Why is Kaliningrad at the centre of a row between Russia and Lithuania?

Lithuanian ban on transit of sanctioned goods across its territory to and from Russian region has angered Kremlin

Where is Kaliningrad?

The Russian oblast or region, which covers 5,800 square miles, is on the Baltic sea, wedged between Lithuania to its north and east and Poland to its south. It lies about 800 miles (1,300km) from Moscow.

Why is it Russian?

Before the second world war it was Germany’s most eastern large city, known as Königsberg, reflecting its history as the coronation city of the Prussian monarchy.

At the end of July and in early August of 1945, the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, the British prime minister, Winston Churchill (replaced on 26 July by Clement Attlee after the summer general election), and the US president, Harry Truman, drew up the new boundaries of Europe at a summit of the war allies in the German city of Potsdam.

Königsberg was ceded to the Soviet Union and subsequently renamed in honour of Mikhail Kalinin, a Bolshevik revolutionary. The German population was expelled and Soviet citizens repopulated it. Lyudmila Putina, Vladimir Putin’s ex-wife, was born in Kaliningrad in 1958.

History, however, has left the oblast stranded. The Soviet collapse means that it is wedged between two Nato and EU member states, Poland and Lithuania. Kaliningrad gets much of its food from its EU neighbours but the region remains heavily reliant on mainland Russia for other goods. Every year millions of tonnes of oil, coke and coal are moved – mainly by rail – through Lithuania. About 100 Russian transit trains pass through Lithuania every month. There have been tensions over the years. Lithuania built a new border fence in 2017 at the time of Russia’s massive Zapad (west) military exercises and Lithuanian helicopters have been known to hover over the railway line when Russian military personnel are onboard.


What is the problem?

After Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU imposed heavy sanctions on the Russian economy. Just under half of all goods that usually transit through Lithuania, including coal, metals, construction materials and advanced technology, are covered by a ban on Russian exports entering EU territory.

There is a different enforcement date for many of the goods. On 17 June the prohibition on Russian steel and iron ore came into force. The Lithuanian state railways said they would no longer allow these goods to be carried on its tracks.

In response, the region’s governor, Anton Alikhanov, said ferry services from St Petersburg would take the strain and that there was no need to panic. That led to panic and video footage emerged of shoppers frantically filling shopping trolleys at DIY stores. Russia’s foreign ministry accused Lithuania of breaking international law and a series of agreements on the facilitation of transit from mainland Russia that had been agreed in 2004.

The Kremlin has threatened to retaliate. All this follows Lithuania’s decision to raise its security around the trains. A permanent helicopter presence above the tracks is planned. The Kremlin has accused Lithuania of blockading its citizens.

What has been Lithuania’s response?

The government says is it has merely acted on European Commission guidelines. The country’s foreign minister on Monday accused the Kremlin of misrepresenting the situation. The EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, told a press conference in Brussels that Lithuania was “innocent” but added that officials would “double-check” all the relevant agreements.

Has that placated Moscow?

No. The EU’s ambassador to Russia was called in for a reprimand on Tuesday. The bellicose language of retaliation from the Kremlin has gone up a gear. That may be because it is a better narrative for the Kremlin than that of Moscow blockading Ukrainian ports and creating a global food crisis that could kill millions of people. Russia’s security council head, Nikolai Patrushev, said on Tuesday that there would be “serious consequences” for Lithuanians “in the near future”. The EU has called for calm and a diplomatic solution.

Is the EU concerned?

Very. There is little rhyme or reason for much that Putin does these days. One of the great fears has been a Russian attack across what is known as the Suwalki Gap, the 50 mile strip of Polish and Lithuanian border land that lies between Kaliningrad in the west and Kremlin-friendly Belarus to the east. That could cut off Lithuania and Latvia, which are north of the gap, from Poland and the rest of the EU south of it.

Kaliningrad is the headquarters for Russian’s Baltic fleet and hosts some of its most powerful armaments, including hypersonic missiles. Beyond using the row as a precursor to another world war, Russian options are not strong, however. Lithuania has already dropped Russian energy imports including oil, natural gas and electricity.


Daniel Boffey in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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