In Depth

The Suwalki Gap: how this 40-mile land corridor could spark a war

‘The most dangerous place on Earth’ runs along the Polish/Lithuanian border

It has been called “the most dangerous place on Earth”, said Der Stern (Hamburg). Spanning 40 miles as the crow flies, the Suwalki Gap is a corridor of land, running along the Polish/Lithuanian border, that connects the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad to Belarus.

The area has long been viewed as “the Achilles’ heel” of Nato’s eastern defences, owing to the relative ease with which Russia could seize it by launching a pincer assault between Kaliningrad in the northwest and its client state, Belarus, in the southeast.

The creation of such a land bridge would effectively isolate the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia), which are all members of Nato, from the EU. Until recently, it was only Russian hawks on “state television” who advocated such an assault: it would, after all, risk starting a war between Russia and Nato. Yet now, there are growing fears that war over the Suwalki Gap is precisely what we’re heading for.

Why? Because in June, Lithuania began enforcing a ban on the transit of EU- sanctioned goods through its territory to Kaliningrad.

Vilnius says it’s simply following EU guidelines on sanctions – but the move sparked fury in Russia, said Dmitry Drize in Kommersant (Moscow). Some Russian MPs have been urging Moscow to “cancel the recognition of Lithuania as an independent state”; military drills have been held in Kaliningrad; Kremlin officials talk ominously of serious consequences for Lithuania.

Significance of Kaliningrad

Kaliningrad’s importance to Moscow is hard to overstate, said Benjamin Restle and Monir Ghaedi in Deutsche Welle (Bonn). An area about the size of Northern Ireland, it’s home to about a million people. The birthplace of Immanuel Kant (in 1724), it flourished for centuries as East Prussia’s commercial capital, Königsberg. But after the Second World War and the defeat of Nazi Germany, it was ceded to Soviet Russia.

These days, the exclave is a key military base, said The Economist (London). A buffer zone that constitutes the first line of defence for Russia from the West, it houses Russia’s Baltic fleet, tens of thousands of soldiers and, reportedly, nuclear weapons.

It’s studded with radar systems providing surveillance of central Europe, and is Russia’s only Baltic Sea port that is ice-free all year round. Should Sweden and Finland join Nato, its importance to Moscow will only increase.

Lithuania’s ‘courageous’ stance 

That’s why Lithuania’s stance is so courageous, said Migle Valaitiene in Delfi (Vilnius). Unbowed by Russian threats to the Baltic states, Vilnius had already been sending heavy weapons to Ukraine, in the process committing a far higher share of its GDP than many of its wealthier EU counterparts.

And now, by implementing Brussels’s sanctions package, it will do serious damage to Kaliningrad’s economy. Some may deem it unwise to poke the Russian bear, but Moscow’s war on Ukraine has shown that treating Russia cautiously is a tactic that just doesn’t work. “Time to try another.”

Well, the bear has certainly been poked, said Michael Thumann in Die Zeit (Hamburg). “Not a day goes by without Russian politicians making wild threats against Lithuania and Nato.” Yet an attack remains unlikely. Sounding off about what Russia calls the “blockade” of Kaliningrad and threatening Nato members is President Putin’s way of trying to spook the West into easing sanctions.

EU officials ‘seeking compromise’

If that’s his strategy, said Andrius Sytas and John O’Donnell on Reuters, then it seems to be working. EU officials, backed by Germany, are now said to be seeking a compromise over Kaliningrad: they’re terrified that Putin may use the dispute as a pretext to reduce gas flows to Europe or, worse still, “use military force to plough a land corridor” through the Suwalki Gap.

That is indeed a seriously scary prospect, said Matthew Karnitschnig on Politico (Brussels). “Lithuania, like its Baltic neighbours, is ill-equipped for a Russian assault.” In theory a move by Russia on Poland or Lithuania would trigger Nato’s Article 5 mutual-defence provision, but there’s no certainty that would happen in practice.

“How eager would Washington and Nato be to risk Armageddon over a stretch of largely unpopulated farmland few of their citizens even know exists?” That, alas, is precisely the sort of anxiety Putin loves to provoke.

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