Russia demands end to Kaliningrad transit restrictions

Russia demands end to Kaliningrad transit restrictions
Kaliningrad is bordered by Poland to the south, Lithuania to the north, and Belarus to the east.
By Linas Jegelevicius in Vilnius June 21, 2022

Russia has demanded that Lithuania swiftly lift a ban on the rail transit of some goods to and from its exclave of Kaliningrad; however, Vilnius says the ban is in line with EU sanctions.

“Transit to the Kaliningrad region via Lithuania has not been suspended or blocked. Lithuania has not imposed any unilateral restrictions on this transit,” President Gitanas Nauseda's spokespeople told local media on June 21, adding that the Kaliningrad region is subject to the same EU sanctions as the Russian Federation as a whole.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on June 21 that Lithuania's decision to ban the transit of sanctioned goods between Kaliningrad – separated from mainland Russia by Lithuania and Belarus – is "unprecedented" and "in violation of everything there is".

The Kremlin spokesman told Russia's Kommersant FM radio station that such actions are considered illegal and can be seen as "an element of the blockade".

Russia's foreign ministry said that the transit ban violates a 2002 Russia-EU agreement – which supported transit between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia – and demanded the immediate lifting of Lithuania's "openly hostile" restrictions. The Russian ministry said on its website that it had summoned Virginija Umbrasiene, Lithuania's charge d'affaires ad interim in Moscow.

Meanwhile, the Lithuanian foreign ministry on June 20 handed a diplomatic note to Sergey Ryabokon, Moscow's charge d'affaires ad interim in Vilnius, explaining the application of EU measures to transit between Kaliningrad and mainland Russia.

“In the meeting, the information spread by Russian representatives that Lithuania banned Kaliningrad transit was denied…Passengers and goods not subject to the EU sanctions regime continue to be transported through the territory of Lithuania to and from Kaliningrad," the ministry said in a statement.

Also on June 20, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that the ban on the transit of steel and ferrous metal products between Kaliningrad and mainland Russia was imposed in compliance with the EU's sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Kaliningrad Region Governor Anton Alikhanov said on June 17 that LTG Cargo, the freight transportation subsidiary of Lietuvos Gelezinkeliai (Lithuanian Railways), had informed the Russian exclave's railway operators of a ban on the rail transit of many products due to Western sanctions. According to the governor, the ban will affect between 40-50% of products imported and exported to and from other Russian regions via Lithuania, including construction materials, cement and metal products.

The Lithuanian foreign ministry says that the EU's restrictive measures on imports into and transit through the bloc's territory of Russian steel and other ferrous metal products came into force on June 17, as part of the EU's 4th sanctions package adopted on March 15, 2022.

On June 21, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis emphasised that the ban on the transit of steel and ferrous metal products via Lithuania to the Russian region of Kaliningrad is not a Lithuanian decision, but it has to do with the EU sanctions for Russia.

“First of all, this is not Lithuania's decision. These are European sanctions that came into force on June 17, and railways are now applying the sanctions and they are notifying their customers that as of June 17 sanctioned goods – steel and other goods made from iron ore –will no longer be taken via Lithuania, and that this is being done in consultation with and in accordance with the European Commission's guidelines,” Landsbergis said on late June 20 ahead of the upcoming meeting of the EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg.

Adopted on March 15, the EU sanction package includes restrictions on Russian steel and other ferrous metal products under contracts concluded before June 17, and as of last Saturday they could no longer be transported across EU territory, a spokeswoman for the department said.

On June 21, Lithuania’s Defence Minister Arvydas Anusauskas dismissed Russia's talk of a blockade of the Lithuanian port as being "plucked out of thin air". 

"All hints that Russia may take some 'other measures' and that it may blockade the Lithuanian port in some special non-contact way are plucked out of thin air," Anusauskas’ Facebook post says. "Russia has not had and does not have any measures, apart from diverting its own transit to its own ports," he added.

The minister noted that steel and ferrous metal products can no longer be transported via Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Poland and other EU member countries either, due to the bloc's sanctions, while the transit of passengers and goods not subject to sanctions continues.

Amid the spat, Arnoldas Pranckevicius, Vilnius' ambassador to the EU, said on June 21 that Lithuania has ‘to rebut Russia's disinformation on a blockade’ of its Kaliningrad exclave and not to give in to attempts to create panic.

"What is important is not to explain ourselves to Russia, but to refute Russia's disinformation narrative that Lithuania is allegedly carrying out a blockade of Kaliningrad," he told the public broadcaster LRT. 

The ambassador noted assurances given by Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, on June 20 that land transit between Kaliningrad and mainland Russia had not been suspended and that the transit of both passengers and non-sanctioned goods continued.

“Lithuania has not taken any unilateral national restrictions and only applies the European Union sanctions,” Borrell said.