Russian passengers bound for Kaliningrad, the Russian-controlled Baltic enclave, are getting a glimpse beyond the media blackout. Photo / 123rf
The daily sleeper train service from the Russian mainland to the exclave of Kaliningrad slides into its penultimate stop shrouded in mystery, curtains drawn, those on board shielded from the realities of the war in Ukraine.
You would be forgiven for thinking Russian President Vladimir Putin has something to hide when the diesel locomotive and its dozen or so carriages are forced into the sidings by armed border guards primed to board.
Trains have crossed the border freely here in the years since the Iron Curtain fell and the heavily militarised Kaliningrad – about the size of Northern Ireland and wedged between Lithuania and Poland – was marooned from Moscow.
But this week, decades of unfettered access came to a tense end when Lithuania blocked goods in transit to Kaliningrad, citing EU war sanctions.
In response, the Kremlin threatened Vilnius with “seriously negative” consequences unless what it calls a “blockade” of Kaliningrad is lifted with immediate effect.
The Moscow-Kaliningrad sleeper service, like dozens of freight trains carrying key goods and food to the million Russians that live in the Baltic port region, is just one of the victims of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
As the sleeper service edged into an eerily deserted station in the frontier town of Kybartai, Russian passengers were forced on Thursday to remain in their cramped cabins with the curtains closed, as the diesel locomotive was uncoupled from the carriages and the new vigorous checks carried out on those inside.
With independent media virtually eradicated in Russia, locals speculated that passengers, who travelled from Moscow via Minsk, Belarus, are kept on board to shield them from the truth about the war while on European soil.
So much so, that while their train is parked up for more than an hour, passengers are offered access to a “free Wi-Fi” network. The catch? Before they are granted access to the web, would-be browsers must scroll through a series of graphic images of Russian atrocities in Ukraine.
Large posters featuring similar depictions of the war await those brave enough to peek through the curtains of the train.
The row over customs controls has only heightened fears among the Baltic states that Putin’s war on Ukraine could easily spill over into the rest of Europe, with them on the frontline.
But sitting at the control post by the border, it would be easy to forget there was a war going on.
Kybartai was calm, with its elderly residents tending vegetable patches outside their Soviet-era farmhouses overlooking the no man’s land between them and Kaliningrad.
Dozens of lorries and cars crossed the frontier with ease every hour. One old man, with a suitcase in tow, made the journey on foot, joking with guards: “Russia this way?”
Despite this, there was a certain sense of nervousness in the air.
Located just a stone’s throw away from the exclave, many of those who live there know they would likely be on the frontline of any Russian attack on Nato.
“We’re not far from it, you know,” said Romas, 18, who was born in and grew up in Kybartai.
“Everything is fine, but in another country there is a war going on,” he told The Telegraph.
Like many of Kybartai’s locals, Romas has family and friends living across the border in Kaliningrad and has noticed the distinct shift in atmosphere in the wake of the latest sanctions stand-off.
Asked whether he feared being caught up in the conflict, he added: “Of course, my family can be dragged into it. We live and we’re not far from the wall you need to cross over to get to Russia.”
Once part of the German empire for 684 years, Kaliningrad was taken by Joseph Stalin’s Russia as a spoil of war at the end of the Second World War.
Like annexed Crimea and Belarus, it is considered an ideal staging post for a potential Russian attack on Europe.
The military exclave is home to Moscow’s Baltic naval fleet and Putin has stationed both short and long-range missile systems there.
The military might stationed there has led some Western officials to ponder whether the Russian leader could one day deploy nuclear weapons there, in the heart of the EU and Nato’s territory.
As a result of the tensions, Baltic leaders are expected to ask Nato allies to revise their plans in the event of a Russian invasion of the region.
The so-called Suwalki Gap – a 62-mile corridor linking the tips of Kaliningrad and Belarus – is seen as a weak point in Nato’s defences against Russia along its eastern flank.
Currently, if Lithuania, Estonia or Latvia were overrun by Moscow, the alliance would let it happen before liberating them after 180 days.
At a Nato summit in Madrid next week, the leaders of the three Baltic states will warn partners that their countries would be wiped off the map under the defence plans.
Subject to EU sanctions
The European Commission has been charged with attempting to defuse the tensions before the situation can escalate further.
Until last week, Lithuania had allowed Russian freight shipments across its territory even though much of it was subject to EU sanctions.
After receiving the go-ahead from Brussels, Vilnius started enforcing checks on iron, steel, luxury goods and coal and other items banned under the punitive measures.
To end the stand-off, the Commission has proposed allowing the movement of goods if they are for Russia’s internal market, of which Kaliningrad is a part.
But judging by the abandoned freight trains with Russian branding piled high with coal, still on the tracks to the exclave, Lithuania has not backed down.
“The story is very simple: We just implemented the fourth package of sanctions, which were imposed in March with a certain transitional period, which is currently expiring,” said Gitanas Nausėda, Lithuania’s president, on Thursday.
So, for now, Russians travelling from the mainland to Kaliningrad will be forced to replicate Vladimir Lenin’s secretive, sealed-train journey from Zurich to St Petersburg when returning from exile in April 1917.