Border gambit

How would NATO react if Russia seized the Suwałki Gap between Poland and Lithuania to connect Kaliningrad to Belarus? A military expert shares his opinion

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Border gambit

Photo: EPA-EFE / Adam Warzawa

On 16 July, Russian MP and former deputy defence minister Andrey Kartapolov said that the redeployment of the Wagner Group mercenaries to Belarus was a “subtle move” orchestrated by Putin, the ultimate goal of which being the capture of the Suwałki Gap, a choke point between Lithuania and Poland that could potentially connect the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad to Belarus.

It turned out that Kartapolov wasn’t alone in his thinking. Those in Russian military circles have been discussing this issue for a couple of months now: how can they defend the Kaliningrad exclave and is its defence even possible?

Should it come under attack, Kaliningrad would have to be defended from either Poland or Germany, countries that have no intention of capturing it.

Both governments have inevitably considered how they might react were Russia to collapse, though that’s clearly not on the cards as yet.

Back in March 2023, Telegram channel Kremlin Secrets posted unverified claims that troop losses in Ukraine had led to the number of Russian servicemen stationed in Kaliningrad being cut by around half. In May, the same channel reported that the number of combat-ready units in the Kaliningrad region had decreased significantly, commenting that “anyone who knew anything about fighting was sent to Ukraine”.

At the same time, rumours began circulating that two military scenarios for establishing a land corridor between Belarus and Kaliningrad through Lithuania or Poland were being developed, both entailing an attack on the border and the transfer of military hardware from Belarus.

Just a few days before the Wagner rebellion in June, the same Telegram channel revealed that a certain report written by a group of military, economic, and political specialists was circulating among Moscow officials. The document outlined the steps that could be taken in case of a successful counteroffensive by the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

  • First of all, Abkhazia, an unrecognised secessionist region of Georgia that has been supported by Moscow since the early 1990s, could be declared part of Russia, which would both expand Russian territory and demonstrate to voters the truth behind the much-used pro-war slogan that Russians “don’t abandon their own”. The move would also provide a new domestic tourist destination for employees of the Russian state now that Crimea has become too dangerous.
  • Secondly, Russian troops could return to Nagorno-Karabakh. An idea that could only be conceived by a general: Russia would end up in trouble with both Azerbaijan and Turkey, there would be serious problems with the military bases in Syria’s Khmeimim and Tartus, and even worse, a “second front” could end up being opened.
  • And lastly, the third option. To make Belarus “lay down” a corridor to Kaliningrad through the so-called Suwałki Gap, as in alongside the Polish-Lithuanian border. The people responsible for the idea even took into account the fact that the two countries are NATO members and invading their territory could lead to a war with the North Atlantic Alliance. But according to the authors of the alleged report, if the breach is quick and decisive then NATO will just not have enough time to react, and once the corridor is laid down it’ll be too late. Because history is written by the winners.

In other words, it appears that the plan to join Kaliningrad and Belarus by land bridge has been on the minds of Russia’s military top brass for some time, even if it fully materialised after the Wagner mutiny on 23-24 June. But does it have any chances of being put into action?

Wagnerites in Belarus

The redeployment of mercenaries from the Wagner Group to Belarus following June’s failed mutiny ushered in a new political climate in the country among some of its neighbours. By late July, Belarus was hosting around 5,000 well-trained fighters who were not fully controlled by its government. By 8 August, according to Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, that number had reached 6,500.

Alexander Lukashenko and his inner circle are inevitably concerned at this force’s potential for intervening in domestic affairs, be it by order from Moscow or at Prigozhin’s behest. Minsk should also be deeply concerned with the possibility of Belarus being inadvertently dragged into the war in Ukraine.

It could be that Lukashenko’s comment about being “tired of Wagner fighters who want to go to the West” relates to this concern. The same goes for the articles strategically released from time to time about the mercenaries returning to Russia from Belarus.

The last report of this kind was posted on 8 August, citing the American Institute for the Study of War, though it was refuted the next day.

Wagner’s force potential in Belarus shouldn’t be underestimated, seeing as 6,500 fighters will be enough to form 12-13 full battalions or, for example, two motorised rifle brigades. 

When it comes to combat potential, they’re equal to that of Belarusian land troops, which stand at 11,700 soldiers divided into four mechanised brigades and two artillery ones. Many experts agree that their training is not comparable, so should Wagner mercenaries take to the streets, it’s unclear who would come out on top.

War, provocation, and sabotage

The shortest distance as the crow flies between Belarus and Kaliningrad is around 65 km. But any invasion force would realistically move by road, making the distance around 100 km. Meeting no resistance, the journey would take about two and a half hours.

Obviously, however, there will be resistance, and it will be significant at that. Polish troops would come to their NATO ally Lithuania’s aid and with 58,000 personnel equipped with around 650 tanks and 1,500 armoured fighting vehicles, it’d be better for Wagner not to even attempt the capture of the poor Suwałki Gap.

So why did Russian generals even start talking about establishing a land corridor from Belarus to Kaliningrad?

The only explanation is that talk of capturing the Suwałki Gap creates a diversion from something else, something of significance.

Most likely, the Suwałki Gap wasn’t the task Moscow assigned to Wagner’s units in Belarus. A far more probable goal would be sending sabotage groups to blow up trains delivering military aid to Ukraine and destroying the Rzeszów airfield in Poland, which has long been a thorn in the side of the Russian military leadership.

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