Russia has reacted fiercely after Lithuania banned the passage of sanctioned goods through its territory and into Kaliningrad. But Lithuania says it simply supports European Union sanctions and the European bloc has backed it.
The dispute now threatens to escalate tensions between Moscow and the EU, which has unveiled several packages of sanctions against Russian goods.
Here’s what you need to know about Kaliningrad, its history and its significance for Russia.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, experts fear that Kaliningrad could become a hotbed of tension between Moscow and Europe.
This is the westernmost territory of Russia and the only part of the country surrounded by EU countries; Lithuania stands between it and Belarus, a Russian ally, while Poland borders it to the south.
On Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the move was unprecedented and that Russia considered it illegal. “It’s part of a blockade, of course,” he said. Other Russian officials threatened to respond.
Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, said: “Russia will certainly respond to such hostile actions. The measures are being developed in an interagency format and will be taken in the near future. The consequences of them will have a serious negative impact on the population of Lithuania, “according to the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.
Sanctioned products banned for export to Russia from the European Union include construction machinery, metal-cutting machinery and other industrial equipment, according to Russia’s state news agency TASS, citing the Ministry of Economic Development. Some luxury goods are also included.
Lithuania has not imposed “unilateral, individual or additional restrictions,” its foreign ministry said in a statement Monday.
The charge d’affaires of Lithuania in Moscow was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday and said that if the transit of goods to the Kaliningrad region is not fully restored, Russia reserves the right to take action to protect its national interests.
But the EU, whose sanctions Lithuania imposes by blocking transit, has backed its member state.
Speaking to Reuters, Dmitry Liskov, a regional government official, was forced to urge residents not to panic about buying in response to the scandal.
What is Kaliningrad?
Kaliningrad is a Russian exclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. It was captured by Soviet troops from Nazi Germany in April 1945 and then became part of Soviet territory as a result of the Potsdam Agreement. In 1946 it was renamed by the German Königsberg.
It has a population of about one million, most of whom live in or near the capital of the same name. The exclave is one of Russia’s most prosperous regions, with extensive industry. Its port, Baltiysk, is the westernmost port on Russian territory and, importantly, is free of ice all year round.
The streets of the capital are lined with spectacular examples of old German architecture along with gloomy, concrete Soviet apartment blocks.
But the importance of Kaliningrad comes mostly from where it is on the map. A thin strip of land south of Kaliningrad separates it from Belarus and connects Polish and Lithuanian territory. Known as the Suwalki Corridor or Gap, it is the only land connection between the Baltic States and the rest of the European Union.
Kaliningrad is also the headquarters of the Russian Baltic Fleet. RIA Novosti reported on Monday that the fleet has launched pre-planned missile and artillery exercises, stating that “about 1,000 servicemen and more than 100 units of military and special equipment of artillery and missile units are taking part in the maneuvers.”
In 2002, the EU and Moscow reached a travel agreement between Russia and Kaliningrad, before Poland and Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004. When those countries joined, the exclave was surrounded by three EU countries. Russia says the 2002 agreement has now been violated.
The importance of Kaliningrad has become even greater for Russia with the planned accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO. Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s National Security Council, said in May that the accession plans meant that “it will no longer be possible to talk about any nuclear-free status in the Baltic Sea – the balance must be restored” .
Russia has not acknowledged that it has Kaliningrad-based nuclear weapons, but in 2018 the Federation of American Scientists concluded that Russia has significantly upgraded its nuclear weapons storage bunker in the region based on satellite imagery analysis.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Lithuania called on NATO to increase the deployment of troops on its territory. In April, President Gitanas Nauseda said the NATO enhanced forward presence battalion should be transformed to “at least” the size of a brigade, and called for the Suwalki corridor to be strengthened.