EXPLAINER: Why are tensions rising between Russia and Lithuania | business news

Tensions are rising between Moscow and the West after Lithuania decided to stop the transport of some goods through its territory to Russia’s Kaliningrad region as part of European Union sanctions on the Kremlin.

The Kremlin warns it will retaliate against sanctions stemming from its invasion of Ukraine in a way that will have a “significant negative impact” on the Lithuanian people, raising fears of a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO.

A look at why tensions are rising in Kaliningrad, a part of Russia on the Baltic Sea that is cut off from the rest of the country:

THE WESTERN MOST TERRITORY OF RUSSIA

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The Kaliningrad region was once part of the German province of East Prussia, which was taken over by the Soviet Union after World War II in line with the 1945 Potsdam agreement between the Allied powers. The capital of East Prussia, Konigsberg, was renamed Kaliningrad, after Mikhail Kalinin, a Bolshevik leader.

An estimated 2 million Germans fled the territory in the final months of World War II, and those who remained were forcibly expelled after hostilities ended.

Soviet authorities developed Kaliningrad as a major ice-free port and key fishing center, encouraging people from other regions to move into the territory. Since the Cold War era, Kaliningrad has also served as a major base for Russia’s Baltic fleet.

But since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Baltic states, Kaliningrad has been separated from the rest of Russia by Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, now all members of NATO. To the south is Poland, another NATO member.

As Russia’s relations with the West have deteriorated, Kaliningrad’s military role has grown. His location has put him at the forefront of Moscow’s efforts to counter what he described as hostile NATO policies.

The Kremlin has methodically beefed up its military forces there, equipping them with state-of-the-art weapons, including precision-guided Iskander missiles and a variety of air defense systems.

As the region’s military importance has grown, its reliance on goods arriving through Poland and Lithuania has made it particularly vulnerable.

Lithuania emphasized that the ban on the movement of sanctioned goods was part of the EU’s fourth sanctions package against Russia, noting that it only applies to steel and ferrous metals from June 17.

The Vilnius government rejected Russia’s description of the move as a blockade, stressing that unauthorized rail goods and passengers can still move through Lithuania.

According to the EU decision, coal will be banned in August and shipments of oil and petroleum products will be stopped in December.

Moscow formally protested the halting of shipments to Kaliningrad as a violation of agreements between Russia and the EU on the free transit of goods to the region.

Kaliningrad Governor Anton Alikhanov said the ban will affect up to half of all items entering the region, including cement and other construction materials.

Nikolai Patrushev, Russia’s powerful Security Council secretary and a close confidant of President Vladimir Putin, visited Kaliningrad on Tuesday to meet with local officials. He described the restrictions as “hostile actions” and warned that Moscow will respond with unspecified measures that “will have a significant negative impact on the population of Lithuania.”

Patrushev did not elaborate, but Alikhanov suggested the Russian response could include shutting down the flow of cargo through the ports of Lithuania and other Baltic nations.

However, Lithuania has significantly reduced its economic and energy dependence on Russia, recently becoming the first EU country to stop using Russian gas. It no longer imports Russian oil and has suspended imports of Russian electricity. Transportation of most Russian transit through Lithuanian ports has already stopped under EU sanctions, but Moscow could take steps to restrict third-country cargo transit through Lithuania.

Putin will decide Russia’s response after receiving Patrushev’s report.

Russia’s standoff with Lithuania is part of their rocky relationship that dates back to Moscow’s annexation of the country, along with Estonia and Latvia, in 1940. All three fueled its move toward independence under former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the recovered when the USSR collapsed in 1991.

Some in the West have long feared that Russia could be considering military action to secure a land corridor between its ally Belarus and the Kaliningrad region through the so-called Suwalki Gap, a 65-kilometre (40-mile) strip of land in Poland. along the border with Lithuania.

The rhetoric on Russian state television has been raised to a high pitch, with commentator Vladimir Solovyov accusing the West of taking chances, which has set the clock ticking towards World War III.

Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas warned on Wednesday of the danger of Russian provocations amid Kaliningrad tensions. “When you have a military force and they are ruled by fools, I apologize for the expression, of course you can expect everything,” he said, adding that Lithuania feels confident and trusts its NATO allies.

With most of Russia’s military bogged down in Ukraine, any use of force in the Baltic could be beyond Moscow’s conventional weapons capabilities.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said she does not believe there is a military threat to Lithuania, adding that Russia was trying to increase pressure on the EU to ease sanctions.

“Russia is very good at playing on our fears so that we, you know, take a step back from our decisions,” Kallas said in an interview with The Associated Press.

A Russian attempt to use force against Poland or Lithuania would trigger a direct conflict with NATO, which is obligated to protect any of its members under the mutual defense clause of its charter known as Article 5.

On Tuesday, US State Department spokesman Ned Price emphasized Washington’s “uncompromising” commitment to that clause, which he described as NATO’s “fundamental” principle.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov responded by warning the EU and NATO against “dangerous rhetorical games” over Kaliningrad. “Certain influential and powerful forces in the West are doing their best to further exacerbate tensions in relations with Russia,” he said, adding that “some simply have no limits in inventing scenarios when a military confrontation with us would seem inevitable.” .

Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, contributed.

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