Lithuania’s decision to ban the transit of certain goods between Russia and its isolated exclave of Kaliningrad has provoked anger among Moscow’s top officials and even a threat of retaliation against the European nation. Kaliningrad shares a land border with two NATO nations, Lithuania and Poland, but not Russia. Taken from Nazi Germany by the Soviet Red Army in 1945 and later ceded to the Soviet Union, the Russian territory is home to about 500,000 people.
Although surrounded on two sides by NATO nations, it is a strategically important area for Moscow as it constitutes Russia’s only Baltic coastline. It is home to the Russian military’s Baltic Navy and a number of advanced nuclear-capable Iskander missile installations.
But the isolated part of the earth depends on its rail connection to the rest of Russia for the majority of its civilian imports. The railway line runs through Lithuania and then neighboring Belarus, which is a Russian ally.
On 18 June, EU member Lithuania banned the transit of all goods subject to EU sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine by rail. It includes coal, metals, electronics and building materials.
Nikolai Patrushev, secretary general of Russia’s Security Council and one of the most powerful figures in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, called Lithuania’s actions “hostile” and “contrary to international law” during a visit to Kaliningrad on Tuesday.
“Russia will certainly respond to such hostile actions,” Patrushev was quoted as saying by Russian state media. “The consequences will have a serious negative impact on the people of Lithuania.”
In response, Lithuania said it was merely complying with EU decisions, stressing that the transit of passengers and non-sanctioned goods “continues unabated.”
Anton Alikhanov, Kaliningrad’s governor, said the ban affected about half of all imports into the area.
“We consider this to be a very serious violation … of the right to free transit in and out of the Kaliningrad region,” he said in a video address posted on the Telegram messaging app the day after Lithuania’s announcement.
Videos posted on social media last weekend by residents of Kalingrad appeared to show panic shopping in stores.
Lithuanian authorities have mocked complaints from Russian officials, saying no “blockade” of Russia’s European exclave has been imposed.
“It is ironic to hear rhetoric about alleged violations of international treaties from a country that may have violated every single international treaty,” Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte told reporters, according to Reuters news agency.
Western officials have been quick to point to Russia’s blockade of all ports along Ukraine’s southern Black Sea coast, which has cut off global food supplies. The UN has warned about this.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned Moscow against any escalation of Lithuania’s enforcement of the bloc’s sanctions.
“We’re in a cautious mood,” Borrell said Monday. “But Lithuania is not guilty. It does not implement nationally [unilateral] sanctions. It is not to carry out their will. Whatever they do has been the consequence of the previous consultation with [European] Commission.”
With its Baltic Sea port remaining ice-free all year round, Kaliningrad had provided Russia with a viable way of trying to circumvent the countless international sanctions imposed on it during the Ukraine war. However, restrictions on goods moving through Lithuania will greatly limit this outlook.
Both the Kremlin and Russia’s Foreign Ministry reiterated Patrushev’s threats of “practical” retaliation against Lithuania, but Moscow has not yet indicated what that will mean.
Russian lawmaker Leonid Slutsky told state news agency RIA Novosti on Wednesday that Moscow could disconnect Lithuania from the regional electricity grid as a potential option.
On Wednesday, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda told Reuters that his country was ready for Russia to retaliate by disconnecting from the BRELL power grid, but added that he did not expect a military confrontation over the transit ban.
Three decades after they severed ties with the Soviet Union, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are still dependent on Russia for much of their power supply. Last year, however, Lithuania established a way to connect to the continental European network via Poland, reducing its dependence on Moscow.