VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Lithuania's prime minister is pointing to a Russian ban on dairy products from his country as evidence that Moscow fears losing influence over Ukraine and other former Soviet states. And he's wondering how far Russia will go in punishing countries it thinks are wooing those nations away.
Lithuania currently holds the European Union's rotating presidency, and it has been working overtime to see the regional bloc extend its trade reach in Eastern Europe. In November, the Baltic nation is to host a key EU summit aimed at strengthening trade relations with Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Belarus, and Azerbaijan — all countries Moscow considers to be in its sphere of influence.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius said the Kremlin is growing worried about the EU's intentions. "It is a key question to Russia whether Ukraine would choose a path to the West and integrate into the European Union market or whether it joins the Customs Union," Butkevicius said, referring to an alternative trade zone created by Russia that now includes Kazakhstan and Belarus.
For both Brussels and Moscow, the real prize is Ukraine, a nation of 46 million with relatively strong industrial and agricultural sectors. Russia has imposed tremendous pressure on Ukraine not to sign a strategic partnership deal with the EU, saying Moscow would retaliate with trade restrictions that could push the ex-Soviet republic toward default.
In August, Russia began a series of rigorous border control checks that caused crossing delays and millions of dollars of losses for Ukrainian businessmen. Other nations have not escaped Russia's wrath, either. In September, Russia imposed a ban on imports of Moldovan wine after that country's leaders expressed a willingness to sign a partnership deal with the EU at the same summit in Lithuania.
Finally, on Monday, Russia's top consumer watchdog, Rospotrebnadzor, issued a decree barring the import of a range of Lithuanian dairy products. It's a ban that hurts many producers in the country. "Some of those diary companies sell 80 percent of their production to Russia," the Lithuanian prime minister told AP. "Today — milk. Tomorrow — meat. Then what?"
Lithuania, a country of 3 million people, has appealed to the EU to intervene, and Butkevicius said he hopes the dairy companies' losses will be covered by EU funds. He denied speculation that Lithuania might react by imposing restrictions on Russian goods and passengers moving across its territory. But he also gave no indication that Lithuania would cease its outreach to Ukraine.
"We are not going to war. Our task is to collect data, use our negotiators in Moscow, and act within the framework of the (World Trade Organization). We already feel that we have the backing of the EU," Butkevicius said.
Moscow, meanwhile, denies the dairy ban has anything to do with Ukraine and the upcoming EU summit. "This topic has absolutely nothing to do with politics. It's an old topic having to do with the fact that a number of Lithuanian companies make dairy products that don't meet Russia's standards," Sergei Glazyev, a Kremlin insider, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station Thursday.
Glazyev, a top adviser to President Vladimir Putin on the Customs Union, in September warned Ukraine that Moscow might impose duties on Ukrainian goods if it were to keep strengthening its ties to the EU.
Glazyev also said Thursday that Russia might also impose a visa regime on Ukrainians traveling to countries that are part of the Customs Union. Currently Ukrainians can travel to Russia without a visa.