What are they up to in Kaliningrad? It could be nothing, but it could also be the start of trouble

Russian ship Kaliningrad
Russian ship Kaliningrad RIA / Scanpix

The geographical location of Kaliningrad and its militarisation have always been a headache for Lithuania and the other Baltic countries. The reason for this is that if, as a last resort, Russia wanted to initiate a conventional clash with NATO, it would first of all close the Suvalki corridor from the Belarusian and Kaliningrad sides while blocking access from the sea, which would make it more difficult for the Alliance to defend the Baltic countries, Eglė Samoškaitė writes in TV3.lt.

Tensions have been further exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine and the West’s imposition of sanctions against Russia and Belarus. In Lithuania, there have been proposals to block the transit of Kaliningrad because of the war in Ukraine. And although Lithuanian state representatives have not supported such threats, according to Lithuanian intelligence, Russian officials believe that anything can be expected from Lithuania on this issue.

The Russians have now decided to stop traffic over the Queen Louise Bridge in Kaliningrad so that trucks transporting goods to Kaliningrad can no longer use the Panemune border crossing point and have to go through the Kybartai border crossing.

As Algirdas Butkevičius, a member of the Seimas and former Prime Minister told tv3.lt, the trucks are spread out almost as far as Vilkaviškis. The Customs Department says that according to the agreement, the Lithuanians and Russians are supposed to pass 200 trucks each way every day, but the Russian side passes fewer, and the Russians say they do not have the capacity to pass more trucks.

At the same time, the Lithuanian authorities are wondering whether this is just a means of fomenting tension. Could it be aimed at creating discontent among the residents of Kaliningrad because goods are not arriving in the exclave? Or is it aimed at creating discontent among the Lithuanian population when the trucks stretch for kilometres?

Equally problematic is the fact that, following Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the West’s imposition of sanctions on Russia, Lietuvos geležinkeliai is no longer receiving payments from Russian Railways for the transit of passengers through Lithuania. According to unofficial reports, this is due to the cautious attitude of Lithuanian banks towards sanctions. In essence, it appears that, at least for the time being, Lithuania is transporting rail passengers to Russia free of charge, as transit is guaranteed by the Russia-EU agreement and is exempt from all sanctions.

A queue of trucks to Kaliningrad

When Russia and Belarus attacked Ukraine, Western countries imposed sanctions on both aggressors. The European Union’s fifth sanctions package bans Russian and Belarusian road transport companies from transporting goods on EU territory, with exceptions only for postal services and the transit of goods to the Kaliningrad region, provided the goods are not sanctioned. This means that Russian or Belarusian trucks are still running to and from Kaliningrad via Lithuania.

Kaliningrad’s remoteness from Russia means that it can be supplied by sea, air or land, in the latter case by road and rail. Land supply is always a cheaper alternative than sea or air.

That would be all well and good, but in the Kaliningrad area, the Russians have stopped traffic over the Queen Louise Bridge, so the trucks can no longer go through the Panemunė point. The official reason is that the arch of the Queen Louise Bridge is not holding up and needs repairs. Butkevičius said that the bridge needed repairs when he was Minister of Transport from 2006 to 2008, but the Russians had promised to build a new bridge, he said.

“I even spoke to the Prime Minister today. People are expressing their dissatisfaction because there have never been such queues to go through settlements. Virbalis, Kybartai no longer allow parking in the town, only in the terminal, but the settlement of Alvītis did not have any provision for no parking, so now people have started to get angry. The Prime Minister promised that she would take measures and give an order not to stand there and that as many toilets as possible would be provided,” said Butkevičius, who was elected as a Member of the Seimas in the Vilkaviškis constituency.

The politician said that it is very important to avoid provocation and not to provoke oneself. He points out that the Lithuanian side would have the capacity to let in freight trucks more quickly than it does now, but the Russians are quite slow in letting them into Kaliningrad, which is why the queues are forming.

Vitas Volungevičius, a spokesman of the Customs Department, said similarly. According to the agreement, the two sides are supposed to let in about 200 trucks, but the Lithuanians let in about 230, and the Russians about 180.

“This situation needs to be very controlled, and I have told the Prime Minister as well. You know, there is one other revolutionary from the Soviet times, although, in the Suvalkija region, they don’t have the influence to provoke the people or to organise dissatisfaction. (…) But there is one other person who expresses dissatisfaction,” says Butkevičius.

According to the Directorate of Border Inspection Posts, 550 trucks were waiting to enter Kaliningrad from the Lithuanian side on Tuesday. Butkevičius said he had no doubt that the queuing is a deliberate act on the Russian side, as no efforts are being made in Kaliningrad to increase the capacity at the Kybartai checkpoint, although Lithuania is ready for it.

According to tv3.lt, there is also some anxiety in the Lithuanian institutions, as the situation seems artificial. After the migrant crisis, it seems that anything can be expected, and there is a war going on, and you never know what instruments the adversary will add to his arsenal. All the more so since, from Russia’s own point of view, it is not just fighting against Ukraine but against the West.

At the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, there was already panic in Kaliningrad about the potential shortage of goods, and it was being considered whether neighbouring countries would block transport. 

Lithuania is not receiving Russian payments for passenger transport

Passenger transit and containers of goods also pass through Lithuania to Kaliningrad. Under a 2002 EU-Russia agreement, passenger and freight trains pass through Lithuania to Kaliningrad, with security provided by Lithuanian border guards and police.

The Lithuanian authorities have identified that the main threats, in this case, could be provocations on board trains, unauthorised departures from trains, unauthorised mass train travel and the presence of military formations on trains.

The Ministry of the Interior has indicated that there are currently, on average, four trains and about 100 passengers per day transiting Lithuania. Before the coronavirus pandemic, this figure was 700 passengers per day. Currently, the Special Transit Scheme is operated under the conditions and procedures laid down by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which limits the number of passengers to 250 per day.

Border guards ensure transit security, and mobile object monitoring devices are attached to trains to help control the movement of transit trains through the territory of Lithuania. When entering Lithuania, a special device is attached to the train to record its speed, stops and other information, which is monitored in real-time by officials. Since 2008, transit trains have been accompanied by patrol aircraft of the State Border Guard Service, either optionally or on call.

Military rail transit through Lithuania is controlled by the Movement Control Centre of the Lithuanian Armed Forces, whose officers inspect and assess the passengers when the train enters Lithuania and determine whether there are any soldiers among them.

In the event of an unscheduled train stop on the territory of Lithuania, the departure of a police crew to the scene shall be organised in accordance with established procedures. In urgent cases, if the information is received from a checkpoint or police station about persons who have illegally left a stopped transit train, a helicopter shall be deployed to the scene.

The security costs are reimbursed to Lithuania by the European Union. For example, during the war, Lithuania requested €24 million from the European Union to provide security.

However, Russian Railways pays for the transit trainsets transported, as well as for the servicing of these trainsets at the border stations to Lietuvos geležinkeliai. Last year this amounted to €6 million, while in the pre-pandemic period the amounts were higher because passenger flows were also higher.

“The amounts payable are calculated in accordance with international agreements and depend on various factors, including the number of passengers on transit trains,” says Laura Gabrilavičiūtė, Public Relations Manager at Lietuvos Geležinkeliai.

This was the case before the war in Ukraine and Western sanctions against Russia. Now the money is no longer flowing into the Lithuanian Railways account. According to unofficial data, this could be due to the fact that Lithuanian banks are particularly careful about payments from Russia. However, other unofficial sources claim that Russia itself is not paying, motivated by Western sanctions.

“Since the beginning of the Russian-instigated war in Ukraine, we have been analysing the sanctions imposed by the European Union on Russian companies and individuals. They also affect the settlement of passenger transit to and from the Kaliningrad region. We regularly inform the Lithuanian authorities about the situation – we act in accordance with their recommendations and decisions,” says L. Gabrilavičiūtė.

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