New tensions between Moscow and the West are rising after Lithuania’s decision to stop transporting certain goods through its territory to the Russian region of Kaliningrad as part of European Union sanctions on the Kremlin.
The Kremlin warns that it will reciprocate the sanctions imposed by 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 NATO.
A look at why tensions are rising in Kaliningrad, a part of Russia in the Baltic Sea separated 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 occupied by the Soviet Union after World War II, under the 1945 Potsdam Agreement between the Allied Powers. The capital of East Prussia, Koenigsberg, was renamed Kaliningrad after Mikhail Kalinin, a Bolshevik leader.
It is estimated that two million Germans fled the country in the last months of World War II and those who remained were forcibly expelled after the end of hostilities.
The Soviet authorities developed Kaliningrad as an important port without ice and a major fishing center, encouraging people from other areas to move to the territory. Since the end of the Cold War, Kaliningrad has also served as the main base for the Russian Baltic fleet.
But after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Baltic states, Kaliningrad is separated from the rest of Russia by Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which are 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 has put it at the forefront of Moscow’s efforts to counter what it has described as NATO’s hostile policies.
The Kremlin has systematically strengthened its military forces there by equipping them with state-of-the-art weapons, including precision-guided Iskander missiles and a range of air defense systems.
As the region’s military importance has grown, its dependence on goods coming through Poland and Lithuania has made it particularly vulnerable.
Lithuania has stressed that the ban on sanctioned goods was part of the EU’s fourth package of sanctions against Russia, noting that it only applies to steel and ferrous metals from 17 June.
The government in Vilnius has rejected a description of the move by Russia as an embargo, stressing that unauthorized goods and train passengers can still travel through Lithuania.
According to the EU decision, coal will be banned in August and shipments of oil and petroleum products will stop in December.
Moscow has formally protested the suspension of shipments to Kaliningrad in violation of Russia-EU agreements on the free transit of goods in the region.
Kaliningrad Governor Anton Alikhanov said the ban would affect up to half of all items imported into the area, including cement and other building materials.
Nikolai Patrushev, Russia’s top Security Council secretary and a close confidant of President Vladimir Putin, visited Kaliningrad on Tuesday to meet with local officials. He described the restrictions as “hostile” and warned that Moscow would respond with “indefinite measures” that “would have a significant negative impact on the Lithuanian population”.
Patrushev did not provide further details, but Alikhanov suggested that the Russian response could include blocking cargo through the ports of Lithuania and other Baltic states.
However, Lithuania has significantly reduced its economic and energy dependence 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 Russian transit through Lithuanian ports has already stopped due to EU sanctions, but Moscow could restrict the transit of cargo from third countries through Lithuania.
Putin will decide Russia’s response after receiving Patrushev’s report.
Russia’s confrontation with Lithuania is part of their difficult relationship dating back to the annexation of the country by Moscow, along with Estonia and Latvia, in 1940. The three pushed for independence under the former Soviet leader. Mikhail Gorbachev and recovered when the USSR collapsed in 1991.
Some in the West have long feared that Russia could look to military action to secure a land corridor between Belarus’s ally and the Kaliningrad region through the so-called Suwalki Gap, a 65-kilometer (40-mile) strip of land in Poland. along the border with Lithuania.
Rhetoric on Russian state television has risen sharply, with commentator Vladimir Solovyov blaming the West for a stalemate in the clock leading up to 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 they are ruled by half-breeds – I apologize for the expression – of course you can expect everything,” he said, adding that Lithuania feels confident and relies on its NATO allies.
As most of the Russian army has swam in Ukraine, any use of force in the Baltic could be beyond Moscow’s conventional weapons capability.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaya Callas has said she does not believe there is a military threat to Lithuania, adding that Russia is trying to put pressure on the EU to ease sanctions.
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“Russia is very good at playing with our fears so that we can, you know, back off our decisions,” Callas told the Associated Press.
A Russian attempt to use force against Poland or Lithuania would trigger a direct confrontation with NATO, which is obliged to protect any of its members under its statutory mutual protection clause, known as Article 5.
On Tuesday, US State Department spokesman Ned Price underscored Washington’s “iron” commitment to the clause, which he described as the “foundation” of the NATO principle.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov responded by warning the EU and NATO of “dangerous rhetorical games” for Kaliningrad.
“Some strong and powerful forces in the West are doing everything they can to further aggravate tensions in relations with Russia,” he said, adding that “some simply have no limits to inventing scenarios when a military confrontation with us would seem inevitable.” .