NATO’s Baltic states are preparing for an escalation in tension after Russia threatened retaliation against Lithuania for imposing European Union sanctions on certain goods heading to the Kaliningrad exclave, part of Russia wedged between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea coast.
The Kremlin has warned Lithuania of “serious consequences” for its application of EU sanctions on certain goods, including Russian steel and iron ore. Baltic diplomats, meanwhile, have told Newsweek that Moscow is “trolling” its NATO rivals and probing for weaknesses in the alliance’s unified front on Ukraine.
The EU measures—part of the response to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine—were agreed as part of the bloc’s fourth sanctions package in March, some of which came into force this weekend.
Restrictions on goods including Russian oil, coal, cement and alcohol are due to come into force at different points between now and December. This may yet deepen the dispute over Kaliningrad, a Connecticut-sized exclave that is largely reliant on overland connections running from Russia through Lithuania.
In a statement sent to Newsweek, Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry dismissed Russian reports that the exclave had been blockaded.
“The land transit between the Kaliningrad region and other parts of the Russian Federation has not been stopped or banned,” the ministry said. “The transit of passengers and EU non-sanctioned goods continues without restrictions. The Republic of Lithuania is not applying any national unilateral restrictive measures in this regard.”
Baltic diplomats told Newsweek that the standoff could worsen, though dismissed concerns that the dispute could escalate into direct military confrontation between NATO and Russia.
One Baltic diplomatic official, who did not want their name or nationality to be made public given the sensitivity of the situation, told Newsweek the Russian reaction was no surprise and suggested that Moscow was overreacting.
“I understand it is painful for them,” the diplomat said. Russia will not be able to supply Kaliningrad with all necessary sanctioned goods by sea alone, the diplomat added, noting this would be too expensive an alternative for Moscow.
“I think Russia is only reacting to something they were not ready for, to be honest,” the official said.
The EU’s institutions are already involved in discussions to find a solution, the diplomat added. Bloc foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said this week there is “no blockade,” adding: “If the transit through European Union territories are prohibited for some goods, then it is prohibited.”
While Moscow threatens action against Lithuania, officials in Estonia have accused Russia of running missile attack simulations against the country and of violating its airspace using a helicopter.
The June 18 incident is the first time a Russian helicopter has intruded into Estonian airspace, and took place along the eastern border rather than in the north where aerial violations are more common.
An Estonian diplomatic official who spoke to Newsweek on the condition of anonymity said Tallinn expects further Russian operations.
“Everything is calm here,” the official said. “We don’t believe that there will be military intervention, they wouldn’t go against NATO…I’m certain that NATO would answer immediately and in full power.”
The U.S. government has already said it is ready to respond to any Russian aggression.
“Our commitment to NATO’s Article Five—the premise that an attack on one would constitute an attack on all—that commitment on the part of the United States is ironclad,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Tuesday.
But Russia has many options to escalate short of a direct military confrontation. In recent years, the Kremlin has weaponized its fossil fuel exports, launched cyber attacks and directed migration flows against its Baltic neighbors, who have long been the most outspoken NATO-EU voices on the threat from the east.
“We assume that they may try some kind of hybrid thing,” the Estonian diplomat said of Moscow’s next steps. “Maybe refugees amassing at the Lithuanian-Belarus border again. Or the Russians can unplug the Baltics from their electrical grid, or they can conduct provocative military exercises near Lithuania and other Baltic states.”
Russia’s helicopter airspace violation, though, suggests Moscow is looking for new ways to increase the temperature along NATO’s eastern frontier.
“This is quite a different case than we’re used to,” the Estonian diplomat said. “We assume this is just another piece of their trolling so they can show that they can disturb us if they want.”
“Certainly our military help to Ukraine, and the Finns and Swedes joining NATO gives them the temptation to troll us.”
Newsweek has contacted the Russian Foreign Ministry for comment.
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