This border zone between Poland and Lithuania is often seen as a potential flashpoint for confrontation between Russia and NATO. But its real strategic value is limited, while military escalation in the region holds dangers for Russia as much as for NATO.
What is the myth?
The so-called ‘Suwałki Gap’ has generated much discussion regarding NATO’s deterrence and defence measures on the eastern flank of the alliance. Many analysts and media outlets portray the border region between Poland and Lithuania as a uniquely vulnerable part of Europe. However, the reality is that it will only have strategic significance to the degree that NATO accords it (undeserved) priority.
Named after a town in northeastern Poland, the Suwałki Gap (or Corridor) is the area surrounding the 104-kilometre (65-mile) Polish–Lithuanian land border, sandwiched between the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and Belarus. It is not contiguous with mainland Russia. According to the prevailing narrative, the Suwałki Gap is strategically important because it connects continental European NATO with the Baltic states, making it the only land bridge that NATO ground forces can use to reinforce the Baltic states from Poland in the case of a military contingency involving Russia. The logic is that Russia could close the gap through physical occupation or long-range interdiction to prevent those reinforcements from reaching the Baltic states, thus isolating them, and that this could increase the chances of a major territorial fait accompli at their expense.
Who advocates or subscribes to it?
Media outlets and defence strategists alike have given prominence to the Suwałki Gap. Consider some of the following coverage it has received since 2014. A 2022 Foreign Policy essay claimed that the Suwałki Gap is ‘NATO’s weakest point’. Time Magazine called it Europe’s ‘most vulnerable stretch of land’. NBC News ran a story titled ‘Why the Suwalki Gap Keeps Top US General in Europe Up at Night’ – the general being former US Army Europe commander Ben Hodges. Security experts have also consistently emphasized the vulnerabilities of the Suwałki Gap. During the Belarusian migrant crisis in the summer of 2021, some observers thought it not at all coincidental that Belarus was forcing migrants into Poland near the Gap.
Why is it wrong?
The perceived strategic importance of the Suwałki Gap flows from a misunderstanding of its military value and vulnerability. To be sure, NATO deems the area important enough to have positioned the US-led Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) Battlegroup in Orzysz, Poland, about a two-hour drive from the Lithuanian border. However, as much as the location of the battlegroup makes sense given its proximity to Kaliningrad and Belarus, there are good reasons to think that some of the concern surrounding the Suwałki Gap is vastly overstated.
First, it is unclear why Russian political leaders and military planners would ever feel the need to ‘close the gap’, let alone seize territory in the Baltic states so as to make it operationally imperative to cut off potential NATO reinforcements in this manner. There is no obstacle to peacetime movement between the Kaliningrad exclave and mainland Russia, thanks to transit agreements that allow crossing Lithuania by road or rail. And although closing the Suwałki Gap might seem like a shrewd operational move, it would almost certainly create a much larger political challenge for Moscow. The Russian Armed Forces are of course capable of inflicting major damage on opponents in the Baltic region, and so the threat of aggression cannot be ignored. However, a major assault on the Baltic countries would almost inevitably precipitate the invocation of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which might create escalatory dynamics that the Kremlin could find too difficult to control.
Second, the Suwałki Gap represents international borders that are not based on any special natural features that pose unique military challenges or opportunities. Talk of the Suwałki Gap is reminiscent of Cold War discussions of the Fulda Gap in West Germany. NATO’s preoccupation with the Fulda Gap arose out of the perception that Warsaw Pact tanks could use the lowlands around the Vogelsberg mountain range to plunge into West Germany. But no such natural features are found in the Suwałki Gap. In a major military confrontation between Russian and NATO forces, the lines on the map would no longer matter.
Third, the dangers associated with the Suwałki Gap cut both ways. NATO forces can just as well threaten Russian military assets in the region, especially those in Kaliningrad. In the event of open conflict, Kaliningrad is as much at risk of isolation and blockade by NATO as the Baltic states are by Russia. And indeed, logistical problems could hamper Russian efforts to close the gap. These logistical issues could include the deficient vehicle maintenance, insecure communications, poor command and control, and inadequate provisioning of the sort seen in the early stages of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
Finally, in the event of such a conflict erupting, the Suwałki Gap should be considered already closed. Both sides would be able to bring to bear a high level of lethality and precision given their strike capabilities. They could each hold at risk those military assets, including logistics, that the other might be operating in the region. That might create first-strike incentives for Russia, but again that would set in train escalatory dynamics that could slip out of its control.
To summarize, the Suwałki Gap is at least as much a problem for Russia as it may be for NATO.
What is its impact on policy?
If taken too seriously, the problems commonly associated with the Suwałki Gap would lead to deployment of a major military presence in the region. By militarizing the region with a relatively large concentration of forces, the US and its NATO allies would seek to be able to mount a strong defence in case of a Russian attack that would aim to close the area.
This implied strategy would be ill-advised for several reasons beyond the concerns raised above. First, a concentrated force in the region would be all the more vulnerable precisely because its mass and lack of dispersal would present an ideal target for Russian long-range strikes. Second, Russia could very well interpret a strong military force positioned in this corner of Europe as one capable of mounting an attack, against either Kaliningrad or Russia’s treaty ally, Belarus. Though such a force may be intended for deterrence, it could trigger the very escalatory response from Russia that it aimed to avoid. Third, precisely because of the fears that such a presence might generate in Moscow or Minsk, militarizing the Suwałki Gap could provoke resistance from those major NATO countries that are traditionally reluctant to respond robustly to Russia. These reasons are admittedly in tension with one another: a massed force is at once vulnerable and threatening. Still, what is important is that, to date, the eFP battlegroups in northeastern Poland and central Lithuania have been sized in such a way as to demonstrate that the alliance has only defensive intentions.
What would good policy look like?
None of these points implies that the border region between Poland and Lithuania does not matter strategically. It is, after all, an internationally recognized border of two countries that are members of both NATO and the European Union. Any attempt to seize their territory – whether in and around the Suwałki Gap or elsewhere – would be profoundly escalatory and constitute an Article 5 emergency. Given the distances involved, the Russian military might have some advantages over NATO forces coming from Western Europe or further afield. However, its performance in Ukraine suggests that even relatively short distances from railheads in the presence of active opposition cause Russia substantial logistical challenges.
But there is no need to invoke the Suwałki Gap to illuminate the danger posed by Russia. Russian long-range strike weapons that could target command and control structures, for example, do not depend on the closure of the Suwałki Gap for effectiveness. Indeed, defence in depth in a world of long-range missiles requires not putting the bulk of combat forces close to the Gap.
A wiser approach would involve being less preoccupied with the Suwałki Gap and focusing more on improving deterrence in the more vulnerable areas of NATO’s eastern flank: that is, in towns and communities in the Baltic countries – especially Latvia and Estonia – near the Russian border. In particular, eFP battlegroups should consider how to defend against limited territorial incursions that fall far short of recognized thresholds for war. Dispersal, rather than force concentration, may be instrumental here to raise the risk to Russia that an incursion would mean an engagement with NATO military forces. The recent destruction of predominantly Russian-speaking Ukrainian cities such as Kharkiv and Mariupol by Russia could in fact raise the appeal of dispersed units among local populations that have historically been more sceptical – even wary – of NATO.
Given the vulnerability of outlying towns such as Rēzekne in Latvia or Narva in Estonia that are located near the Russian border, these battlegroups ought to consider more fully the range of so-called ‘grey zone’ tactics that Russia could use to subvert the local political and territorial order. The Suwałki Gap has received far more attention than is warranted on military and strategic grounds. In a major military confrontation, the premium would most likely be placed on air assets, whether to strike Russian or Belarusian targets or to surge manpower and equipment into theatre within a short time frame. Such assets could help turn the disadvantages associated with the Suwałki Gap into advantages for NATO.
Publication date: 14 July 2022