New tensions between Moscow and the West are rising after Lithuania decided to halt the transport of certain goods through its territory to Russia’s Kaliningrad region as part of European Union sanctions against the Kremlin.
The Kremlin warns that it will retaliate against sanctions, stemming from its invasion of Ukraine, in a way that will have a “significant negative impact” on the Lithuanian people, raising fears of a direct confrontation between Russia and the NATO.
A look at why tensions are rising over Kaliningrad, a part of Russia on the Baltic Sea that’s cut off from the rest of the country:
THE WESTERNMOST TERRITORY OF RUSSIA
The Kaliningrad region was once part of the German province of East Prussia, which was taken over by the Soviet Union after World War II in accordance with the 1945 Potsdam Agreement between the Allied Powers. East Prussia’s capital, Königsberg, was renamed Kaliningrad, for Mikhail Kalinin, a Bolshevik leader.
An estimated 2 million Germans fled the territory during the final months of World War II, and those who remained were forcibly expelled after hostilities ended.
The Soviet authorities made Kaliningrad an important ice-free port and a key fishing center, encouraging people from other regions to settle in the territory. Since the Cold War era, Kaliningrad has also served as a major base for the Russian Baltic Fleet.
But since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Baltic countries, Kaliningrad finds itself separated from the rest of Russia by Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, now all members of NATO. To the south is Poland, another NATO member.
As Russia’s relations with the West have deteriorated, Kaliningrad’s military role has increased. Its location put it at the forefront of Moscow’s efforts to counter what it described as NATO’s hostile policy.
The Kremlin has methodically built up its military forces there, arming them with state-of-the-art weaponry, including precision-guided Iskander missiles and an array of air defense systems.
As the military importance of the region grew, its dependence on goods passing through Poland and Lithuania made it particularly vulnerable.
Lithuania stressed that the ban on the movement of sanctioned goods was part of the EU’s fourth sanctions package against Russia, noting that it only applies to steel and ferrous metals from 17 June.
The government in Vilnius rejected Russia’s description of the decision as a blockade, stressing that unauthorized rail goods and passengers can still cross into Lithuania.
In accordance with the EU decision, coal will be banned in August and shipments of petroleum and petroleum products will be halted in December.
MOSCOW CONSIDERING A RESPONSE
Moscow has formally protested the halt in shipments to Kaliningrad as a violation of Russia-EU agreements on the free transit of goods to the region.
Kaliningrad Governor Anton Alikhanov said the ban will affect up to half of all items brought into the region, including cement and other building materials.
Nikolai Patrushev, powerful secretary of the Russian Security Council and close confidant of President Vladimir Putin, traveled to Kaliningrad on Tuesday to meet with local officials. He described the restrictions as “hostile actions” and warned that Moscow would respond with unspecified measures that “will have a significant negative impact on the Lithuanian population”.
Patrushev did not elaborate, but Alikhanov suggested the Russian response could include shutting down the flow of goods through ports in Lithuania and other Baltic countries.
However, Lithuania has significantly reduced its economic and energy dependence on Russia, recently becoming the first EU country to stop using Russian gas. It no longer imports Russian oil and has suspended imports of Russian electricity. The transport of most Russian transits through Lithuanian ports has already been halted under EU sanctions, but Moscow may decide to restrict the transit of goods from third countries through Lithuania.
Putin will decide Russia’s response after receiving Patrushev’s report.
Russia’s standoff with Lithuania is part of their rocky relationship that dates back to Moscow’s annexation of the country, along with Estonia and Latvia, in 1940. The three pushed their independence movement under the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and tracked him down when the USSR collapsed in 1991.
Some in the West have long feared that Russia is considering military action to secure a land corridor between its ally Belarus and the Kaliningrad region via the so-called Suwalki Gap, a 65 kilometer (40 mile) strip of land in Poland on along the border with Lithuania.
The rhetoric on Russian state television has gone to a high level, with commentator Vladimir Solovyov accusing the West of being on the brink of the abyss that set the clock ticking towards World War III.
Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas warned on Wednesday of the danger of Russian provocations amid tensions in Kaliningrad. “When you have a military force and it is ruled by idiots – I apologize for the expression – of course you can expect anything,” he said, adding that Lithuania felt confident and relied on its NATO allies.
With the bulk of Russia’s military bogged down in Ukraine, any use of force in the Baltics could exceed Moscow’s conventional weapons capacity.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said she did not believe there was a military threat against Lithuania, adding that Russia was trying to pressure the EU to ease sanctions.
“Russia is very good at playing on our fears so that we go back, you know, on our decisions,” Kallas said in an interview with The Associated Press.
A Russian attempt to use force against Poland or Lithuania would trigger a direct conflict with NATO, which is obliged to protect any of its members under the mutual defense clause of its charter known as of article 5.
On Tuesday, US State Department spokesman Ned Price underscored Washington’s “ironclad” commitment to the clause, which he described as NATO’s “fundamental” principle.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov responded by warning the EU and NATO against playing “dangerous rhetorical games” on Kaliningrad. “Some influential and powerful Western forces are doing everything they can to further heighten tensions in relations with Russia,” he said, adding that “some simply have no limits in inventing scenarios in which a military confrontation with us would seem inevitable”.
Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania contributed.
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