Explainer: why tensions are rising between Russia and Lithuania

New tensions between Moscow and the West are mounting after Lithuania decided to allow some goods to be transported across its territory to the Russian region of Kaliningrad as part of the European Union’s sanctions against the Kremlin.
The Kremlin warns that it will retaliate against sanctions stemming from the invasion of Ukraine in a way that will have a “significant negative impact” on the Lithuanian people, raising fears of a direct confrontation between Russia and the NATO.
A look at why tensions are rising over Kaliningrad, a part of Russia on the Baltic Sea separated from the rest of the country:
The westernmost territory of Russia
The Kaliningrad region was once part of the German province of East Prussia, which was taken over by the Soviet Union after World War II in accordance with the 1945 Potsdam Agreement between the Allied Powers. The capital of East Prussia, Konigsberg, was renamed Kaliningrad, after Mikhail Kalinin, a Bolshevik leader.
An estimated 2 million Germans fled the area in the closing months of World War II, and those who remained were forcibly expelled after hostilities ended.
The Soviet authorities developed Kaliningrad as a major ice-free port and fishing center, encouraging people from other regions to move to the area. Since the Cold War era, Kaliningrad has also served as an important base of the Russian Baltic Fleet.
But since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Baltic states, Kaliningrad has been separated from the rest of Russia by Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, all now NATO members. To the south is Poland, another NATO member.
military bastion
As Russia’s relations with the West have deteriorated, Kaliningrad’s military role has grown. Its location has made it a pioneer in Moscow’s efforts to counter NATO’s hostile policies.
The Kremlin has methodically reinforced and armed its forces there with state-of-the-art weapons, including precision-guided Iskander missiles and a range of air defense systems.
As the region’s military significance has grown, reliance on goods coming through Poland and Lithuania has made the region particularly vulnerable.
Transit stopped
Lithuania stressed that the ban on the movement of sanctioned goods was part of the fourth package of EU sanctions against Russia, noting that from 17 June it would only apply to steel and ferrous metals.
The government in Vilnius dismissed Russia’s description of the move as a blockade, stressing that unapproved goods and rail passengers can still travel through Lithuania.
In accordance with the EU decision, coal will be banned in August and transports of oil and oil products will be halted in December.
Moscow is considering a response
Moscow formally protested the cessation of shipments to Kaliningrad as a violation of the Russia-EU agreements on the free transit of goods into the region.
Kaliningrad governor Anton Alikhanov said the ban will affect up to half of all goods brought to the region, including cement and other building materials.
Nikolai Patrushev, the powerful secretary of the Russian Security Council and a close confidant of President Vladimir Putin, visited Kaliningrad on Tuesday to meet with local officials. He described the restrictions as “hostile actions” and warned that Moscow will respond with unspecified measures that “will have a significant negative effect on the population of Lithuania”.
Patrushev did not go into detail, but Alikhanov suggested that the Russian response could be to cut off the flow of cargo through the ports of Lithuania and other Baltic countries.
However, Lithuania has significantly reduced its economic and energy dependence on Russia and has recently become the first EU country to stop using Russian gas. It no longer imports Russian oil and has suspended imports of Russian electricity. Most Russian transit through Lithuanian ports has already been halted under EU sanctions, but Moscow could decide to limit the transit of cargo from third countries through Lithuania.
Putin will decide on Russia’s response after receiving Patrushev’s report.
Russia’s standoff with Lithuania is part of their rocky relationship dating back to the country’s annexation by Moscow in 1940, along with Estonia and Latvia. 1991.
Fear of escalation
Some in the West have long feared that Russia might consider military action to secure a land corridor between its ally Belarus and the Kaliningrad region through the so-called Suwalki Gap, a 65-kilometer stretch of land in Poland along the border with Lithuania.
Rhetoric on Russian state television has risen to a high pitch, with commentator Vladimir Solovyov accusing the West of insanity that has sent the clock ticking towards World War III.
Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anusaukas warned on Wednesday of the danger of Russian provocations amid tensions in Kaliningrad. “Of course, if you have a military force and they are ruled by half-hearted ones – my apologies for the expression – you can expect anything,” he said, adding that Lithuania feels confident and relies on its NATO allies.
With the bulk of the Russian military trapped in Ukraine, any use of force in the Baltics could be beyond Moscow’s conventional weapons capacity.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said she does not think there is a military threat to Lithuania, adding that Russia was trying to pressure the EU to relax sanctions.
“Russia is very good at acting on our fears so that we, you know, would renounce our decisions,” Kallas said in an interview with The Associated Press.
A Russian attempt to use force against Poland or Lithuania would lead to a direct conflict with NATO, which is obliged to protect each of its members under the charter’s mutual defense clause known as Article 5.
On Tuesday, US State Department spokesman Ned Price emphasized Washington’s “castle” commitment to that clause, which he described as NATO’s “basic principle”.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov responded by warning the EU and NATO about “dangerous rhetorical games” over Kaliningrad. “Certain influential and powerful forces in the West are doing everything they can to further heighten tensions in relations with Russia,” he said, adding that “some simply have no limits in imagining scenarios where a military confrontation with us is inevitable.” seems.”