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NATO ‘will do nothing’ if Lithuania invaded says Honcharuk

Russian President Vladimir Putin issued another thinly veiled threat to former Soviet countries this week with comments about them being part of Russia’s domain. Speaking at an economic forum in St Petersburg on Friday, he responded to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev — Kazakhstan’s leader — who said that he did not recognise two pro-Russian rebel regions in the Donbas. Putin said: “What is the Soviet Union? This is historic Russia,” before praising Kazakhstan — formerly part of the USSR — as an ally, adding: “The same thing could have happened with Ukraine, absolutely, but they wouldn’t be our allies.”

Experts and political watchers largely agreed that Putin was quietly warning Mr Tokayev and Kazakhstan that ‘if you’re good, you’re safe; if you’re bad, you could be next’.

Many former Soviet states have found themselves in similar positions since Russia invaded Ukraine — itself once a part of the USSR — fearing that they could be next.

The Baltic states — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — have been a particular focus given their close proximity to both Russia and Europe.

All former members of the USSR, they each gained independence on the fall of the union, moved swiftly and expertly, and by 2004 had joined both NATO and the EU — much to the dismay of Russia.

NATO: The alliance has been warned over the potentially compromising nature of the Suwałki Gap (Image: GETTY/Google Maps)

Vladimir Putin and Kassym-Jomart Tokayev at the economic forum in St Petersburg

‘Historic Russia’ Putin;s words at the economic forum were widely interpreted as a threat (Image: GETTY)

While Latvia and Estonia share borders with Russia, Lithuania is bordered by Poland to its south, Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave gained at the end of World War 2, to its south-west, and Belarus, which has in recent years been described as a puppet state of Russia, to its east.

It leaves the Baltic states highly vulnerable to the possibility of an attack by Russia, an event that would essentially seal the region off from the rest of Europe.

The Suwałki Gap, or Suwałki Corridor, has long represented this weakness on the fringes of the EU and NATO.

Around 40 miles (65 kilometres) long, the stretch of land is considered high risk if Russia decided to move into Belarus, or even station troops in the country as it did in Belarus’ south at the beginning of the Ukraine war.

John R Deni, a research professor at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, recently wrote an analysis piece for Foreign Policy in which he warned that “NATO Must Prepare to Defend Its Weakest Point — the Suwalki Corridor.”

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A map of the former USSR

USSR: The Soviet Union spanned an enormous 22.4 million km² and included 15 republics (Image: GETTY)

He noted that much like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “on the Polish-Lithuanian border, the West must respond to Russia’s actual capabilities rather than making assumptions about its intent”.

Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave that flanks Lithuania, is today filled with Russian military, an environment which was recently described to by someone living there who wishes to remain anonymous as “threatening” and as having “too much of weaponry and army”.

A Russian move to seize control of the Suwałki Gap may sound far-fetched, as it would mean a direct attack on a NATO member which would directly invoke Article 5 of the alliance which states that an attack on one member is an attack on every member.

Most worryingly for Russia, it would trigger a US response.

But, as Mr R Deni writes: “Nonetheless, if Moscow’s reinvasion of Ukraine has any central lesson to offer at this point, it’s that US and allied officials must prepare now for worst-case scenarios by focusing on actual Russian military capabilities in the region, rather than the Kremlin’s announced intent, considered estimates of Russia’s strategic logic, or intelligence assessments of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s outlook.”


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The Baltic states on the map

Baltic states: All former USSR republics, they border Russia and could be at risk of invasion (Image: Google Maps)

Suwałi Gap the border between Lithuania and Poland

Suwałi Gap: The land corridor splits Poland and Lithuania, and is flanked by Russia and Belarus (Image: GETTY)

The majority of the gap is not a land corridor in the traditional sense.

It does not feature rivers, mountains, cliff edges and craggy rocks; rather, it is made up of mostly gentle, short rolling hills and farmlands, “ideal terrain for tracked vehicles like tanks”, Mr R Deni notes.

Western governments and EU and NATO members have paid more attention to the gap since Russia’s invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea in 2014, all too aware that it posed a weakness.

But not much in the sense of military presence from the allies has been rolled out for fear of being accused of aggression by Russia.

However, since February 24, NATO has increased its military visibility in the east of the alliance tenfold, establishing multinational battlegroups in Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.

NATO battlegroups regularly train together in member states

NATO troops: NATO has stationed various battlegroups in the Baltic states (Image: GETTY)

It has sent more ships, planes and troops to the Baltic region in a bid to demonstrate solidarity in the face of Russian aggression.

In terms of Lithuania, NATO has doubled its troop numbers in the country, a sign that it is taking the issue of the Suwałki Gap seriously.

Ingrida Šimonytė, Lithuania’s Prime Minister, in March called for more “defence systems, air defence systems, all the measures that can help to protect NATO eastern flank”, which have since been heard and acted on.

Speaking to The Times, she noted how Putin’s image as a strategic bluffer had disintegrated: “Now he’s in a situation where there is no way out, so it’s a threat, not only to Nato’s eastern flank but to the whole concept of western democracy.”

Ingrida Šimonytė Lithuania's Prime Minister

Ingrida Šimonytė: Lithuania’s PM has called for more defence systems in the country (Image: GETTY)

Luckily for the EU and NATO, previous suggestions from Russia that would have seen a land corridor connecting Belarus and Kaliningrad were dismissed, something that would have surely heightened tensions if realised.

Proposed in the Nineties and early Noughties, Russia attempted to negotiate an ‘extraterritorial’ corridor from its exclave to Grodno in Belarus — a plan that was not consented to by Poland, Lithuania and the EU.