Moscow has found itself at the center of yet another Eastern European conflict after Lithuania banned certain goods from traveling by rail through its territory to reach Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave nestled between Poland and the Baltics. Lithuania, notably a European Union and NATO member (as is Poland), says its decision was made after consulting with the EU, and runs in accordance with the bloc's Russian sanctions. But the Kremlin, as one might expect, has not taken the news lying down. Here's everything you need to know:
What and where is Kaliningrad?
The Russian outpost of Kaliningrad sits on the Baltic Sea, just north of Poland and south of Lithuania. The roughly 5,830 square mile area, which is detached from mainland Russia, was originally part of Germany until Moscow seized control in 1945. It was later ceded to the Soviet Union at the conclusion of World War II, and its name was changed from Königsberg to Kaliningrad, per The Washington Post. The area's German population was also then forced to leave.
Once the Soviet Union collapsed, Kaliningrad became part of Russia, and managed "relatively close economic ties with European states in the years after," the Post writes. That rosy relationship changed, however, once Russian President Vladimir Putin took over, "particularly after Russia's 2014 attack on Ukraine and annexation of Crimea drew EU sanctions and condemnation."
What's the drama now?
Lithuanian state rail operator LTG said last Friday it would no longer allow any EU-sanctioned Russian goods to travel through Lithuania to get to Kaliningrad. Exclave Gov. Anton Alikhanov estimated the change would impact about 50 percent of the region's imports. Sanctioned products include "construction machinery, machine tools, and other industrial equipment," per CNN. Regular commercial travel and the transport of non-EU-sanctioned goods can continue uninterrupted, and Kaliningrad can still receive Russian goods by sea.
Regardless, the Kremlin is not happy and has demanded Lithuania rescind the ban immediately. On Monday, spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Russia considered Lithuania's decision to be illegal and "part of a blockade, of course." And Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, went seemingly a step further, warning "Russia will certainly respond to such hostile actions."
"Measures are being worked out in an interdepartmental format and will be taken in the near future. Their consequences will have a serious negative impact on the Lithuanian population," he added, as quoted by CNN per Russia's RIA Novosti state-run news agency.
Lithuania, meanwhile, has stood by its decision — as has the EU, though the European Commission is preparing guidance for Lithuania so as to clarify the sanctions and hopefully "defuse the dispute," reports The Financial Times.
Why is Kaliningrad important for Russia?
The exclave plays a key military role for Russia, particularly given its position between two members of NATO. Moscow has "methodically bolstered" its forces in the area, "arming them with state-of-the-art weapons, including precision-guided Iskander missiles and an array of air defense systems," Reuters reports. Such weapons can notably "be positioned within easy striking distance of Western Europe," adds the Post.
Kaliningrad is also Moscow's only Baltic Sea port that's "ice-free year-round," and houses the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet, notes Germany's Deutsche Welle.
What does this mean for Lithuania?
Russia has threatened "hostile actions" that will have a "significant negative impact" on Lithuania, but that retaliation has gone undetailed for the time being. At the very least, Kaliningrad Gov. Alikhanov has suggested backlash could perhaps involve "shutting the flow of cargo via the ports of Lithuania and other Baltic nations," Reuters summarizes. That said, however, Lithuania might be in a good spot to withstand certain economic backlash, having "significantly reduced its economic and energy dependence on Russia." It was the first EU country to halt the use of Russian gas, and no longer imports Russian oil.
But "when you have a military force and they are ruled by the half-witted — I apologize for the expression — of course you can expect everything," Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anusauskas conceded Wednesday in reference to Russia. Still, the country feels confident, he added, per Reuters.
And what might this row mean for NATO?
All three Baltic states are concerned Russia's war in Ukraine might expand, and "that an emboldened Russia might try to seize a strategically key stretch of land along the Polish-Lithuanian border" known as the Suwalki Gap, the Post writes. If the roughly 40-mile passage, which connects Kaliningrad to Russian ally Belarus, falls to Moscow's control, the Baltics could be without "a land corridor to the rest of NATO." It's also worth noting that any attack on Lithuania, Estonia, or Latvia would trigger NATO's mutual defense treaty, and that "any attempt to defend them would have to get past Kaliningrad and the missiles stationed there," The New York Times adds.