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Geopolitics

Lithuania And Russia: A David-Goliath Standoff Getting Riskier By The Day

Vilnius is reportedly working out new rules with Brussels on allowing the transit of sanctioned Russian goods through Lithuania to the Kaliningrad enclave. But in the meantime, restrictions remain — and so does defiance vis-à-vis Moscow.

Photo of people fishing in the Russian port of Kaliningrad

In Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave at the center of the Lithuania-Russia dispute

Vaidotas Beniusis, Philipp Fritz, Pavel Lokshin

KALININGRAD — At a hardware store in Kaliningrad, men and women are heaving bags of cement into their shopping carts, while others film them on their mobile phones in disbelief. This scene, which did the rounds on social media in June, sums up the atmosphere in the Russian exclave bordered by Poland and Lithuania.

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The anxiety in Russia’s westernmost territory is palpable. Some residents are worried there will be shortages of products that were easily obtainable before restrictions came into force, while others are hoping everything will stay the same.

The population of Kaliningrad Oblast sits at around a million — of which 800,000 live in the city itself. Now they are in limbo. Lithuania’s implementation of EU sanctions means that although land routes to Russia are not completely shut off, the supply situation in the Russian exclave is uncertain.


Towards the end of the week, the sixth cargo ship in recent days is due to arrive in Kaliningrad from the port of Bronka in St Petersburg. The STK-1004 will deliver around 1,500 tons of cargo, including metal, cement and wood — products that are not allowed to be transported by land across Lithuania. Cargo ships are also regularly sailing from Ust-Luga in St Petersburg to Pillau in Kaliningrad, with supplies that can’t be delivered over land.

Since June 17, Lithuania has imposed a ban on transporting certain goods, such as coal, steel or building materials, by land from Russia to the Russian territory of Kaliningrad. On Monday morning, Lithuania increased trade restrictions, adding wood, alcohol and alcohol-based industrial chemicals to the list of forbidden items, according to a spokesperson from the Lithuanian customs office.

Russian threats of retaliation

Kaliningrad is surrounded by Lithuania, Poland and the Baltic Sea. Supplies can still be flown or shipped in to the exclave, but Russian officials are nevertheless incensed. Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia and former President, threatened Lithuania with “retaliatory measures” that would “cut off oxygen” to the entire Baltic region.

Lithuania has chosen the only correct approach – the legally correct approach

At the same time, Russian politicians are trying to reassure their own population. Governor of the Kaliningrad Oblast Anton Alikhanov assured residents that there would be no supply crisis and threatened to “destroy” the logistical infrastructure of his Baltic neighbors if Russia decided to retaliate by imposing its own sanctions. He said Russia could bring down “half of Lithuania’s economy”. Sources at the Kremlin say they are preparing for all possible scenarios.

The Lithuanian government remains unmoved by all this posturing. The country and its 2.8 million residents do not rely on Russian gas and their electrical grid is linked to Kaliningrad, so any attempts to cut off their power would negatively impact the exclave itself.

The government in Vilnius says it is simply implementing EU sanctions. According to their interpretation, these also apply to transport on EU territory.

“Lithuania has chosen the only correct approach — the legally correct approach,” said Laima Adrikiene, chair of the Lithuanian government’s Committee on Foreign Affairs. She said that like other EU member states, Lithuania has to abide by the decisions made in Brussels.

Sanctions against Russia are not supposed to be pleasant or comfortable. Their aim is the exact opposite. They are designed to punish Russia for its war against Ukraine, which is now an EU candidate country. To isolate Russia and stop money from pouring into the Russian war machine, to bring the conflict to an end,” says the former Minister of Industry and Trade.

However, Russia’s threats seem to have hit home in Brussels and Berlin. The European Commission is in conversation with the Lithuanian government to resolve the conflict. Last week Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte had a meeting with President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen. The Commission is worried that the situation might escalate — and behind the scenes the German government has also been putting pressure on Lithuania to allow supplies to be transported across its territory.

On Thursday, Lithuania and the EU Commission have agreed to put new rules in place to allow the transit of sanctioned Russian goods, while keeping restrictions on trade flow in the meantime. But no timeline was given for the new rules, and details for the control of sanctioned freight still need to be worked out.

Worried faces in Berlin

The German government thinks Russia may use military force to keep supply lines to Kaliningrad open. That would be particularly sensitive for Germany, which is the lead nation in NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Lithuania and has many soldiers stationed in Lithuania.

The German position is wrong. But the Germans and the Americans are our only partners.

At the NATO summit in Madrid last week, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that as this was a case of transport between “two parts of Russia”, he believed it should not fall under the EU’s sanctions. His comments caused a stir in Lithuania, as the small country – a sovereign state – lies between these two parts of Russia.

“He should not have said that. I think the Germans’ position is wrong. But the Germans and the Americans are our most important partners, our only partners. And our security is dependent on them,” a high-ranking Lithuanian government official in Vilnius told Die Welt.

Photo of street art in Vilnius, Lithuania

Street art in Vilnius, Lithuania

saya wonder

The EU's credibility

Lithuanian officials are hesitant to criticize Germany openly, as they are wary of damaging their alliances with strategic partners in the West.

It seems that when the EU introduced the sanctions, no one in Brussels had considered what the consequences would be if Lithuania enforced them. Now the EU’s credibility and the effectiveness of the sanctions are both at stake.

The EU Commission doesn’t want to alienate Lithuania, but it will do if it backs down against Russia. Lithuanians are concerned that the security situation could become worse and Russia may feel emboldened to step up its aggression towards the EU.

That is why there is so much anger towards the bureaucrats at the European Commission, whom the Lithuanians think have treated the sanctions as a technical problem for months, rather than considering the possible security implications.

Disappointment about Germany's stance

“We have all promised to support Ukraine and increase pressure on Russia, but when tensions begin to rise, they panic,” a Lithuanian government official told Die Welt. It seems that in Vilnius, the prevailing attitude towards Germany is one of disappointment.

When asked about the concern that German troops stationed in Lithuania might be drawn into a military conflict, the same official said, “They are not here to admire the potato harvest. They’re here because the security situation is as it is.”

There are a variety of ways that the conflict could be resolved, and the Commission is expected to release a statement in the next few days. It’s conceivable that they could reach an agreement with Moscow about exemptions covering the transport of certain goods.

Or the Commission could do nothing and simply allow the tension and uncertainty to continue. Or it could amend the sanctions so that Kaliningrad is not affected.

The Lithuanians seem convinced that solution would not be possible without pressure from Berlin. The German government appears to have taken Moscow’s side, which risks damaging its reputation and undermining the credibility of EU sanctions.

If the Lithuanian government is not satisfied with an amendment to the sanctions, they could appeal to the European Court of Justice. Then the divisions within Europe would be laid bare for all the world to see.

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