Lithuania on Monday defended its decision to bar rail transit from Russia to a Russian Baltic Sea enclave, where movement of goods has been hit by European Union sanctions, in a move that drew Moscow’s anger amid high tension in the region.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said his country was simply implementing sanctions imposed by the EU, of which it is a member. He said the measures were taken after “consultation with the European Commission and under its guidelines”.
“Sanctioned goods [will] no longer be allowed to transit Lithuanian territory,” Mr Landsbergis said.
Goods such as steel are already on a list that it is set to be expanded to cover items from coal to alcoholic drinks.
The Kaliningrad exclave, home to 430,000 people, is surrounded by Lithuania and Poland, another EU country, to the south and isolated from the rest of Russia. Trains with goods for Kaliningrad travel via Belarus and Lithuania. There is no transit through Poland. Russia can still supply the exclave by sea, without falling foul of EU sanctions.
Russia has demanded that Lithuania immediately lift the ban, with the Foreign Ministry in Moscow saying that if transport links are not restored in full, then “Russia reserves the right to take action in defence of its national interests”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov condemned the “unlawful” ban.
“This decision, indeed unprecedented, is a violation of everything and then some," he told reporters on Monday. "We understand that it is connected to the relevant decision of the European Union to extend the sanctions to transit [of goods]. This we also consider unlawful.”
The ministry summoned Lithuania’s chief diplomatic representative in Moscow for a formal protest and alleged the Baltic nation was acting in breach of international agreements. Lithuania has not had an ambassador in Moscow since April, when it downgraded diplomatic ties in protest over the killing of civilians in Ukraine by Russian troops after the invasion on February 24.
Lithuania later summoned the Russian envoy in Vilnius to tell him the ban was in line with EU sanctions and that there was no blockade of Kaliningrad.
The EU’s foreign affairs and security chief Josep Borrell said Lithuania’s move should not be compared to the situation in Ukraine. “The rest of the world will not be affected by what is happening in Kaliningrad but the rest of the world is very much affected by what is happening in Ukraine,” he said.
He said Lithuania did not take any unilateral national restrictions and denied that land transit between Kaliningrad and other parts of Russia had been stopped, or banned.
“There is no blockade,” Mr Borrell said. Transit of passengers and goods that are not sanctioned was continuing, he said.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted: “Russia has no right to threaten Lithuania. Moscow has only itself to blame for the consequences of its unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine.”
On Monday, Lithuanian customs said the sanctions, which took effect in mid-June, were part of the fourth EU sanctions package imposed on March 15.
Lina Laurinaityte Grigiene, a customs spokeswoman, said affected items include Russian steel “that cannot be transported over the territory of European countries”.
“The land transit between Kaliningrad and other parts of Russia is not stopped or blocked,” she said. "All goods that are not under sanctions travel freely."
Starting from July 10, she said, similar sanctions will be imposed on concrete and alcohol, from August 10 on coal and from December no Russian oil will be allowed into EU territory.
Anton Alikhanov, governor of the Russian exclave, has estimated that the ban would affect 50 per cent of all goods flowing towards Kaliningrad by rail. He said he would call on Russian authorities to take measures against Lithuania and would seek to have more goods sent by ship.
Kaliningrad, which is home to the Russian Baltic Fleet, is Russia’s only ice-free Baltic port. Moscow has stationed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in the enclave.
As part of its economic sanctions, the EU has imposed a number of import and export restrictions on Russia. The bloc said it has been careful not to harm the Russian population with its packages of measures and therefore excluded products related to health, medicine, food and agriculture. The list of products under sanction include up to 90 per cent of oil imports, coal, steel, iron, wood, as well as caviar and vodka. Bans are impose by EU customs authorities.