9th Jun 2023

Russia escalates Lithuania threats ahead of EU summit

  • Kaliningrad city centre - news of Lithuania's ban on Russian metals transit sparked panic buying in shops (Photo: Christoph)
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EU diplomats have urged "calm" amid escalating Russian rhetoric against Nato-member Lithuania, which sparked talk of "World War 3" on social media.

"I have asked the Russian side to keep calm and not escalate [the situation] verbally or action-wise," the EU ambassador to Russia, Markus Ederer, said Tuesday (21 June) in Moscow, according to Russian news agency Tass.

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He spoke after being summoned by the Russian foreign ministry, which complained about what Moscow is calling a blockade of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad by Lithuania.

Kaliningrad is sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland, on the Baltic Sea.

Lithuania began blocking transit of EU-sanctioned Russian goods on Saturday in line with EU Commission instructions.

Sanctioned goods include coal, steel, iron, wood, caviar, vodka, and oil, with the bans to be phased in, starting with metals shipments.

Direct flights by Russian planes over EU airspace are also banned, meaning Kaliningrad residents have to fly over the Baltic Sea instead, adding 40 minutes to their journey.

The Lithuanian move prompted panic buying in Kaliningrad, according to The Moscow Times, even though the EU sanctions do not cover transit of passengers or basic items, such as food.

"Transit for people and goods not affected by sanctions is operating as normal," Ederer, the EU ambassador, also said in Moscow.

"There is no Kaliningrad blockade," Lithuanian prime minister Ingrida Šimonytė also told press in Vilnius Tuesday.

But for all that, top Russian officials, spokesmen, and media multiplied their threats against Lithuania if it did not back down.

"Russia will certainly respond to such hostile actions," Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Russian Security Council said after flying to Kaliningrad. "Their consequences will have a serious negative impact on the population of Lithuania".

"Retaliation will follow," the Russian foreign ministry said.

"Consequences, unfortunately, will come", the ministry's spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, added.

Others were more hawkish. "Nato begins the blockade of the Russian region with the help of Lithuania, it is a direct aggression against Russia, forcing us to resort to self-defence", Andrei Klimov, a senior Russian senator, said.

Russia's verbal escalation comes after one of its MPs introduced a bill to de-recognise Lithuania's independence.

It also comes as EU leaders prepare to designate Ukraine as an accession "candidate" at a summit in Brussels later this week, amid warnings by Kyiv that Moscow will most likely stage a provocation to destabilise the EU talks.

The Russian rhetoric prompted a wave of nervous commentary on social media about the risk of a Nato-Russia military clash.

The fairly obscure "Kaliningrad" was one of the top trending hashtags on Twitter on Tuesday.

The equally obscure "Suwalki Gap" was also trending — the strip of land between Belarus and Kaliningrad is strategically important because if Russian and Belarusian forces were to seize hold of it, they would cut off all three Baltic States from the rest of Europe.

For their part, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov and Kaliningrad governor Anton Alikhanov also complained that Lithuania's transit ban violated international treaties.

But this line was met with scorn in Vilnius.

"It's ironic to hear rhetoric about alleged violations of international treaties from a country [Russia] which has violated possibly every single international treaty," Šimonytė said.

Morgana Danielė, a Lithuanian MP, noted that transit of Russian vodka will be banned from 10 July, but joked that Kaliningrad should thank the EU for it.

"Kaliningrad owes us a favour for a sober life, the rest of Russia should follow the pattern and get sober ASAP," she said.

And Russia's warnings also had little effect in Brussels — for now.

"The one thing that would change EU thinking on sanctions is if Russia withdrew its troops from Ukraine and stopped the war", a Commission spokesman said.

Meanwhile, EU ministers gathering in Luxembourg voiced increasing support for Ukraine's candidate status.

France, Germany, Italy, and Poland all back the move. Denmark, which had previously raised objections over Ukrainian corruption, said it was also on board.

"It's something that Denmark whole-heartedly supports. We want to help Ukraine to achieve its European dream," Danish foreign minister Jeppe Kofod said.

"We are working towards the point where we tell [Russian president Vladimir] Putin that Ukraine belongs to Europe," Luxembourg foreign affairs minister Jean Asselborn said.

Hungary holding out?

The EU is currently in talks on a seventh wave of sanctions on Russia.

"Work will continue on sanctions, including to strengthen implementation and prevent circumvention," EU leaders aim to say at the summit, according to the latest draft conclusions dated 20 June and seen by EUobserver.

But Russia-friendly Hungary, which already vetoed previous EU measures, is continuing to hold up the process, diplomatic sources said.

"They [Hungary] are not really blocking, as there is no concrete proposal [for the 7th round] on the table, just sending signals that they would have difficulties with the next package at this moment," an EU diplomat said.

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