A sign reading “Kaliningrad” stands on top of the city’s southern railway station.
Harry Engels | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images
A new front has opened in tensions between Russia and NATO after Lithuania, a member of the Western Military Alliance, banned the transit of some goods from Russia to the Kaliningrad region on the Baltic Sea.
Russia vowed to respond to what it called Lithuania’s “hostile actions”, warning of “serious” consequences, while NATO members reiterated their support for the country.
Here is a brief guide to what is going on, and why it matters as the conflict between Russia and Ukraine continues in the background.
Lithuania said last week that it would ban some goods subject to EU sanctions from Russia from transiting through its territory to the Russian stronghold of Kaliningrad.
The government said the blockade would apply to all EU-sanctioned goods coming from the mainland via rail, effectively preventing the transit of minerals, coal, building materials and high-tech products into the Russian seaport.
Lithuania said its decision was made after consulting with the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, and that it is imposing sanctions on Russia that were imposed in the wake of the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
Russia responded to Lithuania, the former Soviet republic, by calling the move an “unprecedented act” and “hostile,” with its foreign ministry issuing a statement on Tuesday saying “if in the near future the goods are moved between the Kaliningrad region and the rest is not restored.” The territory of the Russian Federation passes through the entirety of Lithuania, then Russia reserves the right to take measures to protect its national interests. ”
What is Kaliningrad?
Kaliningrad is a small Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea located between Lithuania and Poland. It is home to about 487,000 people and covers an area of about 86 square miles.
Once part of the German Empire, it was captured by Soviet forces from Nazi Germany in 1945 and has remained in Russian hands ever since, becoming an important seaport for Russia allowing it to have direct access to the Baltic Sea. In fact, the Kaliningrad Territory (or district) serves as the headquarters of the Russian Baltic Fleet.
The fleet is conducting regular military exercises in the Baltic Sea, having completed 10 days of exercises on June 19, in which 60 warships and 10 thousand soldiers took part.
An abandoned border crossing point into Russia on April 15, 2022 in Nida, Lithuania. The Russian stronghold of Kaliningrad, located on the shore of the Baltic Sea, between Lithuania and Poland, members of NATO, the Baltic coast is considered the most strategic port of transport and trade.
Polius Peleks | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Lithuania’s ban on transit of some goods subject to EU sanctions, announced last Friday and implemented on Saturday, has sparked panic buying in Kaliningrad. The region’s governor, Anton Alikhanov, insisted that Russia would increase the number of cargo ships carrying goods from Saint Petersburg to the outlying for the remainder of the year.
What could happen then?
It is uncertain how Moscow will respond to Lithuania’s move.
On Monday, President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, called the move “illegal” and said “this decision is truly unprecedented.”
He added, “The situation is more than serious. We need a serious in-depth analysis in order to arrive at our response.”
The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Monday saying that “the transit of passengers and goods not subject to sanctions from and to the Kaliningrad region through Lithuania continues without interruption.”
It added that Lithuania “has not imposed any unilateral, individual or additional restrictions on transit” and that it consistently implements EU sanctions.
Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, also backed Lithuania on Monday, saying he was concerned about the form retaliation might take while defending Vilnius’ position. “Certainly, I’m always worried about Russian retaliation,” he said, but insisted there was no “siege.”
“Lithuania has not taken any unilateral national restrictions and only applies EU sanctions,” he said, noting that any reports in Russia that Lithuania is implementing its sanctions are “pure propaganda.”
“It is fair to say that Kaliningrad is a strategic imperative for Russia,” Timothy Ash, chief sovereign strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, commented Tuesday, noting that its defense and preservation is a certainty.
“Russia will certainly respond, the only question is what it will be … [and] What can Russia do militarily?
“A ground attack to command a corridor through Lithuania would be a direct attack on Lithuania which would trigger NATO’s Article 5 defense. Putin knows this – this is war with NATO. Can Putin afford it when he struggles to fulfill even his much lower strategy Now. Targets in Ukraine? He will also have to launch an offensive through Belarus, extend his supply lines, and divide his forces.”
Asch suggested that Russia seek to use its huge naval assets in the Baltic Sea to impose some kind of mutual embargo on Lithuanian trade although this would again be seen as a major escalation by both NATO and the European Union. But, he noted, “it would then be a good dividing line whether that triggers NATO’s Article 5 defense.”
why does it matter?
Tensions between Russia and NATO have already escalated as a result of the war in Ukraine, and Lithuania’s move has heightened these tensions, potentially putting a country in NATO (and the entire alliance) in a direct line of confrontation with Russia.
One of the main pillars of the NATO alliance is the concept of collective defense: known as Article 5, it means that if one member is attacked, it is considered an attack on the whole group with all members obligated to protect each other.
While NATO has been helping Ukraine fight the Russian invasion, with its members sending a wide range of military equipment and weapons as well as humanitarian aid, NATO has repeatedly said it will not send troops into the country because it does not want a direct confrontation with a nuclear Russia.
Russia will have to carefully adjust its response to Lithuania, knowing that any direct attack will be seen as an attack on all NATO members by the organization.
Vehicles of the German Bundeswehr from Griffin Barracks arrive at the NATO Enhanced Battle Group Battalion in Lithuania in Rukla, Lithuania on February 17, 2022.
Petras Malukas | AFP | Getty Images
For their part, Lithuania’s NATO allies said they would stand by the country in the wake of the Kremlin’s threats.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said: “Lithuania is a member of NATO and we are committed to the commitments we made to NATO, which of course includes commitment to Article V, which is the cornerstone of the NATO alliance.” He said during a daily press conference.
“Lithuania has been a strong partner, and we stand by NATO, we stand by our NATO allies, and we support Lithuania,” Price added.