Last Saturday, Lithuania banned the transit of goods subject to European Union sanctions through its territory to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which is located in the Baltic Sea and about 1,300 km (800 miles) from Moscow.
Lithuania said the move was in line with European sanctions. Outraged, Moscow called it a “blockade” and promised to respond.
The banned goods include coal, metals, building materials and advanced technology, which make up 50 percent of Kaliningrad’s imports, according to the region’s governor Anton Alikhanov.
Russia has demanded that the restrictions be lifted, calling Lithuania’s actions “openly hostile” against Kaliningrad.
The region, sandwiched between EU and NATO members Poland and Lithuania, receives supplies from Russia via rail and gas pipelines through Lithuania.
Kaliningrad was part of Germany until the end of World War II, when it was given to the Soviet Union at the Potsdam Conference in 1945.
The westernmost state of Russia has about 1 million inhabitants, mostly Russians but also a small number of Ukrainians, Poles and Lithuanians.
And critically, it essentially viewed it as a Russian military base. The exact number of soldiers stationed there is unknown; estimates range from 9,000 to a maximum of 200,000 soldiers.
Rising tensions are fueling fears over the Suwałki Gorge, an 80 km long land corridor crossing southeastern Poland and Lithuania, which is critical to the security of the Baltic states as it connects Russia’s Kaliningrad and Belarus. could connect.
Al Jazeera spoke with Agnia Grigas, senior fellow and expert on energy and geopolitics at the Atlantic Council, about the situation in Kaliningrad, the possible implications for the war in Ukraine and the future of the region.
Al Jazeera: How would you characterize Lithuania’s ban?
Agnia Grigas: This is certainly not just a Lithuanian decision, but a decision taken in Brussels to penalize the transit of certain Russian goods through the territory of the European Union.
The fact is that Lithuania is the only country in the European Union where this transit of goods regularly takes place from mainland Russia via Belarus, through the territory of Lithuania to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. You could argue that Lithuania could have asked for exemptions, as some European Union countries have requested exemptions from the various elements of Russian sanctions. In a sense, Lithuania has decided not to ask for an exemption from the sanctions.
Al Jazeera: Russia has said Lithuanian citizens will “feel the pain” over Kaliningrad. How would Moscow react?
Grigas: Russia could impose its own sanctions on sales of goods to Lithuania. The main Russian exports are oil and gas, and electricity, and Lithuania made the decision much earlier before this conflict that it will not buy Russian energy resources. There may be fertilizers and other elements, but there is already a broad blanket of European sanctions against Russian goods.
I consider Russia’s statements more as threats and attitudes to the Russian domestic public because many… [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s statements usually aim to show the Kremlin’s determination and strength, rather than necessarily specifying what actions they would take or to the outside public.
What’s disturbing is that Russia or the Kremlin use the terms that Lithuania has put a blockade, or the choice of words is important, because blockade can be seen as a military action, and therefore Russia could try to, you know, justify a kind of [military action]also.”
Al Jazeera: Can Kaliningrad and its economy be affected? What are possible scenarios for Kaliningrad and the Russian authorities to overcome this tension?
Grigas: Kaliningrad is already a highly isolated militarized region. Even within the context of the Russian economy, this is economically very underdeveloped. We can expect more stagnation and more isolation for this region. Certainly, the residents of Kaliningrad, who are already struggling economically, will face even more hardships.
Al Jazeera: What is the importance of Kaliningrad for Russia and the region, especially in terms of geopolitical security? The Suwałki Gap is often considered the weakest point of the NATO alliance. Why is this?
Grigas: Kaliningrad is of great importance from a strategic point of view and can really be called the Achilles heel of NATO. There are armed naval and air forces that Russia receives there. It is essentially a military base, separated from mainland Russia.
A major interest here is a strip of land connecting Poland and Lithuania – the Suwałki Gorge. If Russia chooses to use the territory of Belarus for a military operation, as they have done in the case of Ukraine, they could also send the troops out of Kaliningrad, essentially cutting Lithuania and Poland apart and the Baltic states are cut off from the rest of NATO territory.
Al Jazeera: How do you think the situation in Kaliningrad could affect the war in Ukraine?
Grigas: I think this situation in Kaliningrad will show whether Russia is willing to further escalate this conflict against the West, the European Union and NATO.
Al Jazeera: The United States has said it will stand behind Lithuania and its NATO pledges to defend it…
Grigas: NATO, the United States and the countries of the European Union have been very careful not to get involved in this war. There is a real fear of a possible escalation of the conflict with Russia, as Russia remains a nuclear state. Secondly, due to the fact that it is essentially run by a single man with a very small circle of advisors, who essentially has a free hand to make whatever decisions they make.
Al Jazeera: Russia has said Lithuania’s decision exacerbates global food shortages. To what extent do you think the ban can contribute to the crisis?
Grigas: I think the global food crisis is a result of the Russian war in Ukraine, the blockade of the Black Sea, and especially the administration of Odessa. Russia could try to link these two issues. Nevertheless, I think the Kremlin has made a decision to increase world food prices, inflation and access to food in order to strengthen its negotiating position.
Al Jazeera: Lithuania and Russia already had weak diplomatic relations, and the war in Ukraine has exacerbated them. How will their ties be affected by the ban?
Grigas: Lithuania has been a very strong supporter of Ukraine since the very beginning of the war in February and, frankly, since the Russian occupation of Crimea [in 2014] and the first invasion of the Donbas.
Earlier this summer, Russia and Duma deputies discussed whether to revoke Lithuania’s independence, which the Soviet Union agreed to in 1991. This is part of a sort of broader package of the Kremlin’s threats against a smaller neighboring country.
I do not think that Lithuanian-Russian relations will improve for the foreseeable future. Frankly, relations between Europe and Russia will not improve for the foreseeable future, and neither will relations between NATO and Russia, especially as long as the ongoing war in Ukraine continues.
Editor’s Note: The interview has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.