Russia and NATO member Lithuania are clashing over Kaliningrad

A sign reading “Kaliningrad” sits atop the southern railway station in the main city. Kaliningrad is a small Russian enclave located on the Baltic Sea and sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland. It has become the center of a spat between Russia and NATO member Lithuania.

Harry Engel | Getty Images Sports | Getty Images

A new front of tensions between Russia and NATO has opened after one of the members of the Western military alliance, Lithuania, banned the transit of certain goods from Russia to its enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.

Russia has vowed to retaliate against what it called “hostile actions” by Lithuania, warning of “serious” consequences, while NATO members reiterated their support for the country.

Here’s a brief guide to what’s going on and why it matters as the Russian-Ukrainian conflict rumbles in the background.

What happened?

Lithuania said last week that it would ban the transit of certain EU-sanctioned goods from Russia through its territory to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

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

Lithuania said its decision was taken after consultation with the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, and that it was applying sanctions against Russia that were imposed following the unprovoked invasion of the EU. Ukraine on February 24.

Russia has responded to Lithuania, a former Soviet republic, by calling the move an “unprecedented” and “hostile” act, with its foreign ministry issuing a statement on Tuesday in which it said “if in the near future the transit of goods between the Kaliningrad region and the rest of the territory of the Russian Federation passing through Lithuania is not fully restored, Russia reserves the right to take measures to protect its national interests.”

What is Kaliningrad?

Kaliningrad is a small Russian enclave located on the Baltic Sea and sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland. It is home to approximately 487,000 people and covers an area of ​​approximately 86 square miles.

Once part of the German Empire, it was seized by Soviet troops from Nazi Germany in 1945 and has remained in Russian hands ever since, becoming an important seaport for Russia allowing direct access to the sea Baltic. Indeed, the oblast (or province) of Kaliningrad serves as the headquarters of the Russian Baltic Fleet.

The fleet holds regular military exercises in the Baltic Sea, having completed 10 days of exercises on June 19 involving 60 warships and 10,000 military personnel.

A disused border crossing point to Russia is seen on April 15, 2022 in Nida, Lithuania. The Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, on the shores of the Baltic Sea, is sandwiched between NATO members Lithuania and Poland, and is the most strategic shipping and trading port on the Baltic coast.

Paulius Peckis | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Lithuania’s ban on the transit of certain EU-sanctioned goods, announced last Friday and implemented on Saturday, has prompted panic buying in Kaliningrad. The region’s governor, Anton Alikhanov, has insisted that Russia will increase the number of freighters moving goods from St. Petersburg to the enclave for the rest of the year.

What could happen next?

It’s unclear how Moscow will react to Lithuania’s decision.

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

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

The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Monday stating that “the transit of unauthorized passengers and goods to and from the Kaliningrad region via Lithuania continues uninterrupted”.

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

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, also backed Lithuania on Monday, saying he was worried about the form the retaliation might take as he defended Vilnius’ position. “Of course, I am still worried about Russian reprisals,” he said, but he insisted that there was no “blockade”.

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

Timothy Ash, senior sovereign strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, said Tuesday that “it’s fair to say that Kaliningrad is a strategic imperative for Russia,” noting that defending and supporting it certainly is.

“Russia will react for sure, the only question is what it will be… [and] what Russia could do militarily,” he noted.

“A ground attack to drive a corridor through Lithuania would be a direct attack on Lithuania triggering NATO’s Article 5 defence. Putin knows that – it’s war with NATO goals in Ukraine? He should also launch an assault across Belarus, stretch his supply lines and divide his forces,” he noted.

Ash suggested that Russia might seek to use its significant naval assets in the Baltic Sea to impose a sort of tit-for-tat blockade on Lithuanian trade, although again this would be seen as a huge escalation by NATO and the EU. “It would be a fine line then if that would trigger NATO’s Article 5 defence,” he noted, however.

Why is it important?

Tensions between Russia and NATO are already heightened following the war in Ukraine and Lithuania’s decision has escalated them further, potentially putting a NATO country (and the entire alliance) in line for a direct confrontation with Russia.

A key pillar of the NATO alliance is the concept of collective defence: known as Article 5, this means that if one member is attacked, it is considered an attack on the whole group, all members pledging to protect each other.

While NATO is helping Ukraine fight the Russian invasion, its members sending a wide range of military equipment and weapons as well as humanitarian aid, NATO has repeatedly stated that it will not would not send troops into the country because it does not want a direct confrontation with nuclear energy in Russia.

Russia will have to carefully calibrate its response to Lithuania, knowing that any direct attack will be considered an attack on all NATO members by the organization.

Vehicles of the German Bundeswehr armed forces from Griffin Barracks arrive at NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup Battalion Lithuania in Rukla, Lithuania, February 17, 2022.

Petras Malukas | AFP | Getty Images

For their part, Lithuania’s NATO allies said they would support the country following threats from the Kremlin.

“Lithuania is a member of the NATO alliance and we honor the commitments we have made to the NATO alliance and that of course includes a commitment to article five which is the foundation of the alliance. of NATO,” said US State Department spokesman Ned Price. said during a daily press briefing.

“Lithuania has been a loyal partner, we support NATO, we support our NATO allies and we support Lithuania,” Price added.

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