Russia has provoked concern in Brussels after threatening to retaliate over Lithuania’s ban on the transit of some goods across its territory to Russian Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad.
The move by the government in Vilnius was described as “unprecedented” in Moscow, where the Russian foreign office said they reserved the right to respond to protect their national interest.
The comments set off alarm bells in Brussels, where the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said Lithuania was simply enforcing the bloc’s sanctions regime. He added, however, that he was concerned by the risk of retaliation and that he would check that all the rules were being followed, while accusing the Kremlin of peddling propaganda.
“I am always worried about Russian retaliation,” he said. “There is no blockade. The land transit between Kaliningrad and other parts of Russia has not been banned. Second, transit of people and goods that are not sanctioned continues. Third, Lithuania has not taken any unilateral national restrictions.
“We are in a precautionary mood. We will double-check the legal aspects in order to verify that we are completely aligned with any kind of rule.
“But Lithuania is not guilty. It is not implementing national sanctions. It is not implementing their will. Whatever they are doing has been the consequence of previous consultation with the commission, which has provided guidelines. And implementing guidelines.”
There was panic buying in Kaliningrad over the weekend after authorities in the region claimed that Lithuania was preparing to close off rail and gas pipe links to Russia.
Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, further escalated tensions on Monday by threatening a response to what he said was an “illegal move”. He said: “This decision is really unprecedented. It’s a violation of everything. We consider this illegal. The situation is more than serious … We need a serious in-depth analysis in order to work out our response.”
Wedged between Lithuania to its north and east, and Poland to its south, Kaliningrad is about 800 miles (1,300km) from Moscow and relies on much of its supplies coming in by rail.
Russia’s foreign ministry said Vilnius must reverse the “openly hostile” move. “If cargo transit between the Kaliningrad region and the rest of the Russian Federation via Lithuania is not fully restored in the near future, then Russia reserves the right to take actions to protect its national interests,” it said.
The foreign ministry summoned Lithuania’s chief diplomatic representative in Moscow for a formal protest and alleged that the Baltic nation was acting in breach of international agreements.
However, after a meeting in Brussels, Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, said Moscow was spreading false information and that the state railway service was acting lawfully by merely implementing the EU’s sanctions regime prohibiting the supply of steel or goods made from iron ore to Russia.
Landsbergis said that under half of the goods usually supplied by transiting across Lithuania would be covered by the sanctions regime over time, with the ban on steel coming into force on 17 June.
“I think there was some false information, not for the first time, announced by the Russian authorities, but I’m glad that we have a chance to explain this,” he said. “At this point, about slightly less than half of goods that transit Lithuania are on the sanctions list, but that doesn’t mean that all of them are under sanctions right now.
“Because there are different wind-down periods, and some of it, for example oil, will be sanctioned just at the end of the year, starting from December, even though the authorities have announced it is sanctioned already, which is not true actually.”
Goods banned under EU sanctions introduced following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine include coal, metals, construction materials and advanced technology.
Much of the panic in the exclave appeared to have been prompted by calls for calm from the region’s governor, Anton Alikhanov, on Saturday.
He said two vessels were already ferrying goods between Kaliningrad and St Petersburg, and seven more would be in service by the end of the year. “Our ferries will handle all the cargo,” he said on Saturday.
Video footage that could not be independently verified subsequently emerged of people loading up shopping trolleys in DIY stores in response to the news.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, tweeted: “Russia has no right to threaten Lithuania. Moscow has only itself to blame for the consequences of its unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine. We commend Lithuania’s principled stance and stand firmly by our Lithuanian friends.”
Kaliningrad, where Russia’s Baltic Sea fleet has its headquarters, has a population of about 500,000 people. It was captured from Nazi Germany by the Red Army in April 1945 and ceded to the Soviet Union at the end of the war.
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( Information from theguardian.com was used in this report. To Read More, click here )