The story so far:Lithuania, a member of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), on June 18 banned goods subject to EU sanctions from passing through its territory to the Russian exclave Kaliningrad. The sanctions were imposed on Russia after Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Sanctioned goods include coal, metals, construction materials and advanced technology.
Russia has called the move a “blockade” and promised a stern response. According to Russian officials, the ban will affect 30-50 per cent of cargo traffic but the goods can be rerouted through the Baltic Sea.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte refuted Russia’s allegations, saying that the sanctioned goods form only 1 per cent of the total Russian freight transit to Kaliningrad. She also added that passenger transit remains uninterrupted.
The implementation of sanctions has strained EU-Russia relations even further.
Why is Kaliningrad important?
Kaliningrad is an exclave of Russia, completely separated from the country’s mainland. It is situated between EU and NATO members Lithuania and Poland. It is also the headquarters of Russia’s Baltic Sea fleet, and the country’s only ice-free European port.
Kaliningrad has a population of approximately one million. Since it does not share a border with Russia, it also relies on the EU for supply of goods.
In the past, Russia has deployed its short-range Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, believed to be a threat to the U.S.
Russia has threatened to take measures against Lithuania for implementing a “blockade” and cutting off Kaliningrad. Lithuania, however, has said that the decision was taken by the EU and does not reflect the views of the country alone. EU has reiterated Lithuania’s statement, saying that the country is just implementing the sanctions decision taken by the bloc.
Since Lithuania is a member of NATO, it is protected by “collective defence” which means that an attack on any member of the organisation is an attack on the entire organisation. The principle is enshrined in Article 5 of NATO’s treaty.
Cutting off Kaliningrad has elevated the possibility of a direct conflict between Russia and NATO, since the country has threatened to respond to the “hostile actions” with “appropriate measures.”
“Their consequences (of these appropriate measures) will have a serious negative impact on the population of Lithuania,” Russia’s Security Council Chief Nikolai Patrushev reportedly told the country’s media.
Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO has avoided direct conflict with Vladimir Putin’s forces.
Russia has also blamed the U.S. for the rail transit ban imposed by Lithuania.
"The so-called collective West, with the explicit instruction of the White House, imposed a ban on rail transit of a wide range of goods through the Kaliningrad region," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Russian hacker group Killnet took responsibility for attacking Lithuania’s public services with a distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attack. The group said that the attack was in response to the rail transit ban. They also threatened that the attacks will continue until Lithuania lifts the ban.
(With inputs from agencies)