‘It used to feel nice here’: Russian threats stoke tensions on Lithuania’s borders

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From their top-floor flat Vidas and Andželika Micuta, a Lithuanian couple, can watch the soldiers patrol on the other side of the fenced-off stream that separates their country from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

“It used to feel nice here, because you don’t have cars driving past and no other noise when you live so close to Russia’s border,” Andželika said. “But clearly this feeling has changed.”

Her husband, a carpenter, previously spent months at a time outside Lithuania, fitting out cruise ships in yards worldwide. But after Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine in February, “it no longer felt right to be far away from my family”, he said, so he found work locally.

The sleepy town of Kybartai has become a flash point in the escalating conflict that threatens to spill over Ukraine’s borders thanks to its position as a transport gateway to Kaliningrad, a small but heavily militarised patch of Russian territory separated from the rest of the country.

Lithuania, the southernmost of the three former Soviet Baltic states, has been at the receiving end of some of Russia’s bluntest threats of retaliation over its enforcement of EU sanctions around Kaliningrad, which Moscow has labelled a blockade.

Two weeks ago, after Lithuania extended the list of goods that Russia could no longer transport across its territory — in line with updated sanctions agreed in Brussels — Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Russian Security Council, visited Kaliningrad and threatened a “serious negative impact on the population of Lithuania”.

His words were interpreted as a warning that Russia’s army could cut off a 60-mile corridor, known as the Suwalki Gap, that links Lithuania to Poland and the rest of the EU. In response, Nato last week agreed to boost significantly its military presence in the Baltic region and vowed to protect Lithuania, a Nato member.

Lithuanian officials insist they have not strangled Kaliningrad, which Russia is also able to supply by sea and air. Since the war broke out, Lithuania’s most significant rail seizure was a shipment of mislabelled wood products.

“We detached four wagons and made them turn around,” Laimis Žlabys, head of Lithuania’s customs control division, said in an interview in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital. “We’re applying all the necessary controls . . . but to talk about Lithuania doing a complete blockade of Kaliningrad is not true.” 

Vidas Micuta points across the Kaliningrad border, which runs almost below his flat
Vidas Micuta points across the Kaliningrad border, which runs almost below his flat © Paulius Peleckis/FT

On the other side of Lithuania, along the railway that links Kaliningrad to Moscow’s ally Belarus and on to mainland Russia, builders are erecting a concrete structure to house an X-ray machine that can scan trains even as they move past.

The workers started pouring the concrete in March, but officials insisted the new €3.2mn surveillance system at the Kena rail station was initially purchased to fight smuggling over the border from Belarus. “Before, we were here mainly to stop the contraband of cigarettes, but we must now work on the sanctions,” said Algis Žioba, the local customs chief.

Since March, the flow of Russian freight trains crossing through Lithuania has slowed to a trickle. There are days without a single convoy, and those that cross get inspected thoroughly, even when they return empty from Kaliningrad.

German chancellor Olaf Scholz on Thursday called for “a dynamic of de-escalation” over the dispute, suggesting Lithuania was overdoing the surveillance of “traffic between two parts of Russia”. But former president Dalia Grybauskaite has led Lithuanian complaints about the EU wavering over sanctions.

An X-ray machine being built about 1.5km from Kena railway station in Lithuania
An X-ray facility being built about 1.5km from Kena railway station in Lithuania © Paulius Peleckis/FT

In Vilnius, the authorities have taken to displaying anti-Russian messages, a sign of the anger stoked by the war. The city hall hoisted a banner telling president Vladimir Putin that “The Hague is waiting for you”, a reference to the International Criminal Court that prosecutes war crimes, while the road that houses the Russian embassy has been renamed “Ukrainian heroes” street. On the road to Belarus, a signpost indicates that “Minsk, occupied by the Kremlin” is 100 miles away.

At a Ukraine solidarity demonstration in the capital, Oleg Šurajev, a Lithuanian comedian who has crowdfunded to buy military equipment for Ukraine, recalled that when Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014, “we just wagged a finger”. This time, he argued, “we need to completely disconnect Russia, blockade Kaliningrad and make sure Europe stops buying Russia’s dirty oil.”

Saulė Juknevičiūtė, a project manager who was born one month after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, grew up with “a different view” than Lithuanians raised under the Soviet Union. Yet she was always wary of a Russian neighbour that deployed nuclear-capable missiles and stations its Baltic fleet in Kaliningrad. “We always understood that Kaliningrad was not there to make us feel safe,” she said.

Šarūnas Večercaucas holds a photo at a protest rally in Vilnius to support Ukraine
Šarūnas Večercaucas holds a photo at a protest rally in Vilnius to support Ukraine © Paulius Peleckis/FT

Yet in Lithuania’s border towns, people also have other worries, particularly over the absence of tourists.

“Economic survival is as important as politics,” said Jolita Bakšaitė, a local tourism official. “We’re trying to tell tourists that it’s safe to come and that we’re protected by Nato, but those who only watch the TV news are afraid.”

Despite the raised tensions, there are no military vehicles on the border roads, which are used by Lithuanians who zip across into Poland to buy cheaper beer.

Russian warmongering has left many residents nonplussed, but less so their children. At a lake dividing Russia and Lithuania, a child spotted a fishing boat and asked whether it was Russian. Her friend told her: “No, stop worrying, it’s one of ours.”

On the outskirts of Kybartai, Russian lorries wait in a parking lot whose fence is adorned with photos of atrocities in Ukraine.

“We wanted this photo exhibition to raise awareness, also among those who travel back and forth from Kaliningrad and might not get told what’s happening in Ukraine,” said Andželika Micutienė, who manages Kybartai’s cultural centre. “Unfortunately I’ve seen some Russian truckers smile or share insults about these photos, as if this was funny.” 

At the Vilnius demonstration, 31-year-old Šarūnas Večercaucas admitted that “I sometimes have my doubts” about Nato’s willingness to engage Russia.

He added: “We all know the Americans promised to help us against the Russians at the end of the second world war — and then did nothing — but I see no other option than to trust.”

Source: Financial Times

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