The European Commission worked overnight on plans to defuse the growing crisis in Kaliningrad, fearing it could escalate quickly, according to several EU officials and diplomats.
Tensions are high over the transport of goods from the Russian mainland to its enclave which is sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland – with Moscow threatening to take ‘practical’ retaliatory measures if the EU does not unblock the metallic goods blocked in transit. On Wednesday, senior EU diplomats warned the situation was serious and could quickly escalate.
Officials and diplomats told POLITICO’s Brussels Playbook that the crisis is an unintended consequence of the EU’s fourth round of sanctions, under which the bloc banned imports from Russia of steel and ferrous materials. The train line that brings goods from Russia to Kaliningrad passes through Lithuania, an EU country, so customs officials have been stopping freight trains for checks since Saturday.
Lithuania and the European Commission insisted that this was not a unilateral decision by Vilnius, but that Lithuania was acting on the basis of directives issued by Brussels on how to implement the sanctions.
The Commission, officials said, is currently updating this information. “We are in close contact with the Lithuanian authorities and will provide further guidance,” Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said. tweeted Wednesday.
My sea added that Lithuania “must apply additional controls on road and rail transit” through EU territory, but “these controls are targeted, proportionate and effective. They will be based on intelligent risk management, to avoid circumvention sanctions while allowing free transit.
Two officials told POLITICO that the new guidelines make it clear that Lithuanian customs authorities must check goods to avoid circumvention of sanctions, but can allow metals to be transported onward if they are destined for the Russian domestic market – that is. i.e. Kaliningrad.
But Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė said banning the transit of steel and ferrous metals through the EU was part of the bloc’s sanctions, as agreed by the 27 member countries.
“As provided for in the fourth EU sanctions package, which was adopted on 15 March 2022, EU restrictive measures on imports and transit through the EU of Russian steel and other metal products ferrous came into effect on June 17, 2022,” she said. said. “Lithuania is applying the EU restrictive measures in accordance with EU law and in consultation with the European Commission.”
Although Vilnius and Brussels took seemingly contradictory positions, officials insisted that was not the case, as the sanctions were never intended to block Kaliningrad, but were designed to allow the EU to implement additional controls. “The general feeling within the Commission is that these are strategic communications from Russia,” said a senior official, “and that some Balts have taken advantage of this to increase the pressure.”
Tensions around Kaliningrad began when Russia demanded that the Lithuanian government immediately roll back new restrictions on EU-sanctioned shipments of Russian goods through Lithuanian territory. The Kremlin claimed Lithuania’s actions were “unprecedented” and “illegal”. Lithuania hit back at Moscow, saying it was just enforcing EU sanctions.