(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters)
By Peter Apps
LONDON, June 23 (Reuters) - On Saturday night, a Russian Border Guard Mi-8 helicopter entered Estonian airspace and flew for two minutes above NATO territory before re-entering Russia, according to the Estonian government, illustrating how tensions over the Ukraine war have spread well beyond the initial conflict area.
By far the bloodiest fighting remains in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region where as many as several hundred Ukrainian and Russian troops are dying every day in artillery, tank and urban battles.
But the wider chessboard of global confrontation continues to grow.
That includes Wednesday’s suspected Ukrainian drone attack on a Russian oil refinery within Russia, Lithuania’s transit ban of key industrial materials to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, talk of EU membership for Ukraine and the ever-deepening battle for worldwide hearts, minds, food and fuel supplies.
The rhetoric and activity around the Baltic states bring particular new dangers. Along with Poland, the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been the strongest backers of Ukraine and pushed the toughest line against Moscow, worried that the Kremlin might target them once the current war ends or settles down.
The United States and its allies sent additional troops to the Baltics following the Feb. 24 invasion, while NATO jets there have scrambled multiple times a week to intercept Russian aircraft approaching NATO airspace. Most such actions have taken place offshore –Russian direct overflights of NATO land territory such as that reported on Saturday over Estonia's southeastern Koidula region have been relatively rare. Estonia immediately protested, summoning the Russian ambassador.
On Wednesday, Russia summoned the EU ambassador to the Kremlin to protest against Lithuania’s ban on shipments of sanctioned goods across its territory to Kaliningrad, a Russian port that is enclosed by land by Poland and Lithuania. Russian authorities condemned attempted "economic strangulation" of the port, long seen a potential flashpoint between NATO and Moscow.
This week, Russian TV talk shows accused the United States and Britain of cultivating the confrontation, pressuring the Baltic states to open a "second front" to distract Russia from Ukraine.
BATTLE OF SUPPLIES
Lithuania says the inclusion of steel and ferrous materials in the latest round of EU sanctions left it no choice but to block their transit into Kaliningrad, which until the invasion used rail links across Lithuania to Belarus as a key supply line including for resupplying Russia’s military there with weaponry.
EU officials push a slightly different line, with spokesman Eric Marner saying Lithuania is obliged to implement “proportionate checks”, with other officials suggesting metals should be allowed through if they are transiting from the Russia-Belarus free trade area to the Russian "internal market" within Kaliningrad.
Whether Lithuania will back down if the EU begins to push this line harder is another question. For all the expressions of EU support and solidarity with Ukraine – including talk of membership – Germany and France in particular are seen as keen to retain opportunities to de-escalate tensions with Moscow.
Other passage of goods and passengers reportedly remains permissible – but Lithuanian news outlets warned that Russian media “hysteria” might be a sign that Moscow could use the incident to justify a military attack or other action, saying Vilnius should call for more NATO troops to be permanently stationed on its territory.
Russia has increased its military activity in the region since Sweden and Finland applied to join NATO, with some Baltic military experts saying a further intensification of maritime and air activity is likely. Some Russian pundits have suggested Russia might launch its own outright blockade of the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda, although Lithuanian officials have talked down such suggestions.
Russian media has suggested removing Lithuania, and potentially the other Baltic states, from a Soviet-era electricity supply grid that allows them to buy Russian electricity, part of a growing trend in which essential supplies are being used as weapons by both sides.
Within Kaliningrad, Russian media quoted local authorities as saying they are looking at increasing maritime shipments from St Petersburg to make up for any shortfall in deliveries by rail. Before the invasion, Russians and the enclave traded extensively with nearby Lithuanian border regions but this stopped when sanctions were imposed.
Building energy and broader independence from Russia was a key theme of the Three Seas Initiative meeting in the Latvian capital this week, a gathering of 12 EU states from the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Sea, with Polish and Latvian leaders also calling for better rail links between states to better manage movement of troops and supplies in any future crisis.
In the short term, that means increased reliance on foreign gas from suppliers like the United States and Japan. Going further forward, however, all three Baltic states and Poland are ploughing resources into renewable energy to reduce dependence on Russia.
Perhaps the most complex implications, however, are those for local politics. Both Latvia and Estonia have significant Russian-speaking minorities, and the months since the invasion have seen press criticism of Russian speakers for suspected support of Putin as newspaper editorials warn of “quislings and collaborators”.
How realistic such worries are remains unclear – the invasion has seen an outpouring of support for NATO and anger against Russia, including from many Russian speakers in the region. Earlier this month, Estonia’s ruling coalition unravelled reportedly in part over a desire to build a new government without the predominantly Russian-speaking Centre Party as strains with Russia and over Russian and Estonian language education deepened.
For now, the risk of outright conflict over the Baltic states seems limited – primarily because the Kremlin lacks the resources. Should it ever come, however – and the risk is clearly growing – it would pit NATO and the European Union directly against Moscow in a way that could be more dangerous than the current war.
** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. (Editing by Nick Macfie)