- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
The head of U.S. Army Europe is eyeing a narrow sliver of land connecting Poland with Lithuania, concerned about the Russian troops and equipment he has been watching pile up on either side.
Dubbed the “Suwalki Gap” after the Polish town of Suwalki that sits in the seam between the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad to the northwest and Moscow-friendly nation of Belarus to the southeast, the area has become the latest potential flashpoint between an increasingly aggressive Moscow and NATO.
The port city of Kaliningrad has long bristled with thousands of Russian troops and advanced weapons, while Belarus recently agreed to house a large Russian air base, making the Suwalki area a small vulnerable land bridge increasingly squeezed by Russian hardware.
“If the Russians did a snap exercise [near the gap] you could see, potentially, they could close that off,” U.S. Army Europe commander Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges told Foreign Policy.
The geography of conflict matters these days, with an increasingly assertive Russia making land grabs in Ukraine and on the Black Sea, making menacing overflights of the Baltic Sea, and rapidly building up its military capabilities in the Arctic. For Western military planners, ensuring access to the three Baltic states inside NATO is fundamental to any forward response to Russian aggression.
If Russia managed to storm the Suwalki Gap, it would sever the only land link between Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and the West. Once that happened, the only way to reach the Baltics would be by air or sea, which the Russians have also taken great pains to dominate by stationing advanced anti-aircraft batteries in Kaliningrad. The Russian outpost remains the home port of the 50-ship Russian Baltic Fleet — which has been been actively probing Swedish defenses in recent years — and three brigades of infantry.
“It is a very, very well-protected, heavily armed location that could deny access into the Baltic Sea, should they choose to do so,” Hodges said.
The area is “one of the most militarized regions in all Europe,” said Jorge Benitez, senior fellow for transatlantic security at the Atlantic Council. “And by that I don’t mean NATO has invested in it. It’s Russia.”
U.S. officials have warned that as much as a third of Poland falls within range of the Russian S-300 anti-aircraft batteries based in Kaliningrad, and the recent decision to build a Russian airbase in Belarus close to the Lithuanian border has the NATO alliance concerned.
What’s striking about the little-discussed vulnerabilities in the Baltic is how much they mirror the same sort of problems bedeviling U.S. forces on the other side of the world. For more than a decade, Chinese forces have sought to deny U.S. naval and air forces the ability to creep in close to China’s coast — a strategy known as “anti-access/area denial” or A2/AD. Now, U.S. and NATO commanders in Europe are grappling with their own A2/AD nightmare.
“Anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD, is a growing problem,” Gen. Philip Breedlove, supreme allied commander Europe and commander of U.S. European Command, told an audience in Washington on Monday. Kaliningrad has given Moscow the ability to better defend the Baltic, while the annexation of Crimea has done the same on the Black Sea, he said.
“The geography of Europe has changed” since the end of the Cold War, Benitez said. “The geography of NATO has changed. In the Cold War NATO’s borders were in the center of the continent, but now the front lines are the Baltics, and you’re drawn to that small land bridge [near Suwalki].”
“The Russians have chosen to make this the new zone of friction, that’s where you’re seeing the air provocations,” such as Russian warplanes flying with transponders off, said Benitez.
With the U.S. military presence in Europe unlikely to grow in the coming years, Hodges has taken a novel approach to showing presence in the east. Small groups of U.S. soldiers participating in training exercises in the Baltics have been driving their Stryker infantry carriers back to their bases in Germany and Italy, rather than loading their armored vehicles on trains and flying home.
The trips, spanning hundreds of miles, have been something of a public relations boon for the United States. They’ve spawned images of large appreciative crowds turning out across Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and across the Baltics, cheering the Americans as a bulwark against the looming Russian threat.
The road trips are “a demonstration that the U.S. is here. It’s all about assurance and freedom of movement,” Hodges said.
The rides also help to build a knowledge base of the new NATO frontier, unfamiliar ground to the Americans. “All of those years we were in West Germany you knew every bridge, you knew the height of the tunnels, and what could go where,” Hodges said. “We don’t have that knowledge in Eastern Europe.”
In the new European landscape, the crucial terrain is no longer found in central Germany. The Suwalki gap, Hodges acknowledges, “that’s an important piece of geography right there.”
Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images