Why tensions between Russia and Lithuania are rising
New tensions between Moscow and the West are rising after Lithuania decided to stop transporting some goods through its territory to Russia’s Kaliningrad region as part of the European Union‘s sanctions against the Kremlin.
The Kremlin warns against fighting back against the sanctions stemming from its incursion into Ukraine in a way that will have “significant negative effects” on the Lithuanian people and fears of a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO will stoke.
A look at why tensions are rising around Kaliningrad, a part of Russia on the Baltic Sea that is cut off from the rest of the country:
Russia’s westernmost territory
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 as part of the 1945 Potsdam Agreement between the Allies. East Prussia’s capital, Königsberg, was renamed Kaliningrad after Mikhail Kalinin, a Bolshevik leader.
An estimated 2 million Germans fled the area in the final months of World War II, and those who remained were forcibly evicted after hostilities ended.
Soviet authorities developed Kaliningrad into a major ice-free port and fishing center, and encouraged people from other regions to move to the area. Since the Cold War era, Kaliningrad has also served as an important base for the Russian Baltic Fleet.
But since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Baltic states, Kaliningrad has been separated from the rest of Russia by Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, all of which are now NATO members. To the south is Poland, another NATO member.
As Russia’s relations with the West deteriorate, Kaliningrad’s military role has grown. Its location has put it at the forefront of Moscow’s efforts to counter what it called NATO’s hostile policies.
The Kremlin has methodically bolstered its forces there, arming them with cutting-edge weaponry, including precision-guided Iskander missiles and a range of air defense systems.
As the region’s military importance has grown, its reliance on goods coming through Poland and Lithuania has left it particularly vulnerable.
Lithuania stressed that the ban on trade in sanctioned goods is part of the fourth package of EU sanctions against Russia, noting that from June 17 it will only apply to steel and ferrous metals.
The government in Vilnius dismissed Russia’s description of the move as a blockade, stressing that unauthorized goods and rail passengers could still travel through Lithuania.
In line with the EU decision, coal will be banned in August and the supply of oil and oil products will be halted in December.
Moscow is considering an answer
Moscow officially protested the halt to supplies to Kaliningrad in violation of the Russia-EU agreements on the free movement of goods to the region.
Kaliningrad Governor Anton Alikhanov said the ban will affect up to half of all items imported into the region, including cement and other building materials.
Nikolai Patrushev, the powerful secretary of the Russian Security Council and a close confidant of President Vladimir Putin, visited Kaliningrad on Tuesday to meet with local officials. He called the restrictions “hostile actions” and warned that Moscow would respond with unspecified measures that “will have a significant negative impact on the people of Lithuania.”
Patrushev did not elaborate, but Alikhanov suggested that the Russian response could be to stop the flow of cargo through the ports of Lithuania and other Baltic states.
However, Lithuania has significantly reduced its economic and energy dependency on Russia and recently became the first EU country to stop using Russian gas. It no longer imports Russian oil and has suspended imports of Russian electricity. Most of Russia’s transit through Lithuanian ports has already been stopped by EU sanctions, but Moscow may limit transit of third-country cargo through Lithuania.
Putin will decide Russia’s response after receiving Patrushev’s report.
Russia’s standoff with Lithuania is part of their troubled relationship, dating back to Moscow’s annexation of the country along with Estonia and Latvia in 1940. The three pushed their move toward independence under former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and regained it when the USSR collapsed in 1991.
fears of escalation
Some in the West have long feared that Russia could consider military intervention to secure a land corridor between its ally Belarus and the Kaliningrad region via the so-called Suwalki Gap, a 65-kilometer strip of land along Poland’s border with Lithuania.
The rhetoric on Russian state television has risen to a high pitch, with commentator Vladimir Solovyov accusing the West of reckless moves that have ticked the clock on to World War III.
Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas on Wednesday warned of the risk of Russian provocations amid tensions in Kaliningrad. “Of course, if you have a military force and they are ruled by fools – I apologize for the expression – you can expect anything,” he said, adding that Lithuania is confident and counts on its NATO allies.
With most of Russia’s military stuck in Ukraine, any use of force in the Baltics could exceed Moscow’s capabilities for conventional weapons.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said she did not believe there was a military threat to Lithuania, adding that Russia was trying to pressure the EU to ease sanctions.
“Russia is very good at playing on our fears so that, you know, we back down from 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 obligated to protect each of its members under their charter’s mutual defense clause known as Article 5.
On Tuesday, US State Department spokesman Ned Price stressed Washington’s “ironically strong” commitment to the clause, which he described as NATO’s “fundamental principle.”
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov responded by warning the EU and NATO against “dangerous rhetorical games” over Kaliningrad. “Some influential and powerful forces in the West are doing everything in their power to further escalate tensions in relations with Russia,” he said, adding “some simply have no limits when it comes to inventing scenarios in which a military confrontation with us seems inevitable.”
Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania contributed.