European officials scramble to douse Kaliningrad tensions

The European Commission worked overnight on plans to defuse the growing Kaliningrad crisis amid fears it could escalate quickly, according to several EU officials and diplomats.

Tensions are running high over freight transport from the Russian mainland to its exclave which is sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland — with Moscow threatening “practical” retaliatory action if the EU doesn’t unblock metal goods stuck in transit. Senior EU diplomats on Wednesday warned the situation was serious and could rapidly get worse. 

Officials and diplomats told POLITICO’s Brussels Playbook the crisis is an unintended consequence of the EU’s fourth sanctions package, under which the bloc banned imports from Russia of steel and ferrous materials. The train line supplying goods from Russia to Kaliningrad passes through Lithuania, an EU country, so customs agents have from Saturday been stopping freight trains for checks.

Lithuania and the European Commission have insisted that this was not Vilnius’ unilateral decision, but that Lithuania was acting based on guidance issued by Brussels on how to implement sanctions.

The Commission, officials said, is now updating that information. “We are in close touch with the Lithuanian authorities and will provide additional guidance,” Commission spokesman Eric Mamer tweeted Wednesday.

Mamer added that Lithuania “has to apply additional checks on road and rail transit” through EU territory, but “these checks are focused, proportionate and effective. They will be based on smart risk management, to avoid sanctions evasion while allowing free transit.”

Two officials told POLITICO the new guidance makes clear that Lithuanian customs authorities have to check the goods to avoid sanctions evasion, but can allow onward transport of metals if they are destined for Russia’s internal market — meaning Kaliningrad.

But Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė said the transit ban on steel and ferrous metal through the EU is part of the bloc’s sanctions, as agreed by all 27 member countries.

“As foreseen in the fourth package of EU sanctions, which was adopted on 15 March 2022, the EU’s restrictive measures on imports into and transit through the EU of Russian steel and other ferrous metal products definitively entered into force on 17 June 2022,” she said. “Lithuania applies the EU restrictive measures in accordance with the EU law and in consultations with the European Commission.”

Despite Vilnius and Brussels taking apparently contradictory positions, officials insisted that isn’t the case, because the sanctions were never meant to blockade Kaliningrad, but were designed to allow the EU to implement additional checks. “The overall feeling in the Commission is that this is strategic communications from the Russian side,” one senior official said, “and that certain Balts profited to ramp up the pressure.”

Tensions around Kaliningrad began when Russia demanded the Lithuanian government immediately reverse new restrictions on shipments of EU-sanctioned Russian goods through Lithuanian territory. The Kremlin claimed Lithuania’s actions were “unprecedented” and “illegal.” Lithuania hit back at Moscow, saying it was only implementing the sanctions imposed by the EU.