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Russian authorities on Monday threatened NATO member Lithuania with reprisals if the Baltic country did not quickly reverse its ban on transporting certain goods to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad by rail.
Citing instructions from the European Union, Lithuanian Railways said on Friday it was halting the movement of goods from Russia that have been sanctioned by the European bloc.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov told reporters the situation was “more than serious”. He called the new restrictions “part of a blockade” of the region and a “violation of everything”.
Accustomed to Russian threats, officials in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, dismissed Moscow’s warnings as bluster – the latest in a string of increasingly intemperate statements from a country that is being severely stretched militarily by his invasion of Ukraine.
“We are not particularly worried about Russian threats,” said Laurynas Kasciunas, chairwoman of the Lithuanian parliament’s national security and defense committee. “The Kremlin has very few options to retaliate.”
A military response from Russia, he added, “is highly unlikely as Lithuania is a member of NATO. If not, they would probably consider it.
Russia’s fury with Lithuania followed a warning Monday from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that Moscow would launch “greater hostile activity” against Ukraine and European countries in the coming days in response to efforts to his country to join the European Union.
Up to 50% of all rail cargo shipped between mainland Russia and Kaliningrad – which Russian officials say includes building materials, concrete and metals, among others – will be affected by the ban announced last week. The restrictions revealed the acute vulnerability of the region, which is part of Russia but not connected to the rest of the country. It borders the Baltic Sea, but is sandwiched between two NATO members, Lithuania and Poland.
Kaliningrad, which the Soviet army captured from Germany in 1945, was once held up by Russia as a symbol of its growing ties with Europe. But it has recently become an unstable east-west fault line.
In the 1990s, Russian authorities promoted Kaliningrad’s past ties to Germany as a tourist attraction, celebrating its role in the life and work of 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who was born and raised lived in Königsburg, the regional capital now called Kaliningrad.
More recently, however, Moscow has sought to erase traces of Germany’s deep historic ties to the region – even though Germany does not claim Kaliningrad and has shown no interest in reclaiming it, a stark contrast to the views of Russia on former Soviet territory, including Ukraine.
Plagued by increasingly aggressive nationalism, Russia abandoned policies that promoted Russia as part of Europe and moved advanced Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad. Lithuania’s defense minister said in April that Russia had stationed nuclear weapons in the region, which Moscow denies.
The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned Lithuania’s top envoy on Monday over what it called “openly hostile” restrictions.
“If the transit of goods between the Kaliningrad region and the rest of the Russian Federation via Lithuania is not fully restored in the near future, Russia reserves the right to take measures to protect its national interests,” the ministry said in a statement.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis has defended the restrictions on shipments to Kaliningrad, saying his country was merely adhering to the terms of EU sanctions.
“It’s not Lithuania doing anything, it’s the European sanctions that have started to work,” he told reporters in Luxembourg on Monday ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers.
Аnton Alikhanov, the governor of Kaliningrad, said his government was already trying to find alternative routes for shipments of goods, especially those containing metals and building materials. He said one option could be shipping cargo, which would require up to seven ships to meet demand before the end of the year.
He added that the local government was considering at least three retaliatory options to offer the Kremlin, including a possible ban on shipping goods to Lithuanian ports via Russia.
Russia’s relations with Lithuania, once part of the Soviet Union, have never been close but have crumbled dramatically in recent months, with Lithuania playing a leading role in pushing for tough sanctions of the European Union against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine.
Just two weeks ago, a member of the Russian parliament from Mr Putin’s United Russia party introduced a bill outlawing Lithuania’s 1990 declaration of independence. The bill aims to reverse the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which Mr Putin lamented as “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”.
But, as the hesitant advance of Russian troops into Ukraine has shown, there is a yawning gap between Mr. Putin’s desire to roll back history and his country’s capabilities. Any military action against Lithuania would bring the already beaten Russian army into direct confrontation with NATO.
Tomas Dapkus contributed reporting from Vilnius.