Something scary happened last week, something that could escalate quickly into a world war. A train from Moscow to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad was banned at the border by the Lithuanian authorities because it was carrying goods which are now sanctioned due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. An angry Kremlin, claiming that the EU was blockading its enclave, issued a statement that Moscow would respond in such a way that “citizens of the Baltic State would feel the pain”. Nikolai Patrushev, a former KGB spy, who is now the secretary of Russia’s Security Council and a favourite to succeed President Vladimir Putin, said Lithuania’s “hostile” actions showed that Russia could not trust the West, which he said had broken written agreements over Kaliningrad. Lithuania’s Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte hit back by saying that there was no blockade as people and most goods could easily travel as normal. Her country was simply applying agreed EU sanctions on Russia. She added that it was “ironic” to hear rhetoric about allegations of violations of international treaties from a country which has violated possibly every international treaty. Diplomatic temperatures soared. Moscow’s problem is that after the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, its enclave of Kaliningrad, previously called Konigsberg, an area of Germany captured by Soviet troops during World War II, found itself surrounded by two countries, Lithuania and Poland, which soon became part of NATO and the European Union. The enclave of one million Russian citizens could then only be supplied by air or by sea from St Petersburg. In July 2003, Russia signed an agreement with Lithuania that allowed its citizens and goods to travel to Kaliningrad using the train that ran from Moscow through Belarus and Lithuania. For ordinary Russians it was initially difficult to accept that they needed a transit visa to travel from one part of Russia to another, and some considered it a national humiliation. Nevertheless, until 17 June, when European sanctions started, covering a wide list from coal, metals, construction materials and advanced technology, likely to affect between 40%-50% of all imports to the enclave, the system worked well without any problems.
As expected, Russia’s foreign ministry summoned Lithuania’s charge d’affairs in Moscow to protest against the “provocative” and “openly hostile” measures. “If cargo transit between the Kaliningrad region and the rest of the Russian Federation via Lithuania is not fully restored in the near future”, said Russia’s foreign ministry, “then Russia reserves the right to take any actions to protect its national interests”. It’s not yet clear what the actions might be to protect the interests of Kaliningrad, a key location on the shores of the Baltic Sea, the base of Russia’s Baltic Fleet where Moscow has already deployed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles.
Few expect Russia to immediately attack Lithuania as a result of the ban on cargo, but the incident has brought attention yet again to another possible access for Russia to link up with its marooned enclave. This is a 60-mile-long slither of flat land, squeezed between NATO members Lithuania and Poland, and Moscow-ally Belarus. Called the “Suwalki Gap”, or “Suwalki Corridor”, this slip of land has long given NATO commanders sleepless nights. Should President Putin decide to invade, Suwalki would be perfect for advancing Russian tanks. If Putin gave the order to sweep across Suwalki, his forces would initially split the Baltics from the rest of NATO before the West could do anything about it, creating a perfect land corridor to Kaliningrad. Such a move would, of course, result in an immediate face-off between Moscow and NATO’s nuclear-armed members, pushing the world to the brink of world-ending confrontation. No wonder that many analysts call the Suwalki Gap the “most dangerous place on earth”.
But would President Putin risk such a move? He’s certainly been preparing for it. In 2017 and 2021, joint Belarusian and Russian war games simulated a conflict under a scenario in which Russia takes over “a corridor between Belarus and Kaliningrad”. These were in addition to the growing number of “snap” Russian war games on NATO’s borders, including live-fire exercises with units at fighting levels, unannounced and unmonitored by Western observers. Several have been held right next to the tiny Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, NATO’s soft underbelly. There have been dozens of violations of NATO’s airspace by Russian fighter-jets and bombers, often flying with their transponders off, making them difficult to track. As recently as last Thursday, in a highly provocative move, a Russian helicopter violated Estonian airspace in an exercise simulating missile attacks against NATO.
NATO’s nightmare scenario is thousands of Russian troops in exercises on both ends of the Suwalki Gap, with the potential to transition immediately from an exercise to an operation. To provide early warning, Polish soldiers man watchtowers around the clock along the Suwalki Gap, looking for suspicious Russian border activity. It’s an echo back to the Cold War days when some 300,000 US troops waited for a Soviet tank invasion across the Fulda Gap in central Germany.
There are many voices, however, who say that a Russian attempt to take the Suwalki Gap is the stuff of fantasy. It would make no sense, they argue, as it would trigger an immediate NATO response. Nonetheless, if Putin’s re-invasion of Ukraine (remember that 24th February was the second invasion, the first being in 2014 when he seized Crimea) has any lesson to offer, it is that NATO must expect the unexpected, as it is dealing with an unstable character, lashing out at the end of his life. Putin has already created a land-bridge to the Crimean Peninsula, and taking the Suwalki Gap would similarly link Russian troops in Kaliningrad with those stationed in its de facto protectorate, Belarus.
The expected NATO accession of Sweden and Finland has further raised tensions between Russia and the Alliance, turning the Baltic Sea into what some are calling a NATO lake. “You (Russia) block my Suwalki, I block your Finnish Gulf”, said Lieutenant General Martin Herem, the top Estonian military commander, in a recent interview. This provocation could give Moscow an even greater incentive to build a bridge to Kaliningrad via Suwalki.
The question is, would Washington and NATO really be prepared to risk Armageddon over a stretch of largely unpopulated farmland, few of their citizens know even exists? Despite the Baltic’s strategic concerns, what may be the most dangerous thing about the Suwalki Gap could be its relative irrelevance. An imminent attack is not likely, but then Vladimir Putin appears to delight in keeping the West guessing what his next move will be. With Moscow warning of “serious consequences” arising from Lithuania’s ban last week, we might soon find out.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK PM John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.