The transit line between Russia and Lithuania is heating up | TAUT | 23.06.2022

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Anyone traveling by train from Moscow to Kaliningrad must present their passport at three national borders: Russian, Belarusian and Lithuanian. Belarus and Lithuania lie between the heart of Russia and its enclave, Kaliningrad. Belarus still allows the passage of all Russian trains, but Lithuania recently banned the transit of Russian trains loaded with goods that Russia is not allowed to import.

For Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, this is a logical and above all legal implementation of EU sanctions against Russia. Russian politicians, however, described Lithuania’s move as a hostile blockade of the population in the Kaliningrad region. They accuse the EU member country of violating international rules on the transport of goods, and even human rights.

The Lithuanian ban applies to freight trains loaded with, among other things, coal, metals, cement, wood and other building materials. These are all goods that have been sanctioned by the EU in response to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, and therefore cannot be imported by Russia from the EU. Kaliningrad Governor Anton Alikhanov complained that the ban covers up to 50% of all goods transported in Kaliningrad.

Threats from Moscow

Russian Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev, who rushed from Moscow to visit the Russian enclave, said Russia “would respond to hostile actions like these”. A Russian news agency quoted him as saying that “appropriate inter-ministerial measures will be worked out and quickly implemented” – measures that would have a “serious negative impact on the Lithuanian population”.

Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, also threatened that Russia reserves the right to “defend its national interests” if cargo traffic is not fully restored in the coming days. Neither Patrushev nor Zakharova was more specific.

In Lithuania, Russia’s criticism of the partial transit ban was met with incomprehension. Gintautas Bartkus from Vilnius University stressed in an interview with TAUT that every EU country has a duty to do everything in their power to implement EU sanctions. It was definitely not a blockade of the Kaliningrad region, he said, as not all freight trains are barred from entering, and passenger trains can still pass through without any problems. At the same time, Bartkus admitted that “the sanctions are imposed precisely so that the sanctioned country suffers as many negative consequences as possible”.

Sensitive transit

Linas Kojala, a political scientist at the Center for Eastern European Studies in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, accuses Moscow of exploiting the partial transit ban for its own purposes. “The Russian side knew full well that the sanctions would restrict the transit of goods, and is now using them as a weapon in an information war,” he said. Kojala conceded to TAUT that the issue of transit was very sensitive for both parties; there was a lot of talk about this when Lithuania joined the EU. That’s why, he said, only strong criticism from Russia was to be expected: “Moscow is trying to use the situation to demonstrate that the EU is basically hostile to Russia.” For its part, says Kojala, the EU must stress that Lithuania is not content with taking unilateral measures.

The Kaliningrad region is strategically crucial. It is the western outpost of Moscow, and Russian forces equipped with Iskander mobile ballistic missile systems are stationed there. Russia announced that it had simulated attacks with nuclear-capable missiles on its military bases near Kaliningrad in early May. According to the Ministry of Defense in Moscow, a hundred Russian soldiers would have practiced an “electronic launch” as part of an exercise.

Just a few weeks ago, the Russian parliament questioned the independence of Lithuania, decided in 1991. A bill to this effect, which proposes to repeal the Soviet decree “On the recognition of independence of the Republic of Lithuania”, was submitted to the Russian State Duma.

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