Ukraine Live Updates: Kremlin Calls 2 Captured Americans ‘Soldiers of Fortune’

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Credit…Emil Duck for The New York Times

Russian authorities on Monday threatened Lithuania, a NATO member, with retaliation if the Baltic nation does not soon lift its ban on transporting certain goods to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad by rail.

Citing European Union guidelines, Lithuanian Railways said on Friday that it was suspending the movement of goods from Russia subject to European bloc sanctions.

Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, told reporters the situation was “more than serious.” He called the new restrictions “an element of the blockade” of the region and a “violation of everything.”

Accustomed to Russian threats, officials in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, have taken Moscow’s warnings largely as bluster — the latest in a series of increasingly intemperate statements from a country that is militarily struggling because of its invasion of Ukraine.

“Russian threats don’t worry us much,” said Lauinas Kasciunas, chairman of the Lithuanian parliament’s committee on national security and defense. “The Kremlin has very few options on how to retaliate.”

A Russian military response, he added, “is highly unlikely because Lithuania is a member of NATO. If it wasn’t, they probably would have considered it.”

Russia’s anger at Lithuania follows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s warning earlier Monday that Moscow would launch “intensified hostile activities” against Ukraine and European countries in the coming days in response to his country’s efforts to join the European Union.

The ban, announced last week, will affect up to 50 percent of all rail freight transported between the Russian mainland and Kaliningrad, which Russian officials say includes building materials, concrete and metals, among other things. The restrictions have exposed the acute vulnerability of a region that is part of Russia but not connected to the rest of the country. It borders the Baltic Sea but is sandwiched between two NATO members, Lithuania and Poland.

Kaliningrad, captured by the Soviet army from Germany in 1945, was once touted by Russia as a symbol of its growing ties to Europe. But lately it has become a shifting fault line between East and West.

In the 1990s, Russian authorities touted Kaliningrad’s past ties to Germany as a tourist attraction, celebrating its role in the life and work of the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who was born and lived in Königsburg, the regional capital now called Kaliningrad.

More recently, however, Moscow has sought to erase traces of Germany’s deep historical ties to the region, even though Germany has no claim to Kaliningrad and shows no interest in its return, in stark contrast to Russia’s views on the former Soviet territory. including Ukraine.

Embraced by an increasingly aggressive nationalism, Russia abandoned the policy that promoted Russia as part of Europe and transferred modern Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad. In April, the Lithuanian Defense Minister said that Russia had deployed nuclear weapons in the region, which Moscow denied.

The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned a senior Lithuanian official on Monday over what it called “overtly hostile” restrictions.

“If the transit of goods between the Kaliningrad region and the rest of the Russian Federation through Lithuania is not fully restored in the near future, then Russia reserves the right to take actions in defense of its national interests,” the message says. in a statement.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis defended the restrictions on supplies to Kaliningrad, saying his country was only complying with EU sanctions.

“It’s not Lithuania doing something, it’s the European sanctions that have worked,” he said. told reporters in Luxembourg on Monday ahead of the meeting of European foreign ministers.

Anton Alikhanov, Governor of the Kaliningrad Region, said his government was already working to find alternative routes for the delivery of goods, in particular those containing metals and building materials. He said one option could be to transport cargo by sea, which would require up to seven vessels by the end of the year to meet demand.

He added that the local government is considering at least three response options that could be offered to the Kremlin, including a possible ban on sending goods to Lithuanian ports through Russia.

Russia’s relations with Lithuania, formerly part of the Soviet Union, have never been close but have deteriorated sharply in recent months as Lithuania has taken the lead in pushing for tough European Union sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Just two weeks ago, a member of the Russian parliament from Putin’s United Russia party introduced a bill making Lithuania’s 1990 declaration of independence illegal. The bill aims to reverse the collapse of the Soviet Union in what Mr. Putin calls “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.”

But, as the slow advance of Russian troops into Ukraine has shown, there is a yawning gulf between Mr. Putin’s desire to turn history around and his country’s capabilities. Any military action against Lithuania will lead to a direct confrontation with NATO for the already battered Russian army.

Thomas Dapkus provided a report from Vilnius.

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