— Russia had suspended food product imports through Lithuania's major port Klaipeda, the Baltic country's prime minister said on Thursday, a move local businesses saw as Moscow's way of exerting political pressure at a time it is confronting Ukraine.
“Lithuania's terminals have received a written note. A note was also sent to companies which export goods through port terminals to Russia,” Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius told reporters.
“The note said that exports through Lithuania, through Klaipeda's port terminals, and maybe some other terminals, is no longer possible,” added Butkevicius.
Lithuania, like Ukraine, was formerly part of the Soviet Union and its relations with the Kremlin have often been tense, as have those of fellow Baltic states Latvia and Estonia.
The United States increased the number of its jets guarding Baltic airspace last week under a decade-old NATO air policing mission.
On Thursday, Russia sent six jet fighters and three military transport planes to ally Belarus, which borders Lithuania.
The acting director of Klaipeda Seaport Authority, Algirdas Kamarauskas, told Reuters that Russian authorities had explained the suspension of trade by saying some Lithuanian businesses were violating sanitary norms.
Tensions in the region have been growing as Moscow launched new military exercises near its border with Ukraine, while the European Union and United States were preparing sanctions over Russia's plans to annex the Crimea region from Kiev.
President Vladimir Putin's justification for intervening in Ukraine, to protect Russian speakers there, has alarmed many in the Baltic states, which have their own ethnic Russian minorities whose rights Moscow says are being undermined.
The Baltics and Poland were all part of the Soviet bloc until just over two decades ago. All are now members of the European Union and the NATO military alliance.
Last year Russia suspended imports of Lithuanian diary products, exerting pressure before a summit there in November at which Ukraine had been expected to sign a trade deal with the EU.
Ukraine balked at the last minute, shelving preparations for the EU deal and instead pledging closer ties with Russia.
“This is a way for Russia to show that having political positions which do not meet their interests is punished in some way,” said Robertas Dargis, president of the Lithuanian Confederation of Industrialists.
“In Lithuania's case punishment is usually through economic means, which we saw many times previously.”
An armed man, believed to be a Russian serviceman, stands guard outside an Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye, near the Crimean city of Simferopol, March 13, 2014.
A Ukrainian serviceman closes a gate as an armed man, believed to be a Russian serviceman, stands guard outside an Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye, near the Crimean city of Simferopol March 13, 2014.
A woman walks past a barricade as a Ukrainian flag flutters in the wind in Kyiv's Independence Square, March 13, 2014.
People talk about developments in Ukraine at a central square next to a statue of Soviet revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin in Donetsk, Ukraine, March 12, 2014.
A woman passes by posters in support of Ukraine during the International poster campaign, Kyiv, March, 12, 2014.
People talk in Independence Square, Kyiv, March, 12, 2014.
A woman holds a dog sporting shoes and a ribbon in the colors of the Russian flag outside the regional parliament building in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine, March 12, 2014.
A member of a self-defense volunteer group, with makeshift shin guards bearing a picture of a wolf, polishes his boots in Kyiv's Independence Square, March 11, 2014.
Members of a Crimean self-defense unit check the passport of a passenger at the railway station in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine, March 11, 2014.