Suwałki Gap fears recede as Nato rethinks strategy
It may be regularly described as one of the most dangerous places on earth, but anybody expecting to find panic in the sparsely populated villages on the Lithuanian-Polish border would be disappointed.
Known as the Suwałki Gap, the 100km border between the two Nato countries is bookended by Kaliningrad, the Russian semi-exclave, and Belarus, the close military ally of Moscow, at either end. If forces from those territories — just 65km apart as the crow flies — were to control this border, then the Baltic states would be cut off from the rest of Europe and Nato, military experts warn.
But head down a dirt road on the Lithuanian side of the border to the small village of Sangrūda and life carries on pretty much as normal for residents such as Raimonda Skeberdienė, who runs a small flower farm with her husband.
“We feel safe — they don’t scare us,” the 33-year-old mother of two says. “We can’t panic too much when we’re with our children. We have not considered moving, because we don’t even have the financial means to do it.”
Her 74-year-old neighbour, Petronė, lives a few hundred metres down the road on a farm where her parents built the barn during the second world war.
“The fact that planes fly keeps us safe,” she says. “There are about six of them flying over the meadow here, almost every day. That’s just this year. The border is exactly 5km away. There is nothing we can do here. I don’t feel any war.”
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, and its control over Belarus, has placed an intense focus on the Suwałki Gap. The Lithuanian-Polish border was given this nickname intentionally to echo the Fulda Gap, the part of West Germany seen as the most vulnerable to a potential Soviet invasion and therefore the most crucial place in the cold war; Suwałki is the nearest town on the Polish side.
After the attack against Ukraine, many — including locals in the Suwałki Gap — wondered if the Baltics might be the next target for Russia. “When I found out, I thought that they were coming here: we would be the first ones,” says Petronė.
Ministers in Vilnius are clear on the border’s significance. “It is seen as one of the most vulnerable places of Nato territory,” says Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister. Prime minister Ingrida Šimonytė adds: “Of course, this is a point to watch. This is something we pay close attention to. It’s important not to lose this corridor in a situation of military aggression.”
But, among Lithuanian officials, there are also hopes that the strategic importance of the Suwałki Gap may be decreasing due to the actions of Nato.
The longtime plan to defend the Baltics was, according to multiple officials in the region, to assume that Russia would take over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania quickly but then repel its invasions by massive force from Nato troops based in Germany and Poland.
However, the reality of war in Ukraine — where atrocities against civilians have been found in liberated towns such as Bucha and Kherson — has changed the calculation. Nato allies are beefing up their presence in the Baltic countries. Germany is providing more troops in Lithuania, Canada is doing the same in Latvia, and the UK is present in Estonia, in a concept known as forward defence. The new plan is to defend the Baltics aggressively from day one.
“Forward defence means that we need as many forces as we can sustain close to our defence perimeter so that we don’t need to move as many troops in times of crisis,” says Vaidotas Urbelis, policy director at the ministry of defence. “There would also be pre-positioning of ammunition and equipment. In that case, the Suwałki Gap is less critical because you can sustain yourself for days or weeks.”
A further big change this year came through the applications of Finland and Sweden to join Nato. For many in Lithuania, this would mean the Baltic Sea would become a “Nato lake” and give the additional option of reinforcing the region by boat and not just through the Suwałki Gap.
“It changes the security situation entirely,” says Margarita Šešelgytė, director of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University. “There would be two ways into Baltic states in the future. The Suwałki Gap becomes less important.”
Back at the Suwałki Gap itself, the residents are stoic. Vida, a 63-year-old former school cleaner, moved back to the area with her husband, mother and aunt to a small farm with six cows, two pigs, chickens and doves.
“I’m not afraid to come back here,” she says. “If war broke out, we would stay at home. We have supplies. In the village, people mostly keep a chicken or a cow. That’s what we eat.”
Petras, her husband, adds: “What is there to be afraid of? It will be the way it will be.”
Further down the road is the Kalvarija border checkpoint — the main crossing between Poland and Lithuania. Military experts worry that the single-lane crossing could become congested if thousands of troops and large amounts of equipment would need to be transported quickly.
But Saulius Motukas, a senior specialist at the state border guard service, says he has no time to think about the Suwałki Gap being potentially the most dangerous place on earth.
With dozens of lorries streaming across the border every few minutes, Motukas says: “We are doing our job. Well, if it happens, it happens. Just as I felt safe before, I feel safe now.”