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Tensions are on the rise between Russian and Europe's Baltic region


As the war in Ukraine stretches into month five, things are getting more precarious for other former Soviet republics. Lithuania decided to block some goods from getting into a Russian territory known as Kaliningrad. And now the Kremlin is threatening to retaliate. Lithuania, we should note, is a member of NATO, so there is a lot of dangerous potential in all this. NPR's Charles Maynes is currently in Kaliningrad. And he joins me now. Hey, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there. Morning.

MARTIN: So set this up for us by explaining more of this territory, Kaliningrad, and how it has become this source of tension right now.

MAYNES: Sure. You know, Kaliningrad is a territory that was seized from Germany and became part of the Soviet Union - along with the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - at the end of World War II. Only amid the push for independence of those countries and breakup of the USSR in 1991, you know, Kaliningrad became something of an island. You know, today, it's called an exclave. It's a separate bit of Russian territory sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland, which are both, of course, now European Union and NATO members. But these recent tensions with Kaliningrad, they really stem from Russia's military campaign in Ukraine and resulting Western sanctions. The problem here is that Lithuania is also applying those sanctions to goods travelling from mainland Russia through its territory into Kaliningrad. The Kremlin says that's illegal.

MARTIN: OK, so lots of complications in all of this. You're on the ground there. What have you been hearing from people?

MAYNES: Yeah. You know, so far, the ban only impacts select goods, like steel, cement, furniture. And as a result, there is an outsized impact on select industries, like construction and shipping. And that's a point that was made to be - made to me by Yakov Grigoriev, who works in logistics here.

YAKOV GRIGORIEV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So here, Grigoriev says the ban means it costs more to transport goods. And it takes longer because the only choice is to send everything from Russia across the Baltic Sea now. You know, meanwhile, others I talked to say, look; we want good relations with our neighbors. But this is an unfriendly act against Kaliningrad in particular. And some long-time residents, like Alexander Sokolov, have theories why.

ALEXANDER SOKOLOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So Sokolov here says that friends in Lithuania tell him their media portray Russia as about to attack their country. And he says that couldn't be further from the truth. But by building conflict with Russia, he argues, the authorities in Lithuania can attract additional money and support from the EU and NATO.

MARTIN: So what is Russia going to do?

MAYNES: Well, you know, the Kremlin is issuing not so vague threats against Lithuania. Local officials here have a more nuanced take, you know? They say, yes, Lithuania's actions are an inconvenience. But they can work around them by expanding overseas shipping with more boats.

MARTIN: OK. So if we take a step back here, what does this move by Lithuania mean in the bigger picture when we think about Russian aggression into Ukraine and any potential threats into the Baltic states and Europe?

MAYNES: Yeah. On the one hand, it looks like it's an isolated incident, right? Lithuanian officials say, look; most goods, at least for now, can still pass through Kaliningrad, as they always have. They're just enforcing EU sanctions policy. Less clear is whether the EU entirely agrees, you know? Amid these tensions, the EU is now suggesting they create a carve-out for goods going to Kaliningrad. Meanwhile, Lithuania says it's suddenly facing cyberattacks and bomb threats. We've also seen Russia carrying out drills among its Baltic Sea fleet. And until this issue of transit goods to Kaliningrad is resolved, the problem is just another among many that could trigger an unintended conflict between NATO and Russia.

MARTIN: NPR's Charles Maynes in Kaliningrad. Thank you so much.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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