NATO must prepare to defend Suwalki Gap while Russia escalates attack

How the Biden administration is monitoring Moscow’s response to the drama The US and its allies are increasing aid to Ukraine Alongside the West’s tough economic and financial sanctions against Russia, it should focus on a relatively small corner of northeastern Europe that’s familiar to military strategists but often overlooked by most policymakers and the general public.

the Suwalki Corridor (also known as the Suwalki Gap) separates the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea from Belarus, which is now home to thousands of Russian troops and will soon house permanently stationed Russian forces, including advanced warplanes and nuclear weapons. It’s also the only way to get to the Baltic States by road or rail from Poland and Central Europe – arguably The most exposed members of NATO.

A Russian attempt to seize control of the corridor may seem far-fetched, as it would explicitly involve an attack on NATO territory and trigger a US military response. However, if Moscow’s re-invasion of Ukraine has a key lesson to offer at this point, it is that US and allied officials must now prepare for worst-case scenarios by studying actual Russian military capabilities in the region rather than the Kremlin’s announced intention to assess Russia’s strategic logic or intelligence assessments of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s prospects.

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At 40 miles wide as the crow flies, the Suwalki Corridor is not a large corridor, at least as far as natural boundaries such as rivers, coasts or mountains are concerned. Driving through the area last October while researching NATO forces, I found a sprawling rural region composed mostly of hilly farmland interspersed with forests and small villages. Much of it is ideal terrain for tracked vehicles such as tanks, given the very limited roads and rolling hills.

Two highways – one with two lanes in each direction, the other with only one lane in each direction – and a railway line make up the entire land transport infrastructure connecting Poland with the Baltic States. Since Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Western government officials, military leaders, and think-tank pundits have paid particular attention to this relatively narrow passageway between allies, largely because of the bottleneck it represents should Russia attempt to cut off the Baltics .

This concern has increased over the past week as Western officials weigh whether aid to Ukraine could portray the West as a comrade-in-arms in the eyes of international law, providing Putin with justification for his beatings. It’s also possible that Moscow will respond militarily to the weakening sanctions imposed by the West over the past week, echoing Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 following the imposition of a US oil export embargo. Or if US and other allied forces pour into the Baltic Sea and NATO’s eastern flank, the Kremlin could perceive an increasing threat to Kaliningrad and seize the Suwalki Corridor to create a land bridge to the exclave.

Poland border
The Suwalki Corridor separates the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea from Belarus – now home to thousands of Russian troops.

Kaliningrad – formerly Koenigsberg – has been Russian territory since the end of World War II and is now home to sizeable Russian combat forces, including Russia’s Baltic Fleet, advanced air defenses and mobile nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles. Given this, Russia is particularly sensitive to any perceived threat to its control of the non-contiguous area and could risk an escalation if it misreads NATO’s actions near Kaliningrad.

Obviously, the capture of the Suwalki Corridor would entail an attack on Lithuania or Poland or both, leading directly to a war between NATO and Russia. That strikes Putin as illogical, or at best strategically unwise. However, the West’s ability to know and understand Putin’s logic and the rationale behind his decision-making has evidently been constrained by a lack of imagination, high-quality intelligence, or both.

For example, some thought it illogical for Putin to order the full-scale invasion of Ukraine when his goal was simply to keep it out of NATO. The simmering Donbass conflict had effectively achieved this since 2014, as one of the informal requirements for alliance membership is the absence of territorial disputes with neighbors.

The Polish side of the so-called'Suwalki Gap', an 80-kilometer stretch of the Polish-Lithuanian border between Kaliningrad and Belarus, is pictured July 3, 2016 near Zerdziny, Poland.
The Polish side of the so-called “Suwalki Gap” is an 80-kilometer stretch of the Polish-Lithuanian border between Kaliningrad and Belarus.

Furthermore, no authorities in Washington or Brussels were seriously pushing for Ukraine’s membership in the alliance, and Russia’s diplomats and intelligence services certainly knew this. Moreover, Putin’s recent rhetoric of grievances against the West is nothing new – these are issues he has been campaigning on for years. So why invade now? The answer is not clear, save for the conclusion that there is more to this war than just keeping Ukraine out of NATO.

For this reason, trying to discern Putin’s intentions for the future is a mistake. The West cannot presume to understand how Putin might react to the Russian economic collapse, whether his recent rants about ousting NATO from Central and Eastern Europe amount to political directives, or how he manages his new, quasi-colonial relationship with Russia Belarus could exploit. which now houses tens of thousands of Russian troops.

Conversely, the West cannot assume that Russia will not take action against the Suwalki corridor just because it seems illogical. In fact, during last year’s Zapad military exercise, Russian and Belarusian troops reportedly practiced closing the Suwalki Corridor by attacking towards Kaliningrad from Belarus.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine resumes on March 5, 2022.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine resumes on March 5, 2022.

Instead of trying to discern Putin’s intent or motivations, the United States and its allies must focus on the capabilities the Kremlin has amassed in and around Ukraine and Belarus. On the eve of the last invasion, Russia had deployed 30,000 troops in Belarus, including elite Spetsnaz units, as well as a range of equipment such as Su-25 ground attack aircraft, attack and assault helicopters, an S-400 air defense unit and drones – most of these forces are moved into Ukraine in the last week or continue to support operations there from Belarus.

Elsewhere, from northeast, east, and south of Ukraine, another 120,000 or so Russian troops are invading Ukraine along with an array of armored vehicles, missiles, artillery, and more. Collectively, these capabilities represent the most significant accumulation of conventional combat capability in Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War.

In the face of all this, the West must dramatically strengthen its stance and infrastructure in and around the Suwalki region.

A Polish border post is pictured July 3, 2016 in Zerdziny, northern Poland, on the NATO nation's border with ally Lithuania and Russia's Kaliningrad region.
A Polish border post is pictured July 3, 2016 in Zerdziny, northern Poland, on the NATO nation’s border with ally Lithuania and Russia’s Kaliningrad region.

In terms of attitude, British and Canadian ground forces were to return permanently to the continent in a brigade size of around 4,000 troops each, building on their relatively small contingents in Estonia and Latvia respectively. In the meantime, German ground troops are also to be increased to brigade size in Lithuania.

In addition to recent temporary increases in US rotational presence, Washington should transition to a permanent presence of defense, combat aviation, electronic warfare, drones, engineering, and air defense units. Additionally, given their military size and importance in the alliance, Italy, Spain and France must commit interoperable battalion-sized units of around 800 soldiers each to permanent bases in Poland or Lithuania.

The rapid improvement of the militarily relevant infrastructure in the Suwalki region, the substantial and permanent strengthening of the allied armed forces in north-eastern Europe and the unequivocal blaming of Putin for the complete overthrow of European security are necessary steps.

Relying on Western guesses about how the Kremlin will logically respond is too big a risk, especially if the alliance hopes to keep the Suwalki corridor open.

This report was first published in foreign

John Deni is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. NATO must prepare to defend Suwalki Gap while Russia escalates attack


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