Russia threatens Lithuania over Kaliningrad freight

KIPARTAI, Lithuania – With the war in Ukraine raging, fueling ever-rising tensions between NATO and Russia, the quiet Baltic Railway station with no passengers and few trains this week found itself at the center of a perilous new confrontation between East and West.

The station is located on the border between Lithuania, a NATO member and staunch supporter of Ukraine, and Kaliningrad, a Russian outpost on the Baltic Sea stuffed with nuclear-capable missiles but virtually unconnected to the rest of Russia.

From the Lithuanian town of Kipartai, draped in Ukrainian flags, railways run west to Kaliningrad, bringing goods into the region, but also tracing a potentially volatile strategic fault line on the edges of Europe.

This week, long dormant tensions erupted over Kaliningrad, further straining Russia’s relations with the West, after baseless claims by Moscow that Europe was throttling the routes of trains and trucks bringing vital supplies to Kaliningrad – and as a result, it would face retaliation.

Nikolai B. Patrushev, head of the Kremlin Security Council and one of President Vladimir Putin’s closest advisers, said on Tuesday during a visit to Kaliningrad: “Russia will certainly respond to such an act of aggression.” He said Russia would take measures “in the near future” that “will have a serious negative impact on the Lithuanian population.”

The threat has set off a frantic struggle by Washington and in European capitals to avoid something they have sought to avoid since Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine four months ago: a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO.

On Wednesday, Lithuanian ministers and lawmakers gathered in a secure underground conference room to voice possible Russian responses and discuss how the finer details of European sanctions led to a rush of unintended and potentially dangerous consequences.

“No one wanted or expected any of this,” said Lorinas Kaskionas, chair of the Lithuanian Defense and Security Committee, who led the meeting. “We all know how sensitive Kaliningrad is to the Russians.”

Marius Imozes, an expert on Soviet-era history at Vilnius University, said Kaliningrad had always been a “complex and volatile place,” part of the region known until 1945 as East Prussia, the stronghold of German militarism.

Conquered by the Red Army at the end of World War II, the area was emptied of Germans and subjected to what Mr. Emuzis described as “military anarchy,” which included pillaging, rape, and indiscriminate violence by Soviet soldiers. The region’s first Communist Party leader, sent by Stalin from Moscow to restore some order, despaired and shot himself in 1947.

The chaos later subsided, but Kaliningrad, wedged between Poland and Lithuania, both now members of NATO, never lost its sense of being an unsafe place far from the rest of Russia and surrounded by potential enemies.

President Trump’s former national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, has described Kaliningrad, home to the Russian Navy’s Baltic Fleet and teeming with advanced Iskander missiles, as “a dagger in the heart of Europe.”

This was before the Ukraine War, which may have reinforced Russia’s desire to launch an attack on the West but severely diminished its ability to do so without resorting to nuclear weapons.

Peter Nielsen, the Danish colonel who commands a NATO unit in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, said he had not seen indications in recent days that Russia was preparing for any new military action against Lithuania. I had not slept well the month before the invasion of Ukraine; He said in an interview. “Touch the wood.”

He added that what Russia might eventually do would depend on Mr. Putin’s mind, and “we can’t look at that.” But he said the Russian president’s ability to act, unless there is to start a nuclear war, is very limited. “We follow what they do, not what they say,” he said.

For example, almost half of the Russian troops and equipment formerly stationed in Kaliningrad in Ukraine have now been redeployed. In turn, the United States has reinforced NATO forces in Lithuania, with about 700 American soldiers now rotating in the country to supplement a regular contingent of 1,150 German, 250 Dutch, and 200 Norwegian soldiers.

This makes a Russian military strike against Lithuania highly unlikely – “even if they are crazy,” Colonel Nielsen said.

More likely, according to officials in Vilnius, is Russia’s interference in shipping lanes near Lithuania’s main port Klaipeda, through military exercises or disruption of the power grid connecting Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

Doing the latter would mean cutting off electricity to all Baltic states, Dainius Kreves, Lithuania’s energy minister, said, an escalation that Moscow probably does not want. He added that Lithuania has established contacts with Poland, Finland and Sweden, allowing it to easily connect to the European network and avoid power outages.

And while government officials have played down the Russian threats, nerves are frayed. To help calm these tensions, the United States on Wednesday pledged “resolute” support in the event of military or retaliatory action by Russia.

The first person who learned about the problem was on June 17, when the governor of Kaliningrad, Anton Alikhanov, posted a video message on his Telegram channel saying that he had received “unpleasant news” that Lithuania was banning the passage of goods between mainland Russia and his comrades. region due to European sanctions.

He said the embargo – which Lithuania insists does not exist – covers about half of the items Kaliningrad imports and is a “gross violation” of the EU’s obligation to allow the unimpeded flow of goods between the two separate parts of Russia.

Lithuania says that the share of goods to Kaliningrad affected so far by European restrictions is only one percent of total traffic, because many EU sanctions against this movement have not yet entered into force.

“The Russians want to create hysteria,” said Mr. Kaskyonas, chair of the Defense and Security Committee. He noted that it was part of an attempt to drive a wedge between EU countries unusually united on sanctions, and to force the bloc to offer waivers that risked unraveling the policy of punishing Russia for its invasion.

An internal report from the State Railways of Lithuania showed that rail shipments between mainland Russia and Kaliningrad fell sharply even before the sanctions came into effect, from 616,000 tons in March to 298 thousand tons in May. Fifty-four percent of this shipment included goods targeted by European sanctions but not yet banned under a phased implementation programme. Already announced sanctions on vodka, for example, do not enter into force until July 10.

In a video message on Wednesday, Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonet dismissed the Russian allegations of the blockade as a “lie,” noting that passengers could still travel freely by train and that freight traffic had only marginally been disrupted.

Ms Simonet insisted that Lithuania was simply “complying with the sanctions imposed by the European Union on Russia for its aggression and war against Ukraine”.

Unsure whether sanctioned Russian goods are only prohibited from being sold in Europe or also from transiting through EU territory, Lithuania this year asked the bloc’s executive arm, the European Commission, for clarification and said in April that “transit between Kaliningrad and mainland Russia via as The member states of the European Union prohibit items that fall within the scope of the measures.”

He has advised “proportionate” checks but what that means is not yet clear.

Hoping for some clarity, Lithuania this week asked the European Commission to rule on how and when sanctions against Russian goods should be applied to their transport to Kaliningrad. Officials said they expect a decision in the coming days.

Fearing that its westernmost territory would be cut off from the rest of the country in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of Lithuania as an independent country, Moscow negotiated for years with post-Soviet leaders in Vilnius to secure guarantees of safe and uninterrupted passage for its trains.

Gediminas Kirkilas, a former Lithuanian prime minister who took part in the 2002 and 2003 negotiations, said the deal was about passenger traffic, not freight, reflecting the fact that no one at the time imagined that Russia would be subject to sanctions restricting the transportation of its goods.

The two countries agreed that Russian trains, closed to prevent passengers from jumping and entering Lithuania without visas, could pass between separate parts of Russia unhindered.

At an empty station near Kipartay this week, the closed train from Kaliningrad to Moscow briefly opened its doors to allow onboard Lithuanian customs inspectors and border guards to count the passengers. There were only 191 – a sharp drop from the 700 who used to make the trip during the pre-war summer season in Ukraine.

Saulius Baikstys, the station manager, said he was “of course concerned” about the rising tensions – not because he feared a Russian attack but because “we are worried about losing our jobs” if trains stop traveling to and from Kaliningrad.

Thomas Dapkus in Vilnius contributed to this report.

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