The EU’s top diplomat has insisted the bloc has no intention of blocking lawful transport of Russian goods to Kaliningrad through Lithuania in comments designed to de-escalate tensions with Moscow over the enforcement of western sanctions on steel and cement exports.
This week Lithuania began implementing sanctions that ban the transit of certain Russian goods through EU states. The checks triggered a furious response from Moscow, which has accused the EU of starting a “blockade” of the Russian Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad and has threatened Lithuania with serious consequences.
“We do not want to block or prevent the traffic between Russia and Kaliningrad,” Josep Borrell, the EU high representative, said on Thursday, adding that the EU measures should be implemented “in a clever and smart way”.
“[There are] two objectives: to prevent circumvention of the sanctions; and not to block the traffic. Both things should be possible, and we are working on that,” he added.
Borrell’s comments ahead of a summit of EU leaders came as some EU officials and diplomats questioned the scale and intensity of Lithuania’s measures to check Russian trains, people briefed on the discussions have told the FT.
The European Commission is now preparing guidance for Lithuania aimed at clarifying the impact of the sanctions and attempting to defuse the dispute.
The commission guidance is being drafted in close consultation with Lithuania, officials said, amid concern from other EU capitals that the situation risked significant further escalation with Moscow.
EU officials are mindful of agreements struck between Lithuania and Russia in the lead-up to the Baltic country’s 2004 entry into the bloc that guaranteed the free passage of goods and people along the rail link.
But the sanctions — agreed by all 27 EU members in response to Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine — give Vilnius the power to check shipments to ensure no restricted goods are being transported across its territory.
The railway line across Lithuania is Russia’s primary supply link to Kaliningrad.
Trade in key products such as iron and steel has already been hit by the EU measures. A wider range of Russian goods will start to be affected as the grace periods for later rounds of sanctions lapse.
Vilnius plans to raise the topic at Thursday’s summit of EU leaders, but some capitals have pushed back against any official conclusions on the issue, for fear of further inflaming tensions.
Eric Mamer, spokesperson for the European Commission, said on Wednesday that Brussels was “in close touch with the Lithuanian authorities and will provide additional guidance as we go along”.
“We don’t know in which direction the situation will develop,” said a senior diplomat from an EU member state. “We may see the Russian response today, tomorrow, the next day.”
Lithuania has said “the transit of passengers and non-sanctioned goods to and from the Kaliningrad region through Lithuania continues uninterrupted”.
“Lithuania is complying with the sanctions imposed by the EU on Russia for its aggression and war against Ukraine,” prime minister Ingrida Šimonytė said on Wednesday. “The sanctions were agreed by all the EU member states.”