Giorgi Paniashvili, Analyst
General Overview of the Situation at Hand
On June 18, 2022, Lithuania banned rail transit of EU-sanctioned products passing through its territory from Russia to Kaliningrad.
As a result of the ban, Lithuania is no longer transiting products such as coal, metals, cement, timber, construction materials and high-tech equipment to Kaliningrad through its railways. There is a high probability that the transit ban will affect Russian oil products from as soon as August.
In addition to rail transit, the Lithuanian authorities have also imposed a strict ban on road freight transit routes.
According to the assessment of the governor of the Kaliningrad region, the transit ban applies to products that make up about 40-50% of all cargo entering the region.
The Lithuanian “sting” left Russia upset, though the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania clarified that this prohibiting measure was agreed with the European Commission and was implemented under its supervision.
As a result, Moscow is facing serious problems/disruptions in supplying one of its strategically important regions with vital products. The Kaliningrad region is the westernmost and most European land of Russia, bordered by Poland to the south, Lithuania to the north and east, and the Baltic Sea to the west. As such, Russia does not have direct land access to this territory, though a number of products can be brought to Kaliningrad by sea and air.
Currently, despite a very strong reaction, the Kremlin is trying to get Brussels and Lithuania to negotiate a lift on the restrictive transit ban imposed on the region.
Russia’s reaction to the incident
The Lithuanian “sting” turned out quite unpleasant for Russia and generated a substantial reaction from Moscow:
Kaliningrad Governor Anton Alikhanov was the first to respond to the imposed transit restriction, accusing both the European Union and Lithuania of gross violations of international law, demanding explanations, and announcing that this ban is an attempt to “choke” the region’s economy.
In the footsteps of the Russian governor, who was baffled at and angry with the transit ban, the Russian Foreign Ministry did not hesitate to react strongly. In connection with the introduction of partial restrictions on transit, on June 20, Lithuania’s temporary chargé d’affaires Virginia Umbrasene was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, where she was presented with a clear and loud protest from the Russian side. The Russian Foreign Ministry assessed Lithuania’s actions as “provocative” and “openly hostile”.
The diplomatic protest note of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia also contained threatening elements. In particular, according to the Russian side, if the railway transit between the Kaliningrad region and the rest of Russia through the territory of Lithuania is not restored, Russia “reserves the right to take measures to protect its national interests.”
The Chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the Federation Council, Grigory Karasin, added to the aggressive reaction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, saying that Russia reserves the right to take decisive measures so that its region does not end up in a blockade. In addition, probably based on his old contacts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he added that according to his information, “a rather rude conversation” was held with the Lithuanian diplomat.
The matter of the Kaliningrad transit ban was brought under the direct control of the Kremlin, and was commented on by the Kremlin’s press spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, who noted that the situation is “unprecedented and extremely serious,” containing “blockade elements,” and responsive actions would require a thorough analysis.
Andrei Klimov, Chairman of the Federation Council’s Sovereignty Protection Commission, went alarmingly far in his evaluations and judgments of the issue, saying that if the EU did not immediately correct this “audacious outburst” by Vilnius, it would disavow Lithuania’s EU membership documents, thereby opening the possibility for Russia to solve the situation by any means necessary.
Klimov was supported by another colleague from the Federation Council – Andrei Klishas, who said that the transit ban is a violation of Russia’s sovereignty and could be a basis for harsh actions by Russia.
On June 21, the former head of the FSB and the secretary of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, made a special visit to the Kaliningrad region, assessing the transit ban as another harmful provocation by the West and publicly promising that Russia would develop countermeasures and implement them in the near future, insinuating a negative impact for the population of Lithuania.
Is Lithuania Actually Violating Anything?
Official Vilnius stood firm against the wave of accusations and threats coming from Russia. Lithuania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has quietly but clearly stated that this ban has been agreed with the European Commission, and by imposing this particular transit ban, the country is solely complying with the fourth package of EU sanctions against Russia.
Lithuania is confidently aware of the ongoing situation and is well versed in its international legal position.
Freedom of transit to Kaliningrad is guaranteed by the 1994 Agreement on Partnership and Cooperation between Russia and the European Union. Nevertheless, it is Article 99 of this international agreement that gives the parties the right to take necessary measures in order to protect their security. In addition is the 2020 decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union in the “Rosneft” case, according to which the reservation provided for in Article 99 can also be used to impose EU restrictive measures.
The transit agreements concluded between Lithuania and Russia are also subject to EU law, as it has superior legal weight.
Thus, Lithuania relies on the above-mentioned legal EU argument in its relations with neighboring Russia.
How Probable Is the Economic and Humanitarian Blockade of Kaliningrad?
Here, first of all, it should be noted that only the transit of products sanctioned by the European Union was banned, not all cargo. This means that the rail and road transportation of authorized cargoes through Lithuania to the Kaliningrad region, as well as passenger transportation, has not been interrupted and is being carried out as usual. Therefore, any talks regarding any sort of economic blockade and/or creation of humanitarian problems is only a figment of the Kremlin’s propaganda fantasy.
Further, in addition to Lithuanian transit, cargo can also be delivered to the Kaliningrad region by sea and air. It is true that the launch of new sea and air transit routes will be relatively more expensive and time-consuming, but if efforts are made, Russia will cope with this new challenge and save its European exclave from further problems.
Experts in the field also believe that there may be a shortage of several types of products in the Kaliningrad region, as well as expected price increases and some delays in timely delivery, although in the end, the region is unlikely to be put on the edge of economic hardship and humanitarian disaster.
Foreign Political and Security Risks
Lithuania is a full-fledged member state of NATO and the European Union, so any military retaliation by Russia in response to the transit ban would be a risky and dangerous idea. Russia, which is deeply involved in Ukraine, does not really need new military-political adventures, especially with a NATO member country. Therefore, the probability of a military confrontation is not high.
However, Russia may use such rogue practices as it has in the past, perhaps violating Lithuanian air and sea spaces with ships or aircraft loaded with sanctioned products. It is also possible that Lithuanian manufacturing and businesses, which are somehow connected to Russia, will face problems. In this regard, it should be noted that Lithuania has already freed itself from Russian energy dependence, and its economy is not intertwined with Russia or its market. Therefore, such “revenge” will be less effective.
In addition, Lithuania and Russia are not vested in complex political cooperation, so nothing there can be reduced and/or damaged.
At this stage, Russia will have to adapt to the difficulties related to the transit ban on products sanctioned by the European Union, and must try to solve the situation at hand through negotiations.
Most likely, in order to supply Kaliningrad with cargo, Moscow will have to launch additional sea or air routes to Kaliningrad. Prices and shipping times will increase, which will create serious obstacles in a number of sectors of Kaliningrad’s economy.
Ultimately, the Lithuanian “sting” will have a negative impact on the economy of the European exclave of Russia and will put an additional burden on the Russian federal budget.
It is no secret that Georgia’s friend, Lithuania, together with the European Union, is trying to make Russia pay a high price for its blatant invasion of Ukraine. The transit ban partially serves this purpose.
Small Lithuania, in addition to its security, is also risking economic retaliation; however, it is well aware that at this point in time, only a principled and coordinated policy secured with its EU partners can be the most realistic guarantee of its long-term economic stability and security.