At Poland’s northeast border there’s only a narrow strip of inland border connecting it to NATO members Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. It’s called the Suwalki Corridor and it has long been an object of concern for Western military leaders.
To the west sits a unique spot Russian territory, the exclave of Kaliningrad, a key military port on the Baltic Sea. To the east is Belarus, a key Russian military ally. On the eve of this week’s NATO Summit, the former commanding general of U.S. Army Europe is issuing a new warning: cutting off that corridor could be how Russian President Vladimir Putin cuts off the Baltic states from the rest of NATO, possibly without firing a shot.
“Situated between Belarus and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, it serves as the only land link between NATO and its three Baltic members, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania,” says a new report co-authored by retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, scheduled for release on Monday by the Center for European Analysis, or CEPA, which provided Defense One a copy prior to publication
“If Russian forces ever established control over this Corridor, or even threatened the free movement of NATO forces and material through it, they could cut the Baltic States off from the rest of the Alliance and potentially obstruct allied reinforcements advancing by land through Poland.”
But if you accept Putin’s goal is to destabilize the NATO alliance and convince some members or unaligned countries to join Russia’s sphere of influence, then it becomes easier to imagine Putin engineering some sort of crisis to make the alliance look impotent or irrelevant to its members’ security, and that’s what has Hodges worried.
It’s exactly the sort of scenario Russia drilled last fall during its most recent grand-scale exercise, Zapad 2017. The event took place primarily in Belarus but involved troops and military assets across Russia, including ICBMs. Kaliningrad played a key role in the exercise, according to Phil Karber, president of the Potomac Foundation and one of the authors of the Russia New Generation Warfare Study, a classified analysis of Russian tactics and capabilities written for the U.S. military in 2016.
For Hodges, the main lesson from Zapad was that the Russian military could move a lot of equipment and troops into Belarus at high speed, making it difficult for Western observers to distinguish between an exercise and actual military action. “There were at least 100,000 troops involved,” he said. “They had a little dog and pony show in Belarus but 80 or 90,000 troops were involved, elsewhere,” he said.
The ultimate object of the military action would not be to occupy the capital of a NATO country so much as to expose the alliance’s incompetence.