Russia and Lithuania are at odds over supplies to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. This is stoking fears in Poland and Lithuania in an area NATO has dubbed the “Suwalki Gap.” It’s about more than just rail transit.
In the evening around seven o’clock the train from Kaliningrad to Moscow pulls into the provincial station of Kybartai. The silver-grey wagons with the red logo of the Russian railways RZD shine in the evening sun. In the sleeping cars, passengers lounge on their beds, some look out the window. They are not allowed to get out. Because Kybartai is in Lithuania, an EU and NATO country that the train has to pass on its almost 19-hour journey from the Russian Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad to Moscow. Lithuania allows transit without a Schengen visa – on condition that nobody gets off the train.
Demands for conquest of a “corridor”
A dispute between the Baltic Republic and Russia has brought Kybartai railway station to global attention. The most important railway line connecting Kaliningrad with the core of Russia runs here. And since Lithuania stopped the transit of goods that are on the EU sanctions list, the threats from Moscow have not stopped. The Kremlin is threatening “practical” countermeasures and questioning Lithuania’s state border. In Russian talk shows the conquest of a “corridor” to Kaliningrad is demanded.
That hits a sensitive nerve in the border region. Because NATO has been using the term “Suwalki gap” for years. It is a corridor on Polish and Lithuanian territory between Belarus and Kaliningrad. By taking it, Russia could cut off the Baltic states from the other NATO countries. The corridor was named after the Polish town of Suwalki.
Russia accuses Lithuania of blocking the transit. However, only certain goods are affected, such as cement, building materials and metals. While the border guards in the Kybartai station check the passengers on the train from Kaliningrad, endless Russian freight trains roll by. “Compared to last year, freight traffic has decreased by about half,” says station boss Saulius Baikstys (51). He is not afraid of a Russian invasion. “Lithuania and Poland are in NATO.”
“Most Dangerous Place on Earth”
The magazine “Politico” has described the Suwalki Gap as the “most dangerous place in the world”. Because this is where NATO troops could meet the Russian army, even if everything seems peaceful on the Polish side at the moment. Tree-lined avenues wind through the hilly landscape of former East Prussia, tourists bathe in one of the many lakes, storks sit on their nests.
But the uneasiness is growing here too. “We have the historical awareness: In the event of Russian aggression, we would be the first,” says Daniel Domoradzki (33), head of the “Active Masuria” citizens’ initiative. Encouraged by inquiries from frightened citizens, the initiative launched a survey among a dozen communities in the region about the situation with bunkers and civil protection. Everywhere the answer was similar to that in the case of the city of Gizycko (Lötzen): “There are no shelters on the territory of the municipality.” City councilor Pawel Andruszkiewicz says eleven underground bunkers from the Second World War have been preserved in Gizycko. “But they are either filled in or built on top of them.”
The NATO partners also take the concerns of Poland and the Baltic States very seriously. At their summit in Madrid, they decided to increase their troop presence on the alliance’s eastern flank. US President Joe Biden has announced that US troops are to be permanently stationed in Poland. Germany is the lead nation for the NATO mission in Lithuania. There are currently a little more than a thousand men and women from the Bundeswehr with tanks, howitzers and anti-aircraft guns as part of a NATO battle group (eFP battle group) in the country. Now an entire combat troop brigade – possibly a total of 4,500 soldiers – is to be assigned to the defense. The command element as well as weapons, ammunition and equipment will then be in Lithuania, the soldiers ready for deployment in Germany for exercises and in the event of an emergency.
The presence of land forces is a central point in deterring Russia, said the commander of the Bundeswehr Operations Command, Lieutenant General Bernd Schütt. “In the area of the Suwalki gap, it’s only a short jump, and there the danger of NATO’s will and ability to defend itself being tested is relatively great. In this area you can move troops relatively quickly and then, for example, carry out an initial attack using airborne troops,” said Schütt. “In Putin’s rationale: maybe he thinks NATO isn’t coming.”
Many options for an aggressor
An aggressor has many opportunities to provoke and test the opponent. They range from airspace violations, minor incidents along the border, the additional deployment of weapon systems to large-scale military maneuvers, like before the invasion of Ukraine. There are no indications for attack preparations.
However, virtually every form of confrontation with Russia is now part of the showdown. If you add the dispute about the transit of goods, the EU doesn’t paint the best picture on this point, especially if you have to backtrack now.
It is up to the EU to set the necessary framework conditions, said Federal Chancellor Olaf Kanzler in Madrid at the end of the NATO summit. The rules are “of course always to be determined in the light of the fact that this is about traffic between two parts of Russia,” said the SPD politician. Everyone involved is currently trying very hard to “establish a de-escalation dynamic here”.