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Transit row between Russia, Lithuania heats up

Juri Rescheto
June 23, 2022

Lithuania is enforcing EU sanctions and restricting freight traffic to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Moscow has responded by threatening the leadership in Vilnius with "serious consequences."

About ten freight trains with cars lined up side by side on tracks that curve into the distance
Lithuania is not allowing Russian trains with sanctioned goods to transit its territoryImage: Vitaly Nevar/REUTERS

Anyone traveling by train from Moscow to Kaliningrad must show their passport at three state borders: the Russian, Belarusian and Lithuanian. Belarus and Lithuania lie between the Russian heartland and its exclave, Kaliningrad.  Belarus is still allowing all Russian trains through, but Lithuania recently banned the transit of Russian trains laden with goods that Russia is banned from importing.

For Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, this is a logical and, above all, legal implementation of the EU's sanctions on Russia. Russian politicians, however, have described Lithuania's move as a hostile blockade of the population in the Kaliningrad region. They accuse the EU member country of violating international rules on freight transport, and even human rights.

The Lithuanian ban applies to freight trains laden with, among other things, coal, metals, cement, timber, and other building materials. These are all goods that have been sanctioned by the EU in response to Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine, and which can therefore not be imported by Russia from the EU. The governor of Kaliningrad, Anton Alikhanov, has complained that the ban covers up to 50% of all goods that are transported to Kaliningrad.

Map of the Baltic region showing (west to east) Kaliningrad, Lithuania, Belarus and Russia
Goods transported overland from Russia to Kaliningrad have to pass through Belarus and Lithuania

Threats from Moscow

The head of Russia's Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, who hastened from Moscow to visit the Russian exclave, blustered that Russia would "respond to hostile actions like these." A Russian news agency quoted him as saying that "appropriate inter-departmental measures will be drawn up and swiftly implemented" – measures that would have a "serious negative impact on the Lithuanian population."

Maria Zakharova, Russia's foreign ministry spokeswoman, also threatened that Russia would reserve the right to "defend its national interests" if freight traffic was not fully restored in the next few days. Neither Patrushev nor Zakharova were more specific.

In Lithuania, Russia's criticism of the partial transit ban has been greeted with incomprehension. Gintautas Bartkus of Vilnius University pointed out, in an interview with DW, that every EU country has a duty to do everything in its power to implement EU sanctions. This was absolutely not a blockade of the Kaliningrad region, he said, because not all freight trains are prevented from entering, and passenger trains can still transit without any problems. At the same time, Bartkus admitted that "sanctions are imposed precisely so that the sanctioned country will experience as many negative consequences as possible."

Gabrielius Landsbergis
Lithuania's foreign minister Landsbergis says his country is implementing EU sanctionsImage: Mandel Ngan/AP Photo/picture alliance

Sensitive transit

Linas Kojala, a political scientist at the Eastern Europe Studies Centre in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, accuses Moscow of exploiting the partial transit ban for its own ends. "The Russian side knew perfectly well that sanctions would restrict the transit of goods, and is now using this as a weapon in an information war," he said. Kojala conceded to DW that the transit issue was a very sensitive one for both sides; there was a great deal of discussion around it when Lithuania joined the EU. This, he says, is why sharp criticism from Russia was only to be expected now: "Moscow is trying to utilize the situation to demonstrate that the EU is essentially hostile to Russia." For its part, Kojala says, the EU needs to stress that Lithuania is not just taking unilateral action.

A white ship and a red ship at anchor in a port, three cranes and blue sky in the background
Kaliningrad may be forced to divert its imports to go via the sea route insteadImage: seagullNady/Zoonar/picture alliance

The Kaliningrad region is strategically crucial. It is Moscow's western outpost, and Russian forces equipped with Iskander mobile ballistic missile systems are stationed there. Russia announced that it simulated attacks with nuclear-capable missiles at its military bases near Kaliningrad in early May. According to the Ministry of Defense in Moscow, around a hundred Russian soldiers are said to have practiced an "electronic launch" as part of an exercise.

Just a few weeks ago, the Russian parliament questioned Lithuania's independence, which was decided in 1991. A bill to this effect, which proposes to repeal the Soviet decree "On the Recognition of the Independence of the Republic of Lithuania," has been submitted to the Russian State Duma.

Russia warns Lithuania over 'blockade'

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Juri Rescheto DW Riga Bureau Chief