Russia and NATO member Lithuania clash over Kaliningrad

A sign reading “Kaliningrad” stands at the top of the country’s southern railway station.

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A new front of tension between Russia and NATO has opened after a member of the Western military alliance, Lithuania, has banned the transit of some goods coming from Russia to its exclave, Kaliningrad, on the Baltic Sea.

Russia has vowed to respond to what it described as “hostile actions” by Lithuania, warning of “serious” consequences as NATO members reaffirmed their support for the country.

Here’s a quick guide to what’s going on and why it’s important as the Russia-Ukraine conflict erupts.

What happened?

Last week, Lithuania said it would ban the transit of some EU-sanctioned goods coming from Russia through its territory to Russia’s exclave in Kaliningrad.

The government said the blockade would apply to all EU-sanctioned goods coming from the mainland by rail, effectively blocking the transit of metals, coal, construction materials and high-tech products to Russia’s seaport.

Lithuania said its decision was made in consultation with the European Commission, the EU’s executive, and that it was imposing sanctions on Russia following the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February. 24.

Russia responded to Lithuania, a former Soviet republic, by calling the move “unprecedented” and “hostile”, with its foreign ministry issuing a statement Tuesday saying “if in the near future freight transit between the Kaliningrad region and the rest of the territory of the Russian Federation through Lithuania is not fully restored, then Russia reserves the right to take action to protect its national interests.

What is Kaliningrad?

An unused border crossing for Russia is seen on April 15, 2022 in Nida, Lithuania. Russia The Kaliningrad exclave, on the shores of the Baltic Sea, is sandwiched between NATO members Lithuania and Poland and is the most strategic transport and trade port on the Baltic coast.

Paulius Peletskis Getty Images News Getty Images

Lithuania’s ban on the transit of some EU-sanctioned goods, announced last Friday and enforced on Saturday, has sparked panic in Kaliningrad. The governor of the region, Anton Alikhanov, insisted that Russia would increase the number of cargo ships transiting goods from St. Petersburg. Petersburg to the exclave for the rest of the year.

It is uncertain how Moscow will react to Lithuania’s move.

On Monday, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the move “illegal” and said “this decision is truly unprecedented.”

“The situation is more than serious… We need a serious in-depth analysis to work out our response,” he added.

Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement Monday “The transit of passengers and unauthorized goods to and from the Kaliningrad region through Lithuania continues.”

He added that Lithuania “has not imposed any unilateral, individual or additional restrictions on transit” and that it has consistently applied EU sanctions.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, also backed Lithuania on Monday, saying he was worried about the form of revenge as he defended Vilnius’ position. “Of course, I’m always worried about Russia’s retaliatory strikes,” he said, but insisted there was no “blockade”.

“Lithuania has not taken any unilateral national restrictions and is only applying European Union sanctions,” he said, adding that all reports in Russia that Lithuania was applying its own sanctions were “pure propaganda”.

Timothy Ash, senior sovereign strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, said on Tuesday that “it is fair to say that Kaliningrad is a strategic imperative for Russia,” noting that protecting and maintaining it is certainly true.

Russia will certainly react, the only question is what will be … [and] “What can Russia do militarily,” he said.

“A land attack to pass a corridor through Lithuania would be a direct attack on Lithuania, triggering NATO defense under Article 5. Putin knows this – this is a war with NATO. Can Putin afford this when he struggles to meet even his now greatly reduced strategic goals in Ukraine? He will also have to launch an attack through Belarus, stretching his supply lines and dividing his forces, “he said.

Ash suggested that Russia could seek to use its significant naval assets in the Baltic Sea to impose some sort of blockade on Lithuanian trade, although this would again be seen as a huge escalation by both NATO and the EU. “Then there will be a fine line between whether this will trigger NATO Article 5 protection,” he said.

Why does it matter?

Tensions between Russia and NATO are already growing as a result of the war in Ukraine, and Lithuania’s move has exacerbated them, potentially putting a NATO country (and the entire alliance) in a line of direct confrontation with Russia.

A key pillar of the NATO alliance is the concept of collective defense: Known as Article 5, this means that if one member is attacked, it is considered an attack on the whole group, with all members committing themselves to defending each other.

As NATO helps Ukraine fight Russia’s invasion by sending a wide range of military equipment and weapons, as well as humanitarian aid, NATO has repeatedly said it will not send troops to the country because it does not want a direct confrontation with nuclear energy Russia.

Russia will need to carefully calibrate its response to Lithuania, knowing that any direct attack will be seen as an attack on all NATO members of the organization.

Cars of the Bundeswehr of the German Armed Forces from the Griffin Barracks arrive in the battalion of the NATO Enhanced Battle Group in Lithuania in Rukla, Lithuania on February 17, 2022.

Petras Malukas AFP | Getty Images

For their part, Lithuania’s NATO allies have said they will stand by the Kremlin’s threats.

“Lithuania is a member of the NATO alliance and we uphold the commitments we have made to the NATO alliance, and this includes, of course, a commitment to Article 5, which is the basis of the NATO alliance.” This was stated by US State Department spokesman Ned Price during a daily press briefing.

“Lithuania has been a strong partner, we stand by NATO, we stand by our NATO allies and we stand by Lithuania,” Price added.

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