Not long after the G7 began its second day of meetings, horrific reports of another Russian strike on a civilian area in Ukraine made the news. This time a couple of two-thousand-pound Soviet missiles hit a shopping mall in Kremenchuk, a city of 217,000 situated along the Dnipro River in central Ukraine. Kremenchuk is in an area that Russian ground forces have not come close to occupying. That does not mean Kremenchuk is safe. As countless examples have shown, distance is no obstacle to Russian missile strikes on Ukraine.  

Smoked out – Shopping mall in Kremnchuk on fire after Russian missile strike

The Death of Innocents – Collateral Damage
The first four months of the Ukraine-Russia War have proven that Russia will rain terror down on innocent civilians. This is what happened when hundreds of Ukrainians became unwitting targets inside the shopping mall in Kremenchuk. The Russian missile strike was no accident. Instead, it was by design. A terror tactic to wreak maximum havoc in a provincial city that was thought to be safe. Some of those injured in the attack had moved to Kremenchuk from other areas in eastern Ukraine hoping to get outside the line of fire. The Putin regime considers the areas frequented by civilians to be high value targets. Footage taken after the strike shows dark clouds of smoke billowing forth from the burning structure. The morning after the attack, 18 people were reported dead and at least another 60 wounded. Counts of the dead are likely to grow as investigators, firemen, and the police continue sifting through the rubble.

The shopping mall in Kremenchuk now joins an infamous list of places across Ukraine where civilians have suffered mass murder due to Russian artillery and missiles strikes. The most notable of these incidents include civilians killed while waiting for a train in Kramatorsk, queueing in line for bread in Chernihiv, and the horrifying strike on the theater in Mariupol as women, children and the elderly sheltered from the fighting. These are just a few of literally thousands of murderous attacks on civilians that Russia has carried out with hardly a second thought to the collateral damage they cause. It might even be said that collateral damage is the goal of such attacks.

Everyone in Ukraine has become a target, whether they are Ukrainian or Russian speaking, elderly or children, male or female. Individuals are caught in the crossfire and viewed by Russian forces as moving targets. Civilian casualties have gone from hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands and will run into the hundreds of thousands if the war continues at its current pace. Every one of the civilian casualties adds up to a clear conclusion, this war is genocidal. Vladimir Putin and the Russian forces that do his bidding are committing war crimes.

Before the firestorm – Shopping mall in Kremnchuk

Quick Strikes – Slow Sanctions
The strike in Kremenchuk stole some of the headlines from the G7 summit. That is just the way Vladimir Putin wants it. The regime he leads has proven capable of doing almost anything to garner attention on the world stage. While G7 leaders meet to coordinate sanctions against Russia, boost European security, and bolster military support for Ukraine, Putin reminds them that he can and will order his forces to attack non-military targets to stoke maximum outrage. Putin is showing through these actions that he can do whatever he wants in Ukraine and there is nothing that can be done about it. While that is not true, the western world’s responses to Russian aggression are logical, rational, and calibrated to cause long term pain. This is mainly being done in the form of sanctions.

Such actions, while highly commendable, are very slow to take effect. This is frustrating for those who want to help Ukraine resist aggression. Any delays in getting support to Ukraine costs lives. The slower response from Ukraine’s allies also allows Putin to control part of the narrative through spectacular acts of pre-meditated mass murder. The strike on Kremenchuk was a public relations stunt. The regime believes that any publicity is better than none. This helps Putin stay relevant on the world stage, no easy feat for a man that most of the world wants to see either disappear or be put on trial for crimes against humanity.

For their part, the Russians rationalized the shopping mall strike in Kremenchuk by stating that there were military assets being stored nearby. According to one of their spokespeople, the Russian strike targeted weapons storage units which were close to the shopping mall. When the missiles hit these, they caused explosions which led to mass casualties. Ukraine responded that there were no places or structures of military significance within five kilometers of the shopping mall. This has only led to greater outrage at the Russian’s killing and maiming of civilians inside the mall. Oddly, the greater the outrage, the more likely Russia will be to continue these attacks.

Missile attack – Freeze frame image of Russian missile just before it struck the shopping mall in Kremenchuk

Cultivating Fear – Striking Back
It was impossible for leaders at the G7 to ignore the attack on Kremenchuk. Vladimir Putin knows this and that is why he looks to continue cultivating fear. It is not certain what the strategic or tactical ideas are behind such strikes. Is it to get the western world to cry mercy and push Ukraine to negotiate a settlement with Russia? Is it to engender a sense of hopelessness in the Ukrainian population to the point that they also cry for mercy? Or is it to kill as many Ukrainians as possible in acts of genocidal murder which will ethnically cleanse much of eastern Ukraine? The answer is all the above. Yet despite these actions, the sides are as far apart from a negotiated peace as they have been since the war began.
With neither side anywhere close to negotiating, the chance that the war will drag on for many more months is certain. The chance that the war could go on for years is increasing. This can only mean that more civilians will be targeted. The shopping mall strike in Kremenchuk will be forgotten when Russia commits even greater atrocities.

Click here for: Putin’s Nightmare – Finland & Sweden In NATO (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #119)

Wake Up Call – The G7, Vladimir Putin & Russia (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #117)

Vladimir Putin never misses an opportunity to remind the world of his regime’s vile nature. Just when Kyiv had been restored to some sense of normalcy, Russian missiles struck an apartment building, destroying the top three levels of the nine-story structure. Missiles also hit a playground and kindergarten. At least one person was confirmed dead, while several others were injured. These included a seven-year-old child who had to be pulled from the rubble. It is a miracle that casualties were not greater. The missile strike was almost certainly planned to coincide with the opening of the annual Group of 7 Summit taking place at the Schloss Elmau in Bavaria. The assembled leaders of the world’s largest and most powerful democracies (United States, Germany, France, Japan, Italy, Canada, United Kingdom plus the European Union) were given yet another wakeup call – as if they needed one – that the war between Ukraine and Russia is still raging.

Wake up call – Results of the latest Russian missile strike on Kyiv

The Haunting – A Spirit At The Summit
Vladimir Putin used to attend international summits like the G7. Not that long ago, Russia was part of the G8, but the membership was suspended in 2014 after the unlawful takeover of Crimea. They decided to leave the group in 2017. Truth was that Russia had unofficially left the group as far back as 2012. That was when Putin decided he had better things to do rather than attend that year’s summit. After all that has happened with the war in Ukraine over the past four months, it is harder and harder to imagine that Putin was once an accepted member of the group. His opinions were given a great deal of consideration at international summits. Those days are over, not that he cares. Putin now revels in his black sheep status, gaining a kind of strangely insidious satisfaction that though he cannot attend the summit in person, his spirit looms over the meetings.

Leaders at this year’s G7 Summit will spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on Russia. They will discuss at length strategies for dealing with Russia as a security threat. The strike on Kyiv is a reminder that whatever has been tried so far, nothing has been able to curb Putin’s bad behavior. Russia continues to violate international norms with spectacular acts of malevolence. It is not an exaggeration to say that if Putin could get away with it, he would fire missiles at the G7 summit. At this point in his life, he lacks inhibitions when it comes to ordering acts of mass violence. This includes not only against Ukrainians, but his own armed forces as well. A case could be made that Putin’s poor strategic calculations, micro-management of his generals and stubborn determination to see the war through has been the reason that Russian forces have suffered more casualties than Ukrainian ones. On the other hand, there is no comparable Russian equivalent to the suffering Putin and his regime have inflicted upon Ukrainian civilians.

Solo Summit – Vladimir Putin

Campaign of Terror – Bolt From The Blue
The latest missile strike on Kyiv has been getting quite a bit of attention and rightfully so. While it is nowhere near as lethal as other attacks, it is indicative of the Russian strategy to terrorize Ukraine. Such “bolt from the blue” strikes are now accompanied by the obligatory air raid sirens. They sew fear, but not panic in Ukraine’s civilian population. During the war’s first weeks, the terror campaign was a tactic that Russians hoped would force Ukrainians to submit to their rule. After four months of war, it is obvious that the opposite has occurred. If anything, these tactics only serve to strengthen the resolve of Ukrainians. Russia’s terror tactics have done little to change outcomes on the battlefield. The apartment building strike is one of literally thousands of similar strikes. The only thing different was that this one sent a message to leaders at the G7 that Putin loathes being ignored. He wants to be a ghost in their meeting rooms, haunting discussions of ways for the G7 to respond.

The only tactic that has been consistently successful for Putin up to this point in the war has been unpredictability. Launching the invasion took many in the world by surprise. Questions of “will he or won’t he” frame discussions on the potential use of nuclear weapons by Putin.  No one seems to know what his endgame for the war might be. Putin’s unpredictability is hard to plan for and even harder to resist. If Ukraine is not willing to concede territory in the Donbas as part of a peace process, then there is no telling what Putin might or might not do. He is good at keeping the enemy guessing. Then again, most Russians have no idea what he will decide to do next. His impetuosity makes him dangerous. Intelligence analysts have spent two decades trying to figure out Putin. They have very little to show for their efforts. It is doubtful if anyone in the western world saw the missile strike against Kyiv coming. Just when someone thinks Putin would not do that, he goes and does it. Brazen audacity defines his actions.

Harsh reality – Young girl who survived the missile strike on Kyiv (Credit: @KyivOperativ)

Exploiting Weakness – The Putin Doctrine
The only thing that seems clear is that Putin respects a forceful response. Anything less and he senses weakness, which gives him opportunities to exploit. Nevertheless, there is an opportunity cost to such acts as the latest missile strike on Kyiv. They may serve to stiffen the spines of leaders attending the G7 summit. In turn, this will mean more sanctions on Russia. Putin does not care. His only interest is staying in power and breaking Ukraine. The war could either help him achieve these objectives or lead to his downfall. Putin is not risk averse. On the contrary, he is ferociously aggressive. He rules by instinct, some might even say animal instincts. Putin gambled with his decision to invade, thus far that gamble has not paid off. Sewing fear and raining terror upon Ukraine has become Putin’s go to method for the war. Whether that will prove a winning strategy, it is too soon to tell. The only thing Putin has gained from these actions is a terrible reputation. Expect more of the same or worse to come.

Click here for: Targeting Civilians – The Shopping Mall at Kremenchuk (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #118)

Beginning of the End – Kybartai & Kaliningrad (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #116)

I stopped watching apocalyptic movies about nuclear war years ago because they were the closest thing to having a perpetual nightmare. The scenes were so disturbing that I could not get them out of my mind. To this day, the nuclear detonations in Threads and The Day After are literally seared into my memory. Both movies showed the effect of a nuclear war on cities. In The Day After, Kansas City got a starring role as an epicenter for obliteration. In Threads, I can still recall a mushroom cloud rising over Sheffield. Then a few minutes later, a second flash melted much of the city. Kansas City and Sheffield were likely selected as the setting for a nuclear apocalypse to ensure the horror would hit home with viewers. The message was clear, if a nuclear strike could destroy these cities in the heartlands of America and the United Kingdom, then they could certainly destroy hundreds of other cities, one of which most viewers were living in or around.

The end is near – Kybartai (Credit: Hugoarg)

Another Crisis – Border Tensions
Since history has been recorded, the end of the world has been predicted countless times. Personally, I do not think the world is going to end anytime soon, but humanity just might if it is not careful. There have been so many close calls since the nuclear age began in 1945, that it is a miracle humanity has escaped the detonation of a nuclear device in wartime for the past seventy-seven years. Fears of a nuclear war have been a rising concern ever since Russia invaded Ukraine four months ago. The chance of a conventional war escalating into a nuclear one as Russia and NATO get entangled in Ukraine will continue to be a distinct possibility, one that cannot be taken seriously enough. If such a war were to occur, I doubt the flashpoint would be any of the usual suspects. Kyiv or the Donbas, Moscow or Washington, London, Paris and Berlin are much too obvious. Instead, it might happen at a place few have heard of. A place like the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Perhaps a disagreement would begin right along its border, maybe at a town like Kybartai in the southwestern extremity of Lithuania. This is improbable enough to be plausible.

The hypothetical scenario involving Kaliningrad and Kybartai is not as farfetched an idea as it sounds. In the past two weeks this area has become a flashpoint. That is because Lithuania has begun implementing checks for sanctioned materials and goods on Russian trains that transit through its territory to Kaliningrad. Some of these materials and goods are banned from being transported across the borders of European Union member states. The checks have angered the Russians who have promised that there will be serious consequences for Lithuania. The Lithuanians are standing their ground, supported by a decision from the European Commission that they are well within their rights to take this action. In turn, the Commission is working to find a way to negotiate a way out of this crisis before it further exacerbates tensions between Russia and the European Union.

Sometimes a small crisis has a way of encapsulating a much bigger problem. In this case, the European Union and its member states are serious about using sanctions as a tool to stop Russian aggression in Ukraine. This sets up a potential clash. The standoff at the border between Kybartai and Kaliningrad is being used to send a message of strength to Russia. This could lead the Russia to take matters into their own hands militarily to force through their goods to Kaliningrad. This would be tantamount to a declaration of war on NATO and the European Union, since Lithuania is a member of both organizations. Kaliningrad bristles with weapons. The exclave is an outpost of Russian militarism, armed to the teeth. The weapons include Iskander missiles that can be armed with nuclear warheads. Vladimir Putin’s paranoia gives rise to his belief that NATO deliberately infringes upon what he perceives as Russia’s sphere of influence. Any miscommunications and misjudgments on Kaliningrad’s border with Lithuania could end with catastrophic results.

On the edge – Map showing location of Kybartai in Lithuania

Whirlwind of History – Touched By Fire
For a place that might best be associated with the middle of nowhere, Kybartai has a strange way of finding itself in the eye of the European storm. This nondescript town on the fringes of Lithuania has a deeply conflicted history. The making of modern Kybartai has been informed by a tug of war between East and West. It became more than the proverbial wide spot in the road when the Warsaw to St. Petersburg railway was built through it in 1861. That connection also put it in the sights of armies that have passed through it periodically with destructive results. Since the 20th century began. Kybartai has been part of the Russian Empire and Interwar Lithuania, occupied by Nazi German forces, taken over by the Soviet Union and now part of Lithuania.

The whirlwind of history has periodically touched down on a town that is most recognizable for not being recognizable at all. Kybartai has suffered near destruction, not once but twice, due to fighting in the First and Second World Wars. Something similar or much worse could threaten it in the future. Kybartai straddles a geopolitical fault line between Lithuania and Russia, NATO and Russia, the European Union and Russia. In geopolitics, location is everything. Paradoxically, Kybartai finds itself on the fringes of Europe and at the center of matters. No one could possibly imagine that nondescript Kybartai might be a starting point for World War III, but truth is often stranger than fiction and history stranger still. Judging by Kybartai’s past its centrality to a potential future conflict should not be that surprising.

Heading into history – Railway station in Kybartai around 1900

Ground Zeros – Conflicted Settings
Will the end of civilization as we know it start in Kybartai? Almost certainly not, but anonymous places like it are scattered all along the borders between NATO member states and Russia. More than a thousand flashpoints between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with Russia are possible ground zeros for conflict. Kybartai is one of these places and as such worth keeping a close eye on. World War III could start here or maybe it already has and it took trains stopped at the Lithuanian border for people to realize it. Kybartai will never have a starring role in one of those nuclear war movies, but it could end up with something much worse, the real thing.

Click here for: Wake Up Call – The G7, Vladimir Putin & Russia (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #117)

Domestic Discord – American, British & French Support For Ukraine (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #115)

The most direct way for Ukraine to win the war with Russia is for their military to inflict a decisive defeat on the enemy’s military. While that sounds simple, it is anything but. The complexity of Ukraine’s task has a great deal to do with getting support from its allies. Ukraine enjoys the support of extremely powerful allies, including the United States, Great Britain and to a much lesser extent, France and Germany. This is not to mention its most loyal allies, Poland and the Baltic States. Because of these allies, Ukraine has access to what should be an inexhaustible supply of the world’s most advanced military equipment. NATO also offers training, logistical and intelligence support. Despite or perhaps because of their allies, the question for Ukraine still looms, will this lead to victory? While the military assets that can be made available to Ukraine are vast and seemingly inexhaustible, reliance on this support also puts Ukraine at the mercy of political forces that it cannot control. Chief among these are the domestic political situations in the United States, Great Britain, and France, all of which could threaten support for Ukraine.

A friendship forged by war – Boris Johnson & Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv

Bipartisan Support – Fighting Russian Aggression
The United States has been Ukraine’s most valuable ally up to this point in the war. The Biden administration has rallied the western world to the Ukrainian cause. One way they did that was by leading the way in providing both military and financial assistance to Ukraine. No European nation comes close to the $54 billion in aid the United States has supplied to Ukraine for their war effort. Support for Ukraine also enjoys bipartisan support in Congress which has made aid packages easy to pass. This is almost unheard of in a deeply divided America. The days of congressional bipartisanship can seem more like a relic of the 20th century except when it comes to supporting Ukraine’s stand against Russian aggression. Fortunately, two outstanding ministers have been leading the American response, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. They have proven to be staunch allies, matching words with deeds.

Nonetheless, there are worries about long term American support for the war. With inflation the highest it has been in over forty years, an electorate split along ideological lines and disenchantment with the economy, domestic politics is likely to intrude on support for Ukraine. It is difficult enough for the current administration to rally European support for the war without having to fight a rearguard action at home over economic concerns. The party representing the presidential incumbent almost always loses seats in mid-term elections. This could mean that both the House of Representatives and Senate could flip. While Ukraine would likely still enjoy broad support, that is not a given when domestic politics in the United States take priority which they will for the rest of this year and possibly the next.

Staunch allies – Lloyd Austin Volodymyr Zelensky & Antony Blinken

Bad Behavior – Living On The Edge
The domestic political situation in Great Britain is of increasing concern to Ukraine. There has been no greater friend to Ukraine than Prime Minister Boris Johnson who has now visited Kyiv twice during the war. Johnson has channeled his love of all things Churchill while trying to reenact the role of Britain’s most famous wartime Prime Minister. Johnson has promised loads of weapons and delivered. Not long ago, he announced a plan for Britain to train 40,000 Ukrainian soldiers. This came during his second visit to Kyiv which took place just a day after Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz made their first visit to the Ukrainian capital. Johnson and post-Brexit Britain are looking for a geopolitical raison d’etre. Ukraine has offered Johnson a readymade cause to put Britain back on the world stage.

Cynics say that the Johnson government’s support for Ukraine has been a way for the prime minister to distract from his domestic woes caused by his own bad behavior. Johnson was at the center of the Partygate scandal, where he and others in his government were drinking together at Downing Street while the country was in lockdown during the pandemic. Johnson barely won a vote of confidence from the Tory party. To make matters worse, the Tories were trounced in two by-elections last week. The pressure within his own party for Johnson to resign will not abate anytime soon. It is quite possible that he will be ousted from power. No one can say what this might mean for British support to Ukraine. It is doubtful that any other Tory leader could reprise Johnson’s outsized role in backing Ukraine.

Less than friendly relations – Vladimir Putin, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, and Volodymyr Zelensky in Normandy (Credit: kremlin.ru)

Losing Focus – Troubles At Home
The third domestic political situation that could directly affect Ukraine concerns Emmanuel Macron and his leadership in France. The French President styles himself as the leader of Europe. Macron has been maneuvering to ensure that he can mediate any peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. His lengthy phone calls with Vladimir Putin have drawn the ire of Ukrainians and skepticism from Eastern European leaders. While Macron was attempting his version of shuttle diplomacy, he failed to focus on the French parliamentary elections. The result was that his Ensemble party lost its parliamentary majority. This means it will be difficult for Macron to govern.

As rightfully skeptical as the Ukrainians have been about Macron, he is much better than the alternative leaders on the far left and far right, Jean-Luc Melenchon and Marine Le Pen. The former has voiced a lack of support for Ukraine, while the latter has supported Putin on many occasions and received financial support for her campaign from Russian sources. At times, France has offered lukewarm support for Ukraine’s war effort. That looks likely to continue as Macron wrestles with homegrown obstacles to his reformist agenda. French support for Ukraine will muddle forward, but wholehearted support is unlikely from the Macron administration. Unfortunately, the alternative to Macron would be much worse. Such are the vagaries of French domestic politics and their effect on Ukraine.

Realpolitik – Cultivating Support
The harsh reality of their allies’ domestic woes means that Ukraine must win two wars to emerge victorious over Russia. One of these is on the battlefield, the other requires winning over the politicians and electorates in the United States, Britain, and France. Each nation’s support for Ukraine is contingent upon domestic political circumstances which at this moment are extremely difficult. Such circumstances are dynamic and fluid. They are open to change at any time. For Ukraine to have a fighting chance of winning the war, long term support is vital. Continued support from the current governments in the United States, Great Britain, and France is integral to Ukrainian hopes of defeating Russia. Domestic politics in each of those countries will go a long way in deciding the war’s outcome. Whether all three countries will support a prolonged war is still questionable. Only time will tell.

Click here for: Beginning of the End – Kybartai & Kaliningrad (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #116)

A Created Controversy – Lithuania & Kaliningrad Lost In Transit (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #114)

Well, that did not take long. On June 10th, I published an article on the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad (sandwiched on the Baltic coast between Poland and Lithuania) as a pressure point that Russia might exploit as another way of attacking the western world. A week later, Kaliningrad made headline news as Russia claimed that Lithuania was trying to blockade it. This was another salvo fired from the Putin regime’s arsenal of exaggerations. Despite the dubious veracity of Russian claims, Kaliningrad is too important for the security of Europe not to take any geopolitical development there with the utmost seriousness. The exclave’s strategic value to Russia is much greater than its size. For NATO and the European Union, Kaliningrad represents an internal threat, a sort of geographic fifth column that could cause quite a bit of chaos. The ongoing controversy over transshipments of cargo from Russia across Lithuania to Kaliningrad illustrates that the region could become another flashpoint in a widening war that threatens to spread beyond the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

Uncertain journey – Train leaving Kaliningrad

Closing The Gap – A Strategic Issue
One hundred kilometers is all it would take for Russian troops to get from Belarus to Kaliningrad. That is the length of the Suwalki Gap, quite possibly the most strategic bit of territory currently in Europe. If Russia were to attempt the gap’s closure, then it would start an international crisis the likes of which would dwarf the Ukraine-Russia War. Occupation of the Suwalki Gap would allow Russia to isolate the three Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. This would cut them off from their fellow members in the European Union and NATO. A Russian attack would also trigger a major international crisis, threatening World War III since NATO members are bound by the alliance’s rules to support any fellow member that is attacked. The consternation over the Suwalki Gap is nothing new. It has been on the radar of military and geopolitical strategists ever since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. The collapse made Kaliningrad part of Russia, even though it was three hundred kilometers away from the nearest point in the rest of Russia.

The war in Ukraine has served to exacerbate fears of the Suwalki Gap’s vulnerability to Russian attack. The risk of a military confrontation has continued to grow. This is illustrated by the latest incident between Russia and Lithuania. This past week, Lithuania began to implement European Union sanctions on Russia by not allowing certain cargo to transit across its territory and onward to Kaliningrad. Lithuania checked beforehand with the European Commission to ensure they were taking the correct course of action. The commission gave them the go ahead. An estimate given by Lithuanian authorities stated that only about one percent of cargo was not allowed to transit. That was enough for the Governor of Kaliningrad, Anton Alikhanov, to broadcast on his Telegram channel that Lithuania had banned around half of the cargo being brought for Kaliningrad. Russia reacted with predictable outrage to a figure that we can only assume came straight from Putin’s propagandists.

On guard – Kaliningrad’s place on the map & nearby NATO troops

Threatening Gestures – The New Berlin
Putin responded by sending one of his closest confidantes, Nikolai Patrushev – who is head of the Kremlin’s Security Council – to visit Kaliningrad. Patrushev took it upon himself to make threatening statements which included a promise of retaliatory measures that “will have a serious negative impact on the population of Lithuania.” While military action will almost certainly be avoided, any threats that are made must be backed up with action at some point to be credible. Whether it is a cyberattack, wreaking havoc with the electrical grid or misinformation campaigns, Lithuania should expect a Russian response. The current source of tension, flows of goods and materials into Kaliningrad from Russia, does not rise to the level of war, but that will not stop Putin from escalating the situation. He might be using this latest self-created controversy to distract from the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s ports in the Black Sea.

As the war in Ukraine grows ever more bitter and prolonged, the chance that it might spread to other parts of Europe increases. Kaliningrad is as good a place as any for Putin to test the west’s resolve and the Suwalki Gap could turn into a proving ground to see which side will blink first. The Suwalki Gap could turn into the 21st century Eastern European version of Berlin during the Cold War. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev once famously remarked that the divided city was, “the testicles of the west: every time I want to make the west scream, I squeeze on Berlin.” The Suwalki Gap offers a pressure point for Russia where the possibility of disagreements and misunderstandings is elevated. One day everything is quiet, the next day an international crisis threatens. This is what has happened with Lithuania implementing sanctions. Once Russia learned that the Lithuanians would not allow the cargo to transit through their territory, they reacted with the characteristic vehemence.

First & final stop – Kybartai Train station in Lithuania close to the Kaliningrad border (Credit: Vilensija)

Outrageous Claims – Propaganda & Pressure
The Russians ignored the fact that Lithuania is still allowing passengers and other unsanctioned cargo to continue transiting through its territory. Their magnanimous, legally sound approach is quite the opposite of how the Russians have cut off vital gas supplies to European countries or stopped humanitarian convoys from entering besieged Ukrainian cities. Russia only applies rules when they can use them for their own interests. Lithuania is not doing anything subversive to harm Kaliningrad. On the contrary, they are upholding sanctions that the European Union has agreed upon. As an EU member, Lithuania would be remiss if they did not implement these sanctions. The Putin regime knows this, but they never fail to use such situations to claim outrage.

Russia is aware of the sanctions that have been imposed upon them. These sanctions only came about due to their unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Unfortunately, Russian propagandists will try to use the situation with Kaliningrad to distract from the Putin regime’s many failures in Russia’s war with Ukraine. Kaliningrad serves Russia’s purposes. It will likely be used again in the future to put pressure on Lithuania, Poland, the EU, and NATO. Sooner or later, Putin may overstep the bounds that have been placed on Russia. If that day comes, expect Kaliningrad to play a major role.

Click here for: Domestic Discord – American, British & French Support For Ukraine (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #115)

A Fighting Chance – Lithuania Versus Russia (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #113)

The Ukraine-Russia War has been cast by many as a conflict pitting David versus Goliath. Russia is a massive country with one of the world’s largest military forces and the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. It is home to an incredible amount of the world’s natural resources, most prominently oil and gas. Much of its art and architecture is world renowned. In a sense, Russia has it all and still wants more from smaller nations such as Ukraine which border it. While Ukraine may be the underdog in the current war, no one would call it a small nation based upon either its size or population. Though many gave little thought to Ukraine’s place in Europe prior to the current conflict, it has been the largest country inside of Europe since becoming independent in 1991. With 44 million people, Ukraine’s population was 8th largest in Europe. Of course, that is still 101 million less than Russia. Ukraine is an underdog, but mainly because Russia is the opponent. Ukraine has managed to stand its ground, whereas smaller countries bordering Russia might be at an even greater disadvantage. Take for instance, Lithuania.

Standing for freedom – Vilnius television tower (Credit: Destinus-51216)

262 Times Smaller – Sizing Up The Situation
Lithuania is 262 times smaller than Russia. For every Lithuanian there are 52 Russians. This is a mismatch made in the Baltic. Yet while many countries in central and western Europe keep trying to find a way to accommodate Vladimir Putin’s nightmarish impulses, Lithuania has been a bastion of resistance. The Lithuanians are standing up to Russian style fascism in all its vile iterations. For instance, they were the first European nation to cut off all Russian gas coming into the country. While this decision was due to Russian aggression in Ukraine and the threat it poses to the Baltic nations, Lithuania has long understood the threat of being held hostage by reliance on Russian gas. In 2012, Gazprom, the leading Russian gas company, raised the price of gas going to Lithuania by 30%. This was one of many instances where Russia used the energy it supplies to European countries as a weapon. Cyberattacks have also been a favorite Russian tactic to undermine Lithuania.

This begs the questions, why does Russia fear Lithuania? Is it because of Lithuanian membership in the European Union and NATO? Or is it because Vladimir Putin and those surrounding him remember Lithuania’s outsized role in helping bring down the Soviet Union? According to Putin, the Soviet’s Union’s collapse was the biggest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century. That statement might sound like hyperbole, if not for Putin’s actions to create a Russian imperial state by taking back some of the old Soviet constituent republics. One can only imagine what Putin might say about Lithuania’s role in bringing about the Soviet collapse. Lithuania should have disappeared from the map after being absorbed into the Soviet Union, but it had history on its side. Unlike the other two Baltic nations, Latvia and Estonia, Lithuania had its own glorious imperial tradition when it ruled over a large swath of eastern Europe.

East of center – Lithuania on a map of Europe

Independent Minded – From Grand Duchy To Nation
The Lithuanian historical tradition begins with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which was formed during the Middle Ages. Near the end of the 14th century, the Grand Duchy allied with Poland to create a super state that at one point stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Eventually internal bickering between Lithuanians and Poles gave its opponents an opening to conquer them. Lithuania vanished from the map, as did Poland. In Lithuania’s case, it was subsumed within the Russian Empire. Only after the First World War was Lithuania reconstituted as an independent nation. Such a small and insecure state did not last long after the Second World War started. The Soviet Union caused grave damage to Lithuania. In two separate periods, 1940 and 1945, nearly a quarter of a million Lithuanians were either murdered or deported to the Gulag. The Lithuanians lost their independence for the next four and a half decades, but never the will to fight for their freedom.

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power as leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, he brought with him a new era of openness and reform. Lithuanian nationalists were able to exploit this transformation by engaging in effective protests that led the Soviet government to allow Lithuania to fly its own flag and bring back their national anthem. This was a harbinger of greater things to come. Lithuania soon became the first Soviet republic to declare its independence, when it did so in March 1990. The Soviet authorities began to take notice. If Lithuania was allowed to become independent, then that could possibly lead to Soviet collapse. Moscow was right to be worried. In the winter of 1991 Lithuanians in Vilnius surrounded a television tower which was a hub for mass communication. The protestors were opposing the Red Army’s attempted seizure of the tower. To break the human chain, Soviet forces fired on the Lithuanians resulting in 14 dead and 140 wounded.

Flying free – Lithuanian flag (Credit: Arz)

The Recreated Nation – Lithuania’s Example
The television tower incident further galvanized the Lithuanian independence movement. Later that same year, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to be granted its independence. A few months later, the Soviet Union was history, partly done in by a tiny bit of its own territory. Vladimir Putin must cringe anytime Lithuania is mentioned. A small nation was allowed to snub Putin’s beloved Soviet Union, causing a great deal of calamity in the process. Lithuania was the one that got away and by doing so showed all the other constituent republics in the Soviet Union that independence was possible.

It is little wonder that Lithuania has provided a great deal of assistance to the Ukrainian cause. More than most, Lithuanians understand what the Ukrainians are up against. If Lithuania could help defeat the Soviet Union from the inside, there is nothing stopping Ukraine from doing it to Russia on the outside. This optimism does need to be moderated because Lithuania still must deal with Russian aggression. There is no better example of this then the only piece of Russian territory bordering Lithuania, the exclave of Kaliningrad which is quickly becoming a new focal point for a possible Russian attack.

Click here for: A Created Controversy – Lithuania & Kaliningrad Lost In Transit (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #114)