Suwalki Gap is a 100-kilometer stretch of land between Lithuania and Poland. This piece of land has strategic importance to the North Atlantic Alliance, as it connects the Baltic States with other mainland NATO members and is a significant focus for the transfer of troops to the Baltic Allies and their armaments, writes Anastasiia Hatsenko, Ukrainian Euro-Atlantic cooperation Expert at the think tank ADASTRA.
Nightmare of the Baltic States and Poland
Named after the Polish city of Suwalki, the corridor is in a strategically vulnerable position given that it is hemmed in by the Russian enclave Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg) to the northwest and Belarusian territory to the southeast. It is for this reason that it can become an ideal target for a Russian attack in the event of a military conflict with NATO. The Russian state TV channel has already started saying that the issue of a land corridor to Kaliningrad gets relevant. Russians consider that this «military operation» would be faster and easy for Russia than the war in Ukraine.
«The Suwałki Corridor is where the many weaknesses in NATO’s strategy and force posture converge» – analysts Ben Hodges, Janusz Bugajski, and Peter B. Doran note in the 2018 report of the Center for European Policy (CEPA). Thus, the Suwalki Corridor is considered the most vulnerable part of NATO’s borders to Russian aggression.
Location of the Suwalki Gap. The Washington Post
The seizure of this territory would cut off the Baltic states and Poland from their allies, paralyzing communications and complicating military and humanitarian aid. In 2016, researchers at the RAND think tank predicted that Russian forces could capture the capitals of Estonia and Latvia in sixty hours if NATO did not help them. So, in the event of war with the Russian Federation, the Alliance has to keep this territory under the control of Poland and Lithuania.
In addition, advanced Russian air defense systems can paralyze the airspace in the Baltic states and Poland. The Russian S-300 and S-400 systems deployed in Kaliningrad and near St. Petersburg, in combination with the missile defense systems in Belarus, provide coverage for the air defense systems of Poland and the Baltic states. It can completely paralyze NATO because Russia will have the opportunity to block the Suwalki Gap and the nearest countries not only by land but also in the airspace.
For the Russian Federation, the Suwalki Gap has strategic importance because it is land and air communications that connect the Kaliningrad region with the main part of Russia. In addition, the headquarters of the Baltic Fleet of the IMF of the Russian Federation is located in Kaliningrad.
Showing the power
The Soviet Union occupied Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania in 1940 and carried out Operation Priboi – the deportation of over 130,000 “politically unreliable” citizens. The countries regained their independence in 1991 and are currently members of NATO. However, since 2008 Russia has been increasing pressure on the Baltic region. The Kremlin claims that there is discrimination against Russian minorities in these states.
In the period from 14 to 20 September 2017, joint strategic exercises of the armed forces of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus called “West-2017” were held. The training had the status of strategic, that is, the simulation of a full-fledged war. NATO member countries predictably criticized the Russian-Belarusian exercises. Even before the drills started, President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaitė called on the North Atlantic Alliance not to allow the isolation of the Baltic countries from the rest of the member states if Russia decides to seize the Suwalki Gap. In October 2017, NATO accused Russia of covering up the true extent of the exercises. According to NATO, about 100,000 troops were involved in total.
Meanwhile, NATO continues to adhere to the 27 May 1997 Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation, and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation, in which member states have to renounce the permanent deployment of significant forces in Eastern Europe. Also, Russia should exercise similar abstinence when stationing military forces in other parts of Europe. The annexation of Crimea, the invasion of Donbas, the holding of military exercises near the border of NATO allies, and then a full-scale attack on the entire territory of Ukraine are not examples of Russian abstention.
What to expect next?
According to the above facts, it can be two scenarios for the question of the Suwalki Gap.
The best course of events will be the preservation of modern borders. That is, the status quo in the region. The presence of NATO troops on the territory of the Baltic States and Poland is still a deterrent against a military confrontation between the member countries of the Alliance and the Russian Federation. Also, the Russian losses in Ukraine or the Russian understanding that any attempt to pave the way to Kaliningrad may well start World War III can help not allow the start of hostilities in the territory of Lithuania and Poland. In this case, with the help of NATO and its member countries, the war will end within the borders of Ukraine with its victory, which will stop Putin’s imperial dreams.
The worst scenario is the beginning of the Russian military attack on Poland and then on the Baltic states. It is crucial to mention that 75.5% of Russians approve of the idea of an armed invasion of the following country after Ukraine and believe that it should be Poland. Moreover, 86.6% of Russians support the armed invasion of Russia in other European countries. At the same time, Russian TV repeated not only once that they won’t end this invasion in Ukraine. Suwalki Gap is the main direction for the transfer of troops and weapons to the Baltic States and Poland. Also, for these countries, which depend on the military support of NATO, the corridor remains the main route for ground communication with the Allies.
Russia already does not have enough people to wage war in Ukraine. Covert mobilization continues in the Russian Federation. They are trying to attract former military with combat experience. But at the same time, Putin sees a lack of NATO capacity and determination to help Ukraine. The Kremlin sees no reaction to the fall of a military drone in Croatia and the Russian attack on ships flying the flags of Romania and Panama, as well as violations of Swedish airspace. This, together with the understanding that losing a NATO war is not as shameful as losing the war with Ukraine, may lead to the decision to start another war.
NATO must show that it is the guarantor of the security of the Euro-Atlantic region right now, using the example of Ukraine, which every day fights and loses its people because Ukraine is fighting for common values with NATO and the EU. Otherwise, NATO should prepare itself to defend its weakest point – Suwalki Gap.