KYBARTAY, Lithuania. As war rages in Ukraine, stoking ever-increasing tensions between NATO and Russia, a sleepy Baltic rail yard with no passengers and few trains has found itself at the center of a dangerous new East-West confrontation this week.
The station stands on the border between Lithuania, a NATO member and an active supporter of Ukraine, and Kaliningrad, Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea stuffed with missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons, but physically cut off from the rest of Russia.
From the Lithuanian city of Kybartai, adorned with Ukrainian flags, railroad tracks stretch west to Kaliningrad, delivering goods to the region but also tracking potentially a shifting strategic fault line on the outskirts of Europe.
Long dormant tensions over Kaliningrad flared up this week, further hurting Russia’s relationship with the West, after Moscow’s unsubstantiated claims that Europe is cutting off rail and road routes bringing vital supplies to Kaliningrad and will face retaliation as a result.
“Russia will definitely respond to such hostile actions,” Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Kremlin’s Security Council and one of President Vladimir Putin’s closest advisers, warned Tuesday during a visit to Kaliningrad. He stated that Russia “in the near future” will take measures that “will have a serious negative impact on the population of Lithuania.”
This threat has sparked a feverish struggle in Washington and European capitals to prevent what they have been seeking to avoid since Mr. Trump Putin invaded Ukraine four months ago: a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO.
On Wednesday, Lithuanian ministers and lawmakers gathered in a secure underground conference room to ponder possible Russian responses and discuss how the dry little things of European sanctions have caused a number of unintended and possibly dangerous consequences.
“No one wanted or expected this,” said Laurynas Kasciunas, chairman of the Lithuanian Defense and Security Committee, who chaired the meeting. “We all know how sensitive Kaliningrad is for Russians.”
Marius Emuzis, a Soviet-era history expert at Vilnius University, said Kaliningrad has always been a “complex and unstable place,” part of the region known before 1945 as East Prussia, the center of German militarism.
Conquered by the Red Army at the end of World War II, the region was cleared of Germans and subjected to what Mr. Emuzi described as “military anarchy” with looting, rape and arbitrary violence by Soviet soldiers. The first leader of the Communist Party in the region, sent by Stalin from Moscow to restore order, despaired and shot himself in 1947.
Chaos later receded, but Kaliningrad, wedged between Poland and Lithuania, now NATO members, has never lost its meaning as an insecure place away from the rest of Russia and surrounded by potential enemies.
Better Understand the Russo-Ukrainian War
Former President Trump National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien described Kaliningrad, home to the Russian Navy’s Baltic Fleet and replete with advanced Iskander missiles, like a “dagger in the heart of Europe”.
That was before the war in Ukraine, which may have increased Russia’s desire to strike at the West, but severely limited its ability to do so without resorting to nuclear weapons.
Peter Nielsen, a Danish colonel who commands a NATO unit in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, said he had seen no sign in recent days that Russia was preparing any new military action against Lithuania. “I didn’t sleep well for a month before the invasion of Ukraine; now I sleep very well, ”he said in an interview. “Knock on wood.”
What Russia can ultimately do will depend on Mr. Trump’s opinion, he said. Putin, and “we can’t delve into it.” But the Russian president’s ability to act short of starting a nuclear war is severely limited, he said. “We monitor what they do, not what they say,” he said.
For example, about half of the Russian troops and equipment that were previously based in Kaliningrad have now been transferred to Ukraine. The United States, by contrast, has increased NATO forces in Lithuania, with about 700 US soldiers now on rotation in the country to supplement the fighting.a permanent contingent of 1,150 German, 250 Dutch and 200 Norwegian troops.
This, said the Colonel. Nielsen considers a Russian military strike against Lithuania unlikely, “even if they go crazy.”
More likely, according to officials in Vilnius, is Russian interference in shipping lanes near Lithuania’s main Baltic port, Klaipeda, through military exercises or disruption of the power grid linking Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
But the latter, according to Lithuanian Energy Minister Dainius Kreivis, would mean a blackout in all the Baltic countries, which Moscow probably doesn’t want. In addition, he added, Lithuania has established connections with Poland, Finland and Sweden, which allows it to easily connect to the European grid and avoid power outages.
While government officials downplay Russian threats, nerves are on edge. To help calm these unrest, the United States on Wednesday pledged “iron” support in the event of military or other retaliatory action from Russia.
The problem first came to light on June 17, when Governor of the Kaliningrad Region Anton Alikhanov posted a video message on his Telegram channel saying he had received “unpleasant news” that Lithuania was banning freight traffic between mainland Russia and its territory. region due to European sanctions.
He said the ban, which Lithuania claims does not exist, covers about half of the goods imported by the Kaliningrad region and represents a “gross violation” of the European Union’s obligation to allow the unimpeded flow of goods between the two disparate parts of Russia.
Lithuania says that the share of goods destined for Kaliningrad, which are still subject to European restrictions, is only one percent of the total traffic, since many EU sanctions on these shipments have not yet come into force.
“The Russians want to create hysteria,” he said. Kashchyunas, Chairman of the Defense and Security Committee. He suggested it was part of an attempt to drive a wedge between the EU countries, which were unusually united on sanctions, and force the bloc to introduce exemptions that risk undermining the policy of punishing Russia for its invasion.
An internal report by the Lithuanian State Railways shows that rail freight traffic between the Russian mainland and Kaliningrad had dropped sharply even before sanctions came into effect, from 616,000 tons in March to 298,000 tons in May. Fifty-four per cent of this cargo was goods subject to European sanctions but not yet banned under the phased implementation programme. Sanctions already announced on vodka, for example, won’t take effect until July 10.
In a video message on Wednesday, Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte dismissed Russia’s claims of the blockade as “false”, noting that passengers were still free to travel by train and freight traffic was only marginally disrupted.
RS. Simonyte insisted that Lithuania was simply “observing the sanctions imposed by the European Union on Russia for its aggression and opposing Ukraine.”
Not knowing whether Russian goods under sanctions are prohibited only for sale in Europe or also for transit through EU territory, Lithuania turned to the bloc’s executive body, the European Commission, for clarification this year and was told in April that “transit between Kaliningrad and mainland Russia, through EU Member States, items subject to the measures are also prohibited.”
It was recommended that “proportional” checks should be carried out, but what this means remains unclear.
Hoping for some clarity, Lithuania this week asked the European Commission to take a decision on how and when exactly sanctions should be applied to Russian goods transported to Kaliningrad. Officials said they expect a decision in the coming days.
Worried that its westernmost territory could be cut off from the rest of the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Lithuania’s independence, Moscow has been negotiating for years with post-Soviet leaders in Vilnius to guarantee safe and uninterrupted passage for its train.
Gediminas Kirkilas, the former prime minister of Lithuania who took part in the negotiations in 2002 and 2003, said the deal was about passenger traffic, not freight, reflecting the fact that at the time no one expected Russia to be subject to sanctions restricting transportation of its goods.
The two countries agreed that Russian trains, sealed to prevent passengers from jumping off the train and entering Lithuania without visas, could pass unimpeded between the scattered parts of Russia.
This week, at an almost empty Kybartai station, a sealed train from Kaliningrad to Moscow briefly opened its doors to allow Lithuanian customs and border guards on board to count the passengers. There were only 191, a sharp drop from the 700 who traveled during the summer season before the war in Ukraine.
Saulius Baykstys, the station’s director, said he was “certainly concerned” about rising tensions – not because he fears a Russian attack, but “because we’re worried about losing our jobs” if trains stop running to and from Kaliningrad.
Tomas Dapkus from Vilnius contributed reporting.