Lithuania’s decision to ban the transit of certain goods between Russia and its isolated Kaliningrad exclave has provoked anger among senior Moscow officials and even a threat of retaliation against the European nation. Kaliningrad shares land borders with two NATO nations, Lithuania and Poland, but not with Russia. Captured by Nazi Germany by the Soviet Red Army in 1945 and later ceded to the Soviet Union, the Russian territory is home to around 500,000 people.
Although it is surrounded on two sides by NATO nations, it is a strategically vital piece of land for Moscow as it provides the only Russian coast of the Baltic Sea. It houses the Baltic fleet of the Russian army and a number of advanced Iskander missile installations with nuclear capabilities.
But the isolated piece of land relies on its rail link to the rest of Russia for most of its civilian imports. That railway line runs through Lithuania and then into neighboring Belarus, which is a Russian ally.
On June 18, Lithuania, a member of the European Union, banned the transit of all goods subject to EU sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine via the rail link. This includes coal, metals, electronics, and building materials.
Nikolai Patrushev, secretary general of the Russian Security Council and one of the most powerful figures in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, called Lithuania’s actions “hostile” and “violating international law” during a visit to Kaliningrad on Tuesday.
“Russia will certainly respond to such hostile actions,” Patrushev said in Russian state media. “The consequences will have a serious negative impact on the population of Lithuania”.
In response, Lithuania said it was simply complying with EU decisions and stressed that the transit of unsanctioned passengers and goods “continues uninterrupted”.
Anton Alikhanov, the governor of Kaliningrad, said the ban affects about half of all imports into the territory.
“We believe this is a very serious violation … of the right to free transit to and from the Kaliningrad region,” he said in a video address posted on Telegram’s messaging app the day after Lithuania’s announcement.
Videos posted on social media last weekend by Kalingrad residents appeared to show panicked purchases in stores.
Lithuanian authorities mocked the complaints of Russian officials, saying that no “blockade” was imposed on Russia’s European exclave.
“It is ironic to hear rhetoric about alleged violations of international treaties by a country that has violated perhaps every single international treaty,” Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte told reporters, according to the Reuters news agency.
Western officials were quick to point out Russia’s blocking of all ports along Ukraine’s southern Black Sea coast, which has cut off global food supplies. The United Nations has warned him.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned Moscow against any escalation on Lithuania’s enforcement of blockade sanctions.
“We are in a precautionary state of mind,” Borrell said Monday. “But Lithuania is not guilty. She is not implementing national [unilateral] sanctions. He is not carrying out their will. Whatever they are doing was the consequence of the previous consultation with the [European] Commission. ”
With its Baltic Sea port remaining ice-free all year round, Kaliningrad had provided Russia with a viable way to try to circumvent the myriad international sanctions imposed against it during the war in Ukraine. But restrictions on goods moving through Lithuania will severely limit this prospect.
Both the Kremlin and the Russian Foreign Ministry have echoed Patrushev’s threats of “practical” retaliation against Lithuania, but Moscow has not yet indicated what this will entail.
Russian lawmaker Leonid Slutsky told state news agency RIA Novosti on Wednesday that Moscow could, as a potential option, disconnect Lithuania from the regional electricity grid.
On Wednesday, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda told Reuters that his country was ready for Russia’s retaliation by cutting its connection to the BRELL power grid, but added that he did not expect a military confrontation over the transit ban.
Three decades after severing ties with the Soviet Union, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia still depend on Russia for much of their energy supply. Last year, however, Lithuania established a way to connect to mainland Europe’s grid via Poland, reducing its dependence on Moscow.