Experts: Russia currently not strong enough to close the 'Suwalki gap'

Maj. Gen. Veiko-Vello Palm.
Maj. Gen. Veiko-Vello Palm. Source: ERR

The Russian military most likely lacks the wherewithal to mount a serious offensive to cut off the three Baltic States, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, from the rest of NATO and the EU, so far as land borders go, by closing the so-called Suwalki gap, a 100-km stretch of border between Poland and Lithuania, experts say. This does not mean that the gap does not remain a vulnerable zone for NATO in the region.

Maj. Gen. Veiko-Vello Palm of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) has stressed that any blockade of the three Baltic States ise based on the assumption that NATO could be cut in two, politically, via a quick military maneuver across the100- km gap, on the Polish-Lithuanian border (Suwalki is a Polish city while there is also an adjacent Suvalkija region on the Lithuanian side of the border – ed.).

Part of the assumption of the ease with which Russian forces might do this is based on the eternal "Who would die for town X" rhetorical question, in this case not even anywhere with a name.

Palm said: "Who wants to die for some no-name village in Lithuania? This has been the general question posed. Now the last months have clearly shown that this fear was in vain on our part - the West is united, and NATO is united. The Russian Federation cannot remain reliant [on political division]."

This does not mean that the Suwalki corridor is no longer one of NATO's weakest spots, simply that Russia is too weak to exploit that also.

"Which doesn't mean they don't learn quickly," Palm went on.

"The Russian Federation and before that the Soviet Union learned relatively quickly from their military defeats. World War II also demonstrated that in a few short years they were able to coordinate the cooperation of millions of people. So by no means will it pay-off in the long-term perspective to underestimate Russia," he added.

Ministry of Defense head of NATO and EU department Madis Roll concurred, telling ERR that the the corridor remains an achilles heel, while in the meantime Russia will be able to offset its military losses incurred in Ukraine since February 24 within two to three years.

Roll said: "It is true that the Suwalki Corridor is NATO's weakest point. It's geography will not change, and it is still the most realistic place to attack NATO and the Baltic States. This is the reason behind the U.S. decision to place its corps headquarters and an additional brigade in Poland."

Nonetheless, the coordination needed by different Russian forces to do so has been lacking in the Ukraine conflict so far, Maj. Gen. Palm noted, adding that while he agreed with the ministry's assessment, he thought it likely that Russia would need more time to stock up on of precision weapons such as cruise missiles than the two to three years the ministry had estimated.

All this has the effect of making Russia think more defensively when it comes to Kaliningrad, sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland and formerly the Prussian city of Köningsberg and its hinterland, which might prompt the Russian Federation to construct some sort of impregnable fortress, in military and tech terms, he added, which at least would mean Russia's Baltic Fleet, based in Kaliningrad, would mostly concentrate on these actions rather than actions in the wider Baltic Sea area.

Tomas Jermalavičius, a researcher at the Center for International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS) noted that: "Despite the fact that the Baltic Sea will become an inland sea for NATO [following Finnish and Swedish accession to the alliance], Russia can still access the sea from Kaliningrad, and from St. Petersburg. The Russian Baltic fleet is still the largest of any fleet in the Baltic Sea, meaning the Russians are still capable of presenting a maritime threat also."

Nonetheless, far from dividing the NATO alliance, developments have as much led to the separation of Kaliningrad from the rest of the Russian "mainland", since the three Baltic States can be reached by sea and air, particularly after the accession of Finland and Sweden.

The Suwalki gap, or Suwalki corridor, is around 100km in length and runs from the tri-national border of Russia (via the Kalinigrad exclave), Poland and Lithuania, in a southeasterly direction to another tri-state border, this time between Lithuania, Poland and Belarus. Since the latter is in effect a client state of the Russian Federation, the gap is the only land-link between Lithuania, and consequently Latvia and Estonia as well, and the rest of the NATO so far as continental Europe goes.

The Potsdam Agreement of August 1945 handed over Königsberg, severely damaged by an RAF Bomber Command air raid the previous year and also during fighting in the closing stages of the war as the Red Army approached, to the Soviet Union, meaning it and the surrounding area was ethnically "cleansed" of German-speakers. It was renamed Kalinigrad after the rather odious Mikhail Kalinin, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union until his death the following March.

The Soviet Union also handed over the Memel region (present-day Klaipeda, Lithuania) and Vilnius itself, to the Lithuanian SSR – Memel had been a German city, Vilnius (Wilno) had been under Polish rule between the wars. This made Lithuania the only one of the three Baltic States to make territorial gains as a result of the Soviet occupation – Latvia and Estonia both lost territory.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kaliningrad, leaving aside the fact that it in any case was populated almost wholly by Russian speakers, remained a part of the Russian Federation following a treaty signed with the newly reunified Germany the previous September.

Unlike Leningrad, which reverted to St Petersburg (city – the surrounding oblast, while administratively distinct from the city, is still called Leningrad), Kaliningrad retained its Soviet name and remained a highly militarized zone. Flights to and from the oblast often resulted in NATO jets' callouts years before the current invasion as Russian planes flew very close to, and occasionally in, Baltic States' airspace.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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