What is the Suwalki Gap? Why it could be the flash point between Russia and Nato?Rahul Singh
It’s one of the most tranquil corners of Europe. Quiet country roads lead through pristine and unsoiled towns, glide past lakes and wind their way around virginal forests bespeckled with oak and spruce.
But defence watchers say this thin strip of land, fully within the European Union, could be a flash point of future military action between Russia and the US. A strategic affairs analyst has even raised the prospect that an emboldened Russia, intent on pushing the Washington-led NATO military alliance away from its territory, could drop a nuclear bomb on the isolated sliver of land.
Known as the ‘Suwalki Gap’, this 80 km patch of relatively flat, difficult to defend countryside, straddles Poland and Lithuania.It is the only land connection between the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — all of which are in the EU and NATO — and their European allies.
On either end of the Suwalki Gap is Putin. To the west the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, stuffed to the gills with nuclear missiles, and to the east Moscow’s close ally Belarus. It’s a nightmare pinch point for NATO and its Baltic partners.
This gap could be easily overcome. Russia has very powerful forces stationed in Kaliningrad and with troops from Belarus it could be quickly closed. In 2015, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the commanding general of the US Army in Europe speculated on a scenario where Moscow shut the Gap under the cover of a military exercise. “You get thousands of Russian troops on both ends of the Suwalki Gap, so there’s a potential for them to transition from an exercise to an operation — that’s our concern.” Indeed, the area has become one of the most militarised in Europe with Russia and the US heavily armed and cheek by jowl.
Emeritus professor of strategic studies at Australian National University, Paul Dibb, said the West’s military expansion onto Moscow’s doorstep has never sat well with Russia. “Putin viewed the disintegration of the former Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of last century. My view is when Russia was on its knees [following the end of the Cold War] it was provocative to expand NATO’s borders into the former Soviet stratosphere,” he said.
“The distance between the nearest NATO airfield in Estonia to St Petersburg is the same distance from Canberra to Cooma and I can tell you if we had Indonesian jets in Cooma we’d be doing something about it.” However, the biggest reason holding Russia back might not be US or European troops stationed on its borders — but the Baltic people themselves.
While there are substantial numbers of ethnic Russians in the Baltics, there are far fewer than in parts of Ukraine. “Russia would be met at best with neutral hostility and at worst protracted armed [guerilla] conflict. The Soviets experienced this in the Baltics in the 40’s and 50’s and they don’t want it to happen again.” That’s not to say war couldn’t happen. If NATO moved offensive rather the defensive machinery into the Baltics, or blocked sea lanes or access to Kaliningrad, Putin’s troops could mass at the Gap, daring the west to cross.
But, Prof Muraviev fears most what isn’t planned for. The accidental escalation that could come with having opposing forces so close to one another. “There’s a mutual vulnerability there, Russians feel vulnerable to NATO forces, the Baltics feel vulnerable to massive Russia. When you have mutual distrust there is an ongoing risk of a military escalation.” NATO says it’s determined to keep the Suwalki Gap open. “We are committed to the sovereignty of Lithuania, the sovereignty of Poland and all the other countries, so we will do whatever it takes to re-establish that,” Lt Gen Hodges had said in an interview.