The European railway line caught in the geopolitics resulting from the war in Ukraine

The Russian Railways twin diesel locomotive 2M62U 0145, in the blue colors then used by the Kaliningrad branch of Russian Railways, prepares to take a train to Kaliningrad from the border station in Kybartai, Lithuania, in 2013. (Keith Fender)

A railway line crossing the small European country of Lithuania has become the scene of serious geopolitical disputes between the Lithuanian government, the European Union and Russia. The rail line connects the small, otherwise isolated Russian region of Kaliningrad with the rest of Russia, via Lithuania and Russia’s ally Belarus.

The financial and other sanctions imposed on Russia since its invasion of Ukraine in February have become more restrictive over the months, partly by design, in the hope that tougher sanctions could change the behavior of the Russian government.

Lithuania’s decision in June to fully apply EU sanctions on Russia’s smuggling of goods in Kaliningrad prompted a furious response from Moscow, which complained the action violated international law. Russian commentators have hinted at direct action to reopen the traffic lane, but Lithuania is a full member of NATO and any Russian action there could lead to a much wider conflict.

The complex history of Kaliningrad

Political map of Europe in the Baltic Sea region
A detail of a map of Europe shows the location of Kaliningrad between Poland and Lithuania. (Perry-Casteneda Map Library Collection, University of Texas)

The history of the region is complex even by complex Eastern European standards. Kaliningrad, as it has been called since 1945, used to be called Königsberg. It was one of the most important cities of the German Empire in the area known as East Prussia; German emperors were crowned in its cathedral until World War I, when Germany became a republic. Despite losing much of its land east of Berlin when Poland regained its independence in 1918, Königsberg remained part of Germany, albeit separate from the rest of the country, and was a base major military and naval service during World War II. On its eastern borders, the newly independent countries of Lithuania and Latvia replaced the Russian Empire after World War I – albeit only for two decades, as the Soviet Union occupied and annexed them, along with neighboring Estonia, in 1940.

Königsberg and its surrounding counties became part of what was then the Soviet Union with the full agreement of the American and British governments at the end of World War II. It was officially incorporated into Russia and renamed Kaliningrad after a hero of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. With the expulsion of the remaining ethnic German population in 1947, over the following decades it became a typical Soviet city and a key military base; it is the only ice-free Russian port on the Baltic Sea in winter.

In the early 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reemergence of independent Lithuania and Latvia, as well as newly independent Belarus, meant that Kaliningrad was now an isolated enclave. It was connected to the rest of Russia mainly by rail, but trains had to pass through neighboring independent countries. A rail ferry carrying freight cars also operates from Russia to Kaliningrad, although in winter it may not operate for long periods if Russian ports are blocked by ice.

Brick railway station in Eastern Europe
Suwałki Station in Poland — which gives its name to the strategic area known as the “Suwalki Gap” — dates back to the 19th century. It is shown in 2012. The station was built when all of eastern Poland was part of the Russian Empire. (Keith Fender)

Prior to the accession of Lithuania and its Baltic neighbors to the European Union in 2004, new international agreements were drawn up guaranteeing transit rights for Russian freight and passenger trains. These have been signed by the EU as well as by Lithuania. Trains travel from Russia to Belarus; cross Lithuania, passing through or near its capital, Vilnius; then head towards the border with the Kaliningrad region. The roughly 140-mile train journey through Lithuania has also been identified by Western governments as a major strategic objective should Russia ever attack NATO forces. This is known as ‘Suwałki Gap’, named after the small railway junction town just across the Polish border, which lies in the 40 mile wide Polish/Lithuanian territory between Belarus and Kaliningrad.

Steel, cement, blocked alcohol; Russia issues warning

In mid-June, the Lithuanian government began implementing long-agreed EU sanctions for smuggling goods to or from Kaliningrad. Initially this was only for iron and steel, but in early July other commodities including cement and alcohol were added. The limited nature of the restrictions did not prevent the main Russian government spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, from calling Lithuania’s action a “violation of everything and nothing”. Russia called on the EU and Lithuania to change course, saying they were violating international agreements.

According to Lithuanian government sources, about 2 million tons of foodstuffs are transported annually from Kaliningrad to the rest of Russia by rail, while many other consumer and industrial products are transported in the other direction. Apart from alcohol, these trips are not affected by the sanctions in force.

Given the pre-existing awareness of Western governments of the strategic importance of the Suwałki Gap and the relatively minor nature of the freight transported to Kaliningrad (mainly construction materials for use there; trains are inspected to ensure that what they carry corresponds to what they are billed as carrying), a solution seemed not only probable, but desirable in the short term, to calm the discussion.

European freight train with diesel locomotives runs under catenary
Lithuanian Railways operates transit freight trains between the Belarusian border and Kaliningrad. Soviet-built two-unit diesel 2M62U 0385 rounds a curve in Kaišiadorys, west of Vilnius, in 2012 with a train bound for Kaliningrad. (Keith Fender)

It wasn’t that simple. Several weeks of talks between the EU and Lithuania resulted in a compromise, with the EU saying it had never sanctioned traffic into Russia by road or rail, but had restricted such traffic among its members and Russia. This, in theory, would allow rail freight from part of Russia to Kaliningrad to continue – subject to normal customs and security checks, to ensure that military goods, for example, are not moved.

However, the Lithuanian government, which was deeply shocked by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, continues to take a tougher line. He argues that any aid to the Russian regime, or its Belarusian ally, is counterproductive, so rail and other connections should be kept to a minimum, not kept as before. The loss of transit traffic and export traffic from Belarus, mainly potash fertilizers, has hit Lithuanian national rail operator LTG hard, as such traffic previously accounted for a large part of its freight business.

Passenger traffic continued to operate from Russia to Kaliningrad. Trains stop in Vilnius for locomotive changes or customs control; Lithuanian authorities decided at the start of the conflict to post pictures of war damage in Ukraine along the platform used by these trains, so that passengers, who are almost exclusively Russians, could see them. Short-distance passenger trains between Lithuania and Belarus have been halted.

A new railway to connect the Baltic States to Western Europe

Map of the North-South railway line in Eastern Europe
The route of the Rail Baltica project. (Baltic Rail)

The Suwałki Gap is gaining strategic importance for the EU, as a new standard gauge north-south railway is being built in the area. Known as Rail Baltica, it connects Poland to the three Baltic states. A tunnel linking Estonia with Finland at the northern end has been proposed, although it seems unlikely to be built within the next decade. A major new highway roughly parallel to the skyway is also under construction.

The Baltic States’ railways all use a 5ft gauge and are therefore incompatible with the standard gauge used in Poland and neighboring EU countries. In addition, the lines were historically aligned from west to east, to bring products from the Soviet Union to ports of export. The $6 billion Rail Baltica project aims to reorient the region’s rail system to become part of the wider existing European rail network. It will improve connections between the countries – no passenger rail service currently connects them all – and allow traffic currently carried by truck to switch to rail.

The EU has also started funding infrastructure projects that strengthen the defense capabilities of its member states and the new railway is certainly one of them. Around $1.5 billion in ‘military mobility’ investment across Europe to improve the state of road and rail infrastructure for military use is planned, although this budget was set before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Originally, $6.5 billion worth of work was identified, but a much smaller budget was approved.

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