A new concept recently appeared in the language of the US military: "Suwalki Gap" (przesmyk Suwalki in Polish) - the land corridor between Poland and Lithuania, or rather between Balarus and Kaliningrad. This sliver of the Polish border with Lithuania is wedged between Russian ally Belarus and the Russian Kaliningrad oblast. The "Suwalki Gap" is the stretch of land between the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad to the northwest and Moscow-friendly nation of Belarus to the southeast, is a key point, on the one hand due to potential threats, and on the other hand due to the possibility of providing assistance to the Baltic States.
The 60 mile / 100 km [the border is sinuous so estimates vary] land strip in the Sejny district is also called the Suwalki corridor or, by the Lithuanians, referred to as the Suwalki triangle (based on the three towns of Punsk, Sejny and Suwalki).
NATO's biggest post-Cold War exercise in Eastern Europe -- the June 2016 Anaconda manuvers in Poland -- focused partly on defending the Gap, amid what one analyst dubbed "sophisticated" and "intimidating" exercises in Kaliningrad and Belarus. "Russia could take over the Baltic states faster than we would be able to defend them," the commander of US ground forces in Europe, General Ben Hodges, admitted to Germany's Die Zeit weekly.
NATO strategists are actually faced with a non-trivial task: the infrastructure of the Eastern European country is not well suited for conducting full-scale military operations. Modern American and British tanks weigh under 70 tons and, in the event of war with Russia, will not be able to cross the "dilapidated" bridges across the Vistula, flowing across Poland from north to south. Experts say that the bridges available in the country will withstand military vehicles weighing up to 50 tons - and this will be Russian. Therefore, in the event of hostilities, the infantry will need to independently maintain a foothold, until Western tanks find a convenient crossing and pull themselves up to help. There are pontoon bridges, but their number is limited and they are not suitable for large European rivers. Russian armored personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles and even tanks can independently force water obstacles. And the engineering troops are capable of ensuring the crossing of large groups as soon as possible.
There are similarities between the "Suwalki Gap" and its prototype, the Fulda Gap". The expression "Fulda Gap" (the Germans say «Fulda-Lücke») was until 1989 one of the key concepts NATO defense strategy in Europe. The area around the West German city of Fulda, close to the border with the communist East Germany, behind which were concentrated Soviet troops ready to attack the West. It was the most convenient geographic place where the USSR could attack with their armored and mechanized units, to be divided into two parts, the front of NATO forces and at Frankfurt, the main point of the logistics and maintenance of US forces in western Europe. Therefore, it was an mportant question how to protect the "Fulda Gap" [some recent sources refer to a "Fulda Corridor" but this is incorrect, and confuses matters with the Hoff Corridor, another prospective axis of Soviet attack].
The Suwalki Gap is relevant to the scenario in which Russia would attack the Baltics, either by conventional means or by "fifth column" methods similar to those used in the Crimea and Donbas. NATO forces would need to move rapidly to the territory of the Baltics. The narrow land corridor between Poland and Lithuania, the section of Suwalki-Kaunas, would be the key for the transfer of NATO forces to come to the aid of the Baltics.
To counter NATO forces traveling to the Baltic countries, the Russians could deploy forces in the Kaliningrad region, or the grouping of troops in Belarus. It should be understood that from an operational-strategic point of view, the Belarusian army is a de facto part of the Russian armed forces (despite assurances Lukashenko about the pursuit of sovereignty). In any event, Russian army and the forces of Belarus would have the advantage of time: being a party that initiated the aggression, they can be used to concentrate power in one place.
If the concept of "Fulda Gap" was a symbol of Allied solidarity in the German defense, the "Suwalki Gap" could turn into a symbol of the weakness of the West. If the Russian attack was "hybrid warfare", NATO forces might stand with folded arms, as Western countries, he sent out his troops, decide that the attacks referred to in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, did not happen. The Suwalki Gap is considered to be the Achilles heel of Polish defence. In May 2016, Polish Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz said that: “[The Baltic countries’] ability to slow down the violence so as to allow NATO forces supported by the United States and other countries to reach the area would be sufficient, as long as we can keep the Suwalki Gap. […] It is our greatest strength as well as our weakness.”
It would not be neccessary for Russian forces to compreshensively occupy the the Sulwaki Gap area. Rather, even a thin and discontinuous line of Russian forces strung out along the Gap would present a barrier the land reinforcement of the Baltics, unless NATO forces were prepared to force a passage and escalate the crisis. On minor highway runs roughly parallel to the Poland-Lithuania border, generally 10 kilometers East of the border in Lithuania. Highway 134 connects Hrodna in Belarus with Kalvarija, and thence Highway 200 runs from Kalvarija to Yasnaya Polyana in Kaliningrad. Convoys of semi-military trucks carrying "humanitarian assistance supplies" from Belarus to Kaliningrad should to the trick nicely. The ball would be in NATO's court to up the ante. The primary land supply route from Poland to Lithuania is Highway A5/E67. The Russian and NATO supply highways intersect near the town Lithuanian of Kalvarija. Crossing lines is a tricky maneuver for friendly forces.
A February 2016 RAND Corporation study suggested that Russian forces could overrun NATO’s Baltic states in less than three days. “As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members ... Across multiple games using a wide range of expert participants in and out of uniform playing both sides, the longest it has taken Russian forces to reach the outskirts of the Estonian and/or Latvian capitals of Tallinn and Riga, respectively, is 60 hours.”
“Further gaming indicates that a force of about seven brigades, including three heavy armored brigades—adequately supported by airpower, land-based fires, and other enablers on the ground and ready to fight at the onset of hostilities—could suffice to prevent the rapid overrun of the Baltic states,” the RAND report stated.
General Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, commander, US Army Europe, briefing on Operation Atlantic Resolve on 09 December 2015, stated " ... in what we call the Suwalki Gap area, which is that 95-kilometer stretch between Kaliningrad and Belarus, you know, there's a significant, or a large Russian training area in Kaliningrad, and there's a large Belarusian training area there in the northwest corner. The Russian snap exercises, you know, one of the things that separates us from them is transparency. You know, we comply with the Vienna protocol. If there's a certain size exercise, you have to invite the others - the Russians - to come be observers. We've had Russian observers in Bulgaria and Hohenfels here just in the last few months. The Russian snap exercises, you know, there's never an observer there."
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, US Strykers rumbled down the cobble stone streets of Suwalki, Poland, 04 June 2016 and were greeted by a gathering crowd of Polish citizens. Children waved U.S. flags and watched as Soldiers parked their military vehicles in the main square of Suwalki, while a youth dance team performed on a stage in the background. Brightly colored balloons decorated street fair stalls throwing a festive contrast to the military vehicles that sat in the square, giving families a balance of fun, colorful entertainment as well as education and history. As part of the Suwalki celebration, prominent leaders in the community, including Polish senator Anna Maria Anders, spoke to local citizens.
Some 3,200 NATO troops would deploy in the Baltic region and along the Suwalki Gap in north-eastern Poland as early as 2017. The deployment of four battlegroups marks the “biggest reinforcement of our collective defence since the end of the cold war”, NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said. Each of the four battlegroups will consist of of 600-1,000 troops. Britain would lead a battalion in Estonia, Canada in Latvia, and Germany in Lithuania, while the US was expected to do so in Poland.
Dubbed NATO’s “enhanced forward presence” and billed by the US-led alliance as part of a purely defensive “deter and dialogue” strategy, each battalion will have troops. “Polish forces are well prepared to effectively defend it (Suwalki Gap), but of course there aren’t enough of them, given Russia’s full mobilization. This is why (NATO) battle groups are necessary,” Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz told foreign press in Warsaw.
Tomasz Szatkowski, Polish defense ministry undersecretary of state, also told foreign media in Warsaw “Most likely, it (battle group in Poland) will be in the proximity of the Suwalki Gap, in a location that allows them to very quickly secure it.”
Suwalszczyzna is the name of the region that forms the northeastern corner of Poland, adjacent to the Lithuanian border. As Suwalszczyzna has the lowest population density in Poland, industry is almost nonexistent. This is obviously one of the reasons contributing to the almost undisturbed nature of the region. There is no international airport in the region, the nearest airport with an international connection in Warsaw, some 300 km to the south-west of the regions most significant town of Suwalki. The train takes about 5 hours from Warsaw, while it is longer by bus. National road 16 runs through the region, linking Warsaw with Augustow to the south of Suwalki, while E67 runs from Sulwaki to the border with Lithuania.
In the Masurian Lakes district, Suwalki is characterised by its classicistic architecture, its wide streets and low, two story houses, and ancient churches, along with museums and beautiful parks. Its location makes the town an excellent jumping-off point for excursions to Lake Wigry and other attractive areas of the Suwalki Lake District and the Masuria Lakeland. In the vicinity of Suwalki there are numerous nature reserves, natural sights, rivers and two primeval forests.
One of the busiest commercial zones in Podlaskie Voivodship, Suwalki is a town situated in northeastern part of Poland some 30 km south-west of the border with Lithuania. It has a permanent population of 69,000 living over an area of 65.5 km2. Extending along the Czarna Hancza River, Suwalki lies at an altitude of 170-190 meters above sea level. Rich in moraine hills and postglacial lakes, the area is frequently compared to remote Scandinavia. Due to the severe winters that can last over four mouths, and often with very low temperatures, people call it the cold pole of Poland - while Suwalki itself is known as the coldest town in the country. The climate here exhibits the typical features of a continental climate – very low temperatures in winter and relatively high ones during the summer.
In 1688, Suwalki was a little village situated on a major trade route connecting Grodno and Merecz with Koenigsberg. The settlement was established by Camaldolese monks from the Wigry monastery, to whom King John Casimir of Poland gave the land there for the future town. Suwalki’s first mention dates from 1688. In 1710 King August II the Strong granted the privilege of holding markets and fairs in Suwalki.
The region of Suwalki is a country of forested, marshy fenland and lakes, perhaps even more difficult to cross than the region farther west. From Suwalki eastward to Alytus a narrow causeway through the region marshy forest was long the main highway of travel. In the Great War the topographic barriers of the Suwalki province proved too difficult for the German armies. The Germans were confronted with almost exactly the same topographic features which had opposed the westward movement of the Russians.
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