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Russia threatens Lithuania for enforcing E.U. sanctions on Kaliningrad

A Russian customs officer at a port on the Baltic Sea in the Kaliningrad region last year. (Vitaly Nevar/Reuters)

Moscow warned Tuesday that Lithuania would face “serious” consequences for barring the transit of E.U.-sanctioned goods through its territory to Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave that serves as headquarters to Moscow’s Baltic Sea Fleet but has no land bridge to the rest of the country.

Lithuania, one of the Baltic states that have been among Ukraine’s staunchest supporters, has said it is implementing European Union sanctions that will restrict supply lines to the region, drawing fierce condemnation from the Kremlin, which described the decision as “unprecedented” and “hostile,” summoning the E.U.’s top diplomat in Moscow to object.

The region of Kaliningrad, hundreds of miles west of the rest of Russia, has become the latest flash point between Moscow and Europe as the fallout from the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine widens.

Kaliningrad’s city and port sit on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea between Lithuania and Poland, which are both part of the E.U. and NATO. It receives much of its supplies via Lithuania and Belarus and has maritime connections to Russia.

How Kaliningrad, Russian territory surrounded by NATO, is tangled in Ukraine war

Lithuania’s state rail operator, LTG, announced Friday that it would no longer allow Russian goods that are under E.U. sanctions, including coal, metals and construction materials, to transit through the country to Kaliningrad — which the region’s governor said would affect nearly half its imports.

Officials in Moscow promised retaliation.

“Russia will definitely react to such hostile actions,” Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, said Tuesday as he visited Kaliningrad, according to Russian news agencies. He pledged “appropriate measures” in the near future but did not provide details. “Their consequences will have a serious negative impact on the population of Lithuania,” Patrushev said.

Russian military move into Belarus poses risks to more than Ukraine

The E.U.'s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, rejected Russian depictions of the Lithuanian move as a blockade. He said on Monday at a news conference that land transit between Kaliningrad and other parts of Russia “has not been stopped or banned.” “Lithuania has not taken any unilateral national restrictions and only applies the European Union sanctions.”

The Lithuanian rail operator confirmed that the movement of passengers and cargo not subject to E.U. sanctions would continue.

Goods such as fuel and cement could still be shipped in from Russia by sea, said the governor of Kaliningrad, Anton Alikhanov. The exclave operates as a special economic zone with low taxes, although Western sanctions have hurt its economy.

He said that while stores and gas stations were stocked, people rushed to building-supply stores because construction materials could no longer arrive by rail.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland made an unannounced trip to Ukraine on Tuesday where he spoke about plans to coordinate investigations into war crimes and other atrocities committed during the war.

Garland met with Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, and announced the launch of a “war crimes accountability team” within the U.S. Justice Department to prosecute Russians and others accused of crimes.

“There is no hiding place for war criminals. The U.S. Justice Department will pursue every avenue of accountability for those who commit war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine,” Garland said.

Both Russian and Ukrainian sides have been accused of war crimes, though Russia has come under the most scrutiny as evidence continues to emerge from brutalized cities that were previously occupied by its troops, such as Bucha.

The Justice Department’s task force will aid Ukrainian prosecutors with evidence collection, forensics and operational assistance, the department said in a statement.

Several Russian soldiers have already been sentenced for war crimes in Ukraine. Venediktova said last month that her office was flooded each day with reports on hundreds of war crimes, with a total so far of 15,000 alleged incidents and 80 suspects.

Russia has denied committing war crimes in Ukraine and has begun prosecutions of its own, including against two U.S. veterans captured in Ukraine.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he “can’t rule out” a possible death penalty ruling in the cases of Alexander J. Drueke, 39, and Andy Tai Huynh, 27 — both U.S. military veterans from Alabama who were captured near the Russian border around June 8.

Peskov said the two men are not protected under the Geneva Conventions — treaties that bar prisoners of war from being executed or tortured — because they are not members of the Ukrainian army and are “soldiers of fortune.”

American detainees won’t get Geneva Convention protections, Kremlin says

This month, two British soldiers and a Moroccan man were handed death sentences by a Moscow-backed court in the separatist Donetsk region for their role in aiding Ukrainian fighters.

Russia is expected to intensify its efforts to seize the eastern region of Luhansk this week, and some of the most decisive battles for control of the broader Donbas region could occur, Ukrainian Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said Monday.

The governor of Ukraine’s Luhansk region, Serhiy Haidai, said on Tuesday that Russian forces have captured the strategically important village of Toshkivka, which could allow them to encircle Severodonetsk and neighboring Lysychansk, two cities that have been a focus of Russia’s offensive.

Lysychansk, which according to Haidai is experiencing fierce shelling following Toshkivka’s capture, is still under Ukrainian control, while Severodonetsk is almost entirely occupied by Russian forces.

“Today everything that can burn is on fire,” Haidai told the Associated Press on Tuesday.

Self-propelled armored German howitzers have arrived in Ukraine, officials in Kyiv said on Tuesday, while Britain’s Defense Ministry said Ukrainian forces had successfully used a Western-supplied Harpoon anti-ship missile for the first time. It said the Friday attack “almost certainly” targeted a Russian naval tug that had been supplying weapons to troops on the Russian-occupied Snake Island.

Amar Nadhir in Bucharest, Amy Cheng in Seoul, Annabelle Chapman and David Walker in London, and Adam Taylor and David Nakamura in Washington contributed to this report.

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