© Reuters. A man stands outside a damaged residential building located in Panfilova street following recent shelling in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict in Donetsk, Ukraine June 20, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko
KYIV (Reuters) -Russia threatened on Tuesday to punish Lithuania with measures that would have a “serious negative impact” for blocking some shipments by rail to Moscow’s Baltic Sea enclave Kaliningrad, the latest dispute over sanctions imposed over war in Ukraine.
On the ground in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s separatist proxies said they were advancing towards Kyiv’s main battlefield bastion. A Ukrainian official described a lull in fighting there as the “calm before the storm”.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland was expected on Tuesday to become the latest international dignitary to visit Ukraine, where a Justice Department official said Garland would discuss efforts to prosecute war crimes.
European countries, faced with the prospect that war and sanctions could lead Moscow to cut gas deliveries next winter, were searching for ways to protect their economies and keep the heat and power on. Germany, Russia’s biggest energy customer, unveiled details of a new auction system aimed at incentivising industry to use less gas.
Diplomatic attention has turned towards Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave, a Baltic Sea port and surrounding countryside that are home to nearly a million Russians, connected to the rest of Russia by a rail link through EU- and NATO-member Lithuania.
Lithuania has shut the route for transport of steel and other ferrous metals, which it says it is required to do under EU sanctions that took effect on Saturday.
Russian officials have said other basic goods have been blocked as well. Video footage from the enclave showed some panic buying over the weekend at shops selling construction materials.
Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s Security Council, visited the enclave on Tuesday to chair a security meeting there. He said Lithuania’s “hostile” actions showed that Russia could not trust the West, which he said had broken written agreements over Kaliningrad.
“Russia will certainly respond to such hostile actions,” Patrushev was quoted as saying by state news agency RIA. “Appropriate measures” were being worked out, and “their consequences will have a serious negative impact on the population of Lithuania,” he said without giving details.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said it was “ironic to hear rhetoric about alleged violations of international treaties” from Russia, which she accused of violating “possibly every single international treaty”.
She denied Lithuania’s actions amounted to a blockade and repeated Vilnius’s position that it is only implementing sanctions imposed by the EU.
Moscow summoned EU envoy Markus Ederer to the Russian Foreign Ministry on Tuesday. EU spokesperson Peter Stano said Ederer asked the Russians at the meeting “to refrain from escalatory steps and rhetoric”.
The standoff creates a new source of confrontation on the Baltic, a region already set for a security overhaul that would hem in Russia’s sea power as Sweden and Finland apply to join NATO and put nearly the whole coast under alliance control.
The EU has sought to deflect responsibility from the Lithuanians, saying the policy was collective action by the bloc. Vilnius was “doing nothing else than implementing the guidelines provided by the (European) Commission”, said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
Within Ukraine, the battle for the east has become a brutal war of attrition in recent weeks, with Russia concentrating its overwhelming firepower on a Ukrainian-held pocket of the Donbas region that Moscow claims on behalf of its separatist proxies.
Moscow has made slow progress there since April in a relentless fighting that has cost both sides thousands of troops killed, one of the bloodiest land battles in Europe for generations.
The fighting has spanned the Siverskyi Donets river that curls through the region, with Russian forces mainly on the east bank and Ukrainian forces mainly on the west, though Ukrainians are still holding out in the east bank city of Sievierodonetsk.
In recent days Russia has captured Toshkivka, a small city on the west bank further south, giving it a potential foothold to try to cut off the main Ukrainian bastion at Lysychansk.
Rodion Miroshnik, ambassador to Russia of the pro-Moscow separatist self-styled Luhansk People’s Republic, said forces were “moving from the south towards Lysychansk” with firefights erupting in a number of towns.
“The hours to come should bring considerable changes to the balance of forces in the area,” he said on Telegram.
The governor of Ukraine’s surrounding Luhansk region said Russian forces had gained some territory on Monday. It was relatively quiet overnight, but more attacks were coming, Serhiy Gaidai said: “It’s a calm before the storm”.
Although fighting has favoured Russia in recent weeks because of its huge firepower advantage in artillery, some Western military analysts say Russia’s failure to make a major breakthrough so far means time is now on the Ukrainians’ side.
Moscow is running out of fresh troops, while Ukraine is receiving newer and better equipment from the West, tweeted retired U.S. Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, a former commander of U.S. ground forces in Europe.
“It’s a heavyweight boxing match. In 2 months of fighting, there has not yet been a knockout blow. It will come, as RU forces become more depleted,” Hertling wrote.
Dmitry Muratov, editor of Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s last independent newspapers, auctioned off a Nobel Peace Prize he had won last year, raising $103.5 million for UNICEF to help Ukrainian refugees. The anonymous buyer bid for the medal by phone at the auction in New York.
Novaya Gazeta, like all other independent media in Russia, has halted publication since Moscow enacted a ban on reporting that departs from the official account of the “special military operation” launched in Ukraine on Feb. 24.