Since the day Russian military forces unlawfully entered Ukraine, ostensibly to prevent Kyiv from joining NATO, a small strip of land on the border between Poland and Lithuania has come under the heightened focus of military strategists.
The land corridor, referred to as Suwalki Gap by NATO military planners, is a roughly 65-Kilometers (40 miles) long stretch of farmland and rural plains, through which run two multi-lane roads and a rail line. These transport networks are the arteries to the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) from Poland and, by extension, the rest of Europe.
The heightened concern among military strategists is the location of the gap. It is the only land link from Central Europe to the Baltic States, which are NATO members. Currently, all reinforcements and supplies are transported via these transport infrastructures. More critically, the land is sandwiched between Moscow's ally, Belarus, and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.
NATO strategists have long considered this region to be a chokepoint. Should Russia wish to attack or annex the Baltic nations, it would most likely take control of the Suwalki Gap first, cutting off the regions' overland access to the rest of Europe.
From a military standpoint, Russia can quickly move its troops from Kaliningrad. The Russian Baltic Fleet is stationed here, so are troops, mobile nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles, and advanced air defense systems. On the other side, Kremlin-ally Belarus has Russian troops stationed on its territory and is permitting President Putin's forces to move on Ukraine from there.
Zapad 2021, the multi-nation military exercise conducted late last year, saw Russian and Belarusian troops practice closing off the Suwalki corridor and staging a mock attack on Lithuania. Interestingly, the attack came from the Belarusian side in the exercise, moving towards Kaliningrad.
The rest of Russia's access to Kaliningrad is through Lithuania and Belarus. It can be hoped that Moscow would not attempt to take control of the Suwalki Gap, as it would mean a direct attack on Poland or Lithuania, both NATO members, and would invariably trigger Article 5 of the alliance.
The eastern flank of NATO is often considered its "weakest link." Aware of the region's vulnerability and distrustful of Moscow's motives, German warships were dispatched to the Baltic Sea to bolster the security of the Baltic States as soon as Russia invaded Ukraine.
Moscow may perceive the West’s bolstering of the Baltic nations as a threat to Kaliningrad. Some military experts say the Kremlin could use this as a reason to escalate the conflict, spreading it beyond the borders of Ukraine.
While the Baltic region may be strategically vulnerable, it is not without defense. After the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO formed multi-national combat units in the three Balkan nations as the alliance's "forward presence," which is also intended to act as a deterrent. For now, these units are small and fall within the stipulations set by the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act.
In light of the new circumstances, some argue that NATO no longer needs to adhere to the terms of the NATO-Russia Founding Act. There are calls for the western alliance to match Russia's force levels in the region. Considering the destabilizing actions of the Kremlin, the development of infrastructure in the Suwalki corridor and updating its military readiness have become critical. The allied forces may have to substantially increase their military presence, maybe permanently, to deter Moscow's untoward ambitions.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated that it is not safe to rely on the Kremlin's abidance by the rule of law or assume that diplomatic overtures will succeed in diffusing conflict. Countering Russia's military capabilities with NATO may be the only way to ensure peace prevails on the continent.
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