Russian authorities on Monday threatened Lithuania, a NATO member, with retaliation if the Baltic state did not quickly revoke its ban on the transport of some goods to Russia’s rail stronghold of Kaliningrad.
Citing instructions from the European Union, Lithuanian Railways said on Friday that it had stopped the movement of goods from Russia, which has been sanctioned by the European bloc.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov told reporters that the situation was “more than serious.” He described the new restrictions as a “blockade element” for the area and a “violation of everything”.
Officials in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, have become accustomed to Russian threats, taking Moscow’s warnings as mostly boisterous — the latest in a series of increasingly violent statements for a country under severe military pressure over its invasion of Ukraine.
“We are not particularly concerned about Russian threats,” said Laoinas Kaskionas, head of the National Security and Defense Committee of the Lithuanian parliament. “The Kremlin has very few options on how to respond.”
He added that a military response from Russia is “highly unlikely because Lithuania is a member of NATO. If not, they would probably consider it.”
Russia’s anger toward Lithuania came after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned earlier on Monday that Moscow would start “more hostile activity” against Ukraine and European countries in the coming days in response to his country’s efforts to join the European Union.
Up to 50 percent of all rail freight shipped between mainland Russia and Kaliningrad — which Russian officials said includes building materials, concrete and metal among other things — will be affected by the ban announced last week. The restrictions revealed the acute vulnerability of the region, which is part of Russia but not linked to the rest of the country. It borders the Baltic Sea, but is sandwiched between two NATO members, Lithuania and Poland.
Kaliningrad, which the Soviet Army captured from Germany in 1945, was once described by Russia as a symbol of its growing ties with Europe. But it has recently become a volatile fault line between East and West.
In the 1990s, Russian authorities promoted Kaliningrad’s previous ties to Germany as a tourist attraction, celebrating its role in the life and work of 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who was born and lived in Königsburg, the regional capital now called Kaliningrad.
Recently, however, Moscow has sought to erase the traces of Germany’s deep historical ties with the region – although Germany neither claims Kaliningrad nor has shown any interest in reclaiming it, a sharp contrast to Russia’s views on former Soviet lands, including Ukraine.
Under increasingly aggressive nationalism, Russia abandoned the policies that promoted Russia as part of Europe and moved advanced Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad. Lithuania’s defense minister said in April that Russia had deployed nuclear weapons in the region, a charge Moscow denies.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry summoned Lithuania’s top envoy on Monday over what it called “overtly hostile” restrictions.
“If the transit of goods between the Kaliningrad region and the rest of the Russian Federation through Lithuania is not fully restored in the near future, Russia reserves the right to take measures to protect its national interests,” the ministry said. in the current situation.
Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, defended the restrictions on shipments to Kaliningrad, saying that his country only met the conditions of EU sanctions.
“Lithuania is not doing anything, it is the European sanctions that are starting to work,” he said. reporters In Luxembourg on Monday before a meeting of European foreign ministers.
Anton Alikhanov, Governor of Kaliningrad, He said His government was already working on alternative routes for shipments of goods, particularly those containing metals and building materials. One option, he said, could be transporting goods by sea, which could require up to seven ships to meet demand before the end of the year.
He added that the local government is considering at least three retaliatory options for its proposal to the Kremlin, including a possible ban on the shipment of goods to Lithuanian ports via Russia.
Russia’s relations with Lithuania, formerly part of the Soviet Union, have never been close, but they have broken down significantly in recent months as Lithuania has taken a leading role in pressing for tough EU sanctions against Russia over the invasion of Ukraine.
Just two weeks ago, a member of the Russian parliament from Putin’s United Russia party introduced a bill declaring Lithuania’s declaration of independence in 1990 illegal. The bill aims to reverse the disintegration of the Soviet Union, something Mr. Putin called “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”.
But, as the stalled advance of Russian forces in Ukraine has shown, there is a wide gap between Mr. Putin’s desire to defeat history and his country’s capabilities. Any military action against Lithuania would put the already devastated Russian army in direct confrontation with NATO.
Thomas Dapkus Contributed to reporting from Vilnius.