It’s a small piece of Russia on the shores of the Baltic Sea, wedged between Poland and Lithuania, cut off from the rest of the national territory. The Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which has nearly a million inhabitants, has for several days become the epicenter of a diplomatic crisis between Russia and Lithuania. A direct consequence of the sanctions imposed by the Europeans on the Russian economy, in retaliation for the war in Ukraine. Explanations.

Goods transiting through Lithuania subject to restriction

Lithuania imposed, in mid-June, restrictions on certain goods transported by rail from the rest of Russia to the enclave of Kaliningrad and transiting through its territory. The products concerned are those targeted by European sanctions, in particular metals, cement, alcohol, fertilizers or technological products. A list that must be extended to coal and oil.

The governor of the Kaliningrad oblast (region), Anton Alikhanov, denounced a “blockade”. He estimated that 40-50% of the enclave’s supplies via Lithuania could be affected. For Moscow, these restrictions violate an agreement dating from 2002, concluded between Russia and the European Union when Lithuania, a former Soviet republic, joined the EU. He announced on Monday that goods that can no longer be transported by rail will begin to be transported by sea. “in a week”.

Moscow threatens Vilnius with reprisals

During a heavy symbolic trip, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the powerful Russian Security Council, went to Kaliningrad on Tuesday. “Russia, of course, will react to such hostile actshe warned, quoted by Russian news agencies. Appropriate measures are being developed at inter-ministerial level and will be adopted soon.” And to warn that these reprisals “will have serious negative consequences for the people of Lithuania”.

In response to these restrictions, the head of the EU delegation to Russia, Markus Ederer, was also summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Moscow on Tuesday. The Lithuanian charge d’affaires in Moscow has, for his part, been summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry. In a statement, Russian diplomacy accused the European Union of encouraging a “escalation” and demanded the immediate restoration of transit to Kaliningrad.

Supported by the EU, Lithuania defends itself

Relations between Russia and Lithuania (as well as with the other two Baltic countries) have been delicate for several years. Lithuania was the first Soviet republic to declare its independence in 1990. And like Latvia and Estonia, it has now been a member of NATO and the EU since the 2000s. But this episode tends a little more the situation.

In response to Russian accusations of measures “hostile”the Lithuanian authorities clarified that their restrictions were only the application of European decisions towards Moscow. “Transportation to and from Kaliningrad is not stopped. Passenger trains continue to run, as well as the transport of non-sanctioned goods,” detailed Lina Laurinaityte-Grigiene, spokesperson for the Lithuanian customs service.

“It’s not Lithuania doing anything, it’s the European sanctions that started working from June 17.”

Gabrielius Landsbergis, head of Lithuanian diplomacy

during a speech during a trip to Luxembourg

Lithuania has not introduced any unilateral, individual or additional measures for transit, continued in a press release the Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs. The country is implementing the various EU sanctions which all provide for transitional periods and have different deadlines for implementation.”

The head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, confirmed these statements. “Overland transit between Russia and Kaliningrad has not been stopped or banned. The transit of passengers and goods continues. There is no blockade”, he stressed, following a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg. Kyiv also lent its support to Vilnius. “Russia has no right to threaten Lithuania”declared the head of Ukrainian diplomacy, Dmytro Kouleba, on Twitter.

A highly militarized strategic Russian territory

What is now Kaliningrad Oblast (formerly known as Königsberg) was for centuries part of Prussia and then of Germany. It was conquered by the Soviet Union from Nazi Germany in 1945. Since the end of the USSR and the independence of the Baltic States in the early 1990s, the enclave of 15,000 km2 (the equivalent of two French departments) is cut off from the rest of Russia. But it remained for it an important strategic asset, both economically and militarily. The enclave notably has two ice-free ports – Kaliningrad and Baltiysk and road and rail connections to trade with its neighbours. Kaliningrad is above all a Russian military outpost in Europe: a particularly strategic isolated area in a context of heightened tensions between Moscow and Western countries because of the war in Ukraine.

The territory has an important military tradition. It thus served as a defensive stronghold during the Cold War. Faced with the expansion of NATO, Moscow has beefed up its military presence there, notably organizing major maneuvers there. The latest, between June 9 and 19, mobilized 10,000 soldiers and sixty boats, according to the Interfax agency. Kaliningrad is also home to the headquarters of the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet. In recent years, missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads and air defense systems have been installed there. In February, Russia also deployed hypersonic missiles there, just before the entry of its troops into Ukraine.

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