After Russia’s first illegal invasion of Ukraine in 2014 NATO members, especially those in the East, rushed to review their own security. The conclusion of those reviews made for sleepless reading in Western capitals.
Then in 2016, a wargame found that if invaded, Russian troops would enter the Estonian capital of Tallinn and the Latvian capital of Riga within 36 to 60 hours, an incredible speed that would limit the ability of Western allies to respond effectively.
Yet there’s one place that worries NATO planners and military strategists more than most — the Suwałki Gap.
It is a narrow, 60km odd stretch of land on the Polish-Lithuanian border which is bordered by Belarus on one side and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the other.
What made the Suwalki Gap so dangerous?
The Suwałki Gap is the only land corridor that connects the Baltic States with other NATO members. It is a narrow stretch of land which in the event of conflict with Russia, could be hit with artillery fire from both sides.
In short, for the West, it is a dangerous bottleneck. If Russian or Belarusian forces were able to close the gap, NATO wouldn’t be able to send reinforcements by land, it would be forced to revert to air and sea. The danger is that NATO members would be unable to get reinforcements to the Baltic States quickly enough via sea and air and in sufficient numbers to repel Russian forces.
However, a mixture of NATO actions and Russian blunders have drastically reduced this risk.
Russian aggression leads to an expanded NATO
When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, it sent shockwaves through neighbouring countries. The biggest war on the European continent since the end of the Second World War caused a complete re-evaluation of previous assumptions and strategies.
After following a policy of military neutrality for decades, Finland and Sweden both applied to join NATO. While Sweden’s membership is still pending after Turkish objections, Finland is now part of the alliance, significantly weakening the risk posed by the Suwałki Gap.
"The accession of Sweden and Finland creates a de facto "NATO Mare Nostrum" (translating to Our NATO Sea) with Russia probably being unable to exert a true anti-access or area denial strategy," Guillaume Lasconjarias, a Professor at Paris-Sorbonne University, and a former researcher at the NATO Defence College in Rome, told Euronews**.**
Or to put it simply, with NATO members bordering most of the Baltic Sea, Russia would be unable to prevent Western reinforcements arriving by sea.
The accession of Finland to NATO also doubled the length of the alliance’s border with Russia. This has in the Kremlin’s own words forced Russia to take counter-measures to ensure its own security, tactically and strategically. This increased exposure to a NATO member reduces the chances of any Russian attack on other NATO members bordering the Suwałki Gap.
Military failure in Ukraine reduces Russian military capacity
When Putin ordered the illegal invasion of Ukraine in 2022, it is widely believed that he did so confident that it would be a short, quick, and successful campaign. The London-based Rusi think-tank says that captured Russian documents show Moscow had a 10-day plan to take over the country and kill its leaders.
In the almost 600 days since launching the war, Russian forces have failed to capture key targets like Kyiv, were humiliated by Ukraine’s successful Kharkiv counter-offensive, and lost nearly 50,000 troops according to the first independent statistical analysis.
With Russia still bogged down in Ukraine, it has no military capacity to launch any foray into the Suwałki Gap. Without a successful military outcome in Ukraine, it is unlikely that Putin would be able to order any other major military action. It is even less likely given that the countries involved are NATO members.
Baltic, EU, and NATO changes reduce Russian risk
Putin’s Ukraine invasion prompted NATO to launch a huge strategic overhaul. The alliance used to rely on small tripwire NATO forces which would deter Russian aggression under fear of triggering NATO’s article 5 and a collective response to an attack.
Now NATO instead talks about defending every inch of its territory.
The alliance has set up four new battle groups in four new countries (Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia), doubled the number of troops spread across eight battle groups, and sent dozens more ships and hundreds more planes to the eastern part of the alliance.
It has drawn up new plans for how to reach and reinforce the Baltics in the event of an invasion and plans to further boost its presence in the region.
Lasconjarias also highlights that the Baltic States have made “greater efforts in the mobilisation of their forces and population, with the development of "total defence" among their people (like the Estonian Defense League).”
New EU, Baltic, and NATO initiatives aimed at boosting military mobility, such as the construction of a new trans-Baltic railway, will also allow NATO to redeploy its forces more quickly. As a consequence, the chances of successfully keeping the Baltic States cut off by closing the Suwałki Gap are reduced.
Ironically, it is Russia’s invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and again in 2022 that have made the risk of an attack on the Suwałki Gap so unlikely.