Strategic importance of Rail Baltic limited to peacetime operations ({{commentsTotal}})

The new European-gauge railway connection to be built from Poland across the Baltic states would likely be cut very soon after the beginning of an armed conflict.
The new European-gauge railway connection to be built from Poland across the Baltic states would likely be cut very soon after the beginning of an armed conflict. Source: (Postimees/Scanpix)

Rail Baltic will be of importance to Estonia’s national defense, but only before an actual armed conflict. Though it makes the large-scale transport of equipment and troops to the Baltic states possible, in case of an attack it is vulnerable, and would likely be cut off very soon.

Lt. Col. Vahur Karus of the planning division of the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) told daily Eesti Päevaleht earlier this week that Rail Baltic’s European gauge meant no time was lost moving troops and equipment from Poland on to the Baltic states.

The new railway would also support the free movement of allied forces in Europe, a kind of military Schengen zone necessary to keep NATO’s units from being stopped by member states’ bureaucracy as well as infrastructural obstacles. An additional tunnel between Tallinn and Helsinki would further increase strategic mobility in the area, Karus pointed out.

Though in the case of an actual military conflict, the railway was also very vulnerable. Armored trains were a thing of the past, and railway infrastructure was easily damaged. As a resource, it had to be seen as part of the contemporary transport network, which included much better roads than there used to be in the past. Rail Baltic’s infrastructure would be difficult to defend against precision strikes by enemy forces.

In terms of helping to support Estonia through Latvian and Lithuanian ports, the current broad-gauge railway network could be used, which meant that Rail Baltic didn’t represent a significant improvement there either, Karus added.

Railway connection would be cut in case of Russian attack

In case of an armed conflict involving Russian and NATO forces, chances are that Rail Baltic’s connection from Poland to Lithuania would soon be interrupted due to Russia’s so-called A2/AD set-up in the area.

A2/AD stands for “Anti-access and area denial”. The former means limiting an enemy from entering an operational area, the latter limiting the enemy’s operative capabilities within it.

The strategy creates a territorial bubble, extending across land, sea, and air. Russia has forces and equipment in place that envelop the three Baltic countries in such a bubble. South of the Lithuanian border, in Kaliningrad, it not only has ships and submarines of its Baltic Fleet in position, but also short and long range missiles that can keep ships, troops, and planes from approaching the area. It also has more than 8,000 infantry soldiers stationed there.

To the southeast lies Belarus, whose air defense is completely integrated with that of Russia. This means that the Russian air force has access to Belarusian bases, and would have access to more of the country’s military infrastructure if it were to strike against NATO territory in the Baltic. The air force bases of Lida and Baranovichi close to the Lithuanian border host at least one Russian fighter squadron, the deployment of two more to Baranovichi has been announced.

Moreover, the Russian and Belarusian militaries regularly conduct joint exercises. Military cooperation between the two countries in that area is tested and well-organized.

This creates a corridor between Suwalki in Poland and Kalvarija in Lithuania that represents NATO’s only land access to the Baltic states. In case of an attack, the Russian military would close this corridor very quickly, completely locking off land access to the Baltic countries. This is referred to as the “Suwalki Gap” in NATO’s defense of its eastern wing.

At the same time missile and other troops positioned in Kaliningrad as well as the Pskov and Leningrad oblasts to the east of Latvia and Estonia could keep any attempts of allied access to the area by sea or air at bay, therefore denying allied troops both access to the area as well as making its operations within it difficult.

Which again means that in case of a military conflict involving the Baltic states, the railway line connection from Poland to Lithuania would be interrupted, and the border territory in enemy hands, which makes it obsolete as a factor in the conflict as long as the alliance is not in control of the Suwalki corridor.

Editor: Editor: Dario Cavegn

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