Lithuania on Monday defended its decision to block rail transit from Russia to a Russian Baltic Sea exclave in a move that drew Moscow's ire as tensions continue to rise in the region. Meanwhile, Russia's invasion of Ukraine is pushing former USSR republics of Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine itself to apply for EU membership.
Foreign Minister Gabrilius Landsbergis said that the measures implemented Saturday were taken after “consultation with the European Commission and under its guidelines.
“Sanctioned goods (will) no longer be allowed to transit Lithuanian territory,” Landsbergis added.
Goods on the list include steel, but are set to be broadly expanded to cover items that range from coal to alcoholic drinks.
The Kaliningrad exclave, home to Russia's Baltic Fleet and housing some 430,000 people, is surrounded by Lithuania and Poland - another EU country - to the south and is isolated from the rest of Russia.
Kaliningrad was the stronghold of the Teutonic Knights in the Middle ages, and through the centuries has been ruled by Poles, Germans and Russians.
As Königsberg it was most important city of Prussia, and home to the philosopher Immanuel Kant.
After WW2 the area was taken over by the Soviet army and the name was changed to Kaliningrad after Bolshevik revolutionary Mikhail Kalinin.
Today, the exclave still has a predominantly Russian population. Trains with goods for Kaliningrad travel via Belarus and Lithuania. There's no transit through Poland. Russia can still supply the enclave by sea, without falling foul of EU sanctions.
Russia has demanded that Lithuania immediately lifts the ban, with the Foreign Ministry in Moscow saying that if transport links are not restored in full “Russia reserves the right to take action in defense of its national interests.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov strongly denounced the “unlawful” ban.
“This decision, indeed unprecedented, is a violation of everything and then some. We understand that it is connected to the relevant decision of the European Union to extend the sanctions to transit (of goods). This we also consider unlawful,” Peskov told reporters on Monday.
The foreign ministry summoned Lithuania’s chief diplomatic representative in Moscow for a formal protest and alleged that the Baltic nation was acting in breach of international agreements.
Lithuania has not had an ambassador in Moscow since April, when it downgraded diplomatic ties in protest at the killing of civilians in Ukraine by Russian troops after the invasion on 24 February.
Lithuania later summoned the Russian envoy in Vilnius to tell him the ban was in line with EU sanctions, and that there was no blockade of Kaliningrad.
The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said Lithuania’s move should not be compared to the situation in Ukraine.
“The rest of the world will not be affected by what is happening in Kaliningrad, but the rest of the world is very much affected by what is happening in Ukraine,” he said.
Meanwhile, EU officials said Tuesday that there was "no opposition" within the 27-nation bloc to granting Ukraine "candidate status", ahead of the EU Council summit on 23-24 June. The summit is expected to green light the move.
The bloc's executive arm last week proposed taking the symbolic first step to put Ukraine on the years-long path towards EU membership in a strong sign of support as Kyiv battles Russia's military onslaught.
A two-day summit from Thursday looks set to approve the move to formally name Ukraine and neighbouring Moldova "candidates" to start negotiations on joining.
"There is not a single country which makes problems with the proposal," said Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn at a meeting with EU counterparts in his country's capital.