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partner perspectives

Apr 19, 2019 | 10:00 GMT

7 mins read

Threading the Needle Through the Suwalki Gap

A Polish border post marks the NATO nation's frontier with alliance partner Lithuania and Russia's Kaliningrad region.
(JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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By Michael A. Hunzeker and Alexander Lanoszka for the EastWest Institute

From new bases to better railroads, the United States and its NATO allies are actively looking for new ways to deter Russian aggression against Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The problem is that policymakers and defense planners do not yet agree on what Russia's intentions are towards the region in the first place. Intentions might seem academic, but deterrence policies must flow logically from an assessment of who and what one is actually trying to deter.

Unfortunately, the debate over Russian intentions is at an impasse. Many analysts emphatically insist that Russia is fundamentally revisionist. Others reject this interpretation and maintain precisely the opposite. The first camp believes that Russia harbors irredeemably expansionist ambitions and strives to reassert imperial control over the region. Though Russia is willing to use force to achieve this goal, it is content to use subversion and provocation to shape conditions until the time is right for a fait accompli.

The second camp takes a more sympathetic view and portrays Russia as a defensive actor. Fear rather than imperial impulses animate Russian foreign and defense policy. It begrudgingly accepts that Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland are members of NATO. Yet Russia is justifiably concerned that the United States will do everything in its power to prevent Russia from occupying its rightful place as a great power peer.

A "one size fits all" military posture towards Russia in the Baltic region may be dangerously inappropriate.

Compounding the problem is that Russia's actions are entirely consistent with both narratives. For example, we can interpret Russian aggression against Ukraine as setting the stage for further expansion. But such moves can also serve as a way for Russia to signal its redlines so as to deter future NATO expansion. Nor can we even infer Russian intentions from its military capabilities. Although Russia has invested heavily in military modernization since 2008, its more capable military is just as useful for attacking NATO countries as it is for defending against a NATO attack. 

A "one size fits all" military posture towards Russia in the Baltic region may thus be dangerously inappropriate. Consider the problem of the so-called Suwalki Gap, a narrow land bridge connecting Poland and Lithuania. Many worry that Russia might try to "close" the gap, preventing NATO from reinforcing the region by land and leaving the Baltic states to fend for themselves, vastly outmanned and outgunned.

The measures most appropriate for countering a revisionist Russia are precisely the opposite of the steps NATO should take if it is dealing with a defensive Russia. Only an aggressive — and expensive — forward-based military presence will deter Russia from trying to close the Suwalki Gap if it is indeed bent on attacking its neighbors. In this case, the United States and its allies have little choice but to militarize the area in and around the Suwalki Gap in order to defend this key avenue from Russian depredations. Yet if Russia is defensive-minded, a heavy U.S. and NATO military presence near the Suwalki Gap will likely fuel the belief that it is the West that harbors revisionist intentions.

The opposite is also true. If the Kremlin favors — or at least tolerates — the status quo, then it will find a small or even non-existent military footprint near the Suwalki Gap reassuring. However, if the Kremlin actually wants to push NATO out of the region, then the absence of a large, forward-based U.S. and NATO presence will embolden it to consider closing the gap as part of a larger "surprise" land grab. 

Thankfully, this impasse has a solution. In a new monograph published by the U.S. Army's Strategic Studies Institute, we argue that it is possible to "thread the needle" — that is, strike a balance between conflicting goals — so as to assure Russia if it is indeed defensive, while hedging against the possibility that it is not. In the context of the Suwalki Gap, we argue that threading the needle is not even that difficult.

If Russia is defensive-minded, a heavy U.S. and NATO military presence near the Suwalki Gap will likely fuel the belief that the West harbors revisionist intentions.

To begin with, the United States and its NATO allies can invest in more early warning capabilities. The sooner they can detect possible preparations for war, the more time they have to surge forces into theater. Of course, the United States can improve its early warning capabilities by positioning more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets in the four countries. Yet other more creative — and less costly — options also exist.

One such option is for the United States to facilitate better coordination and intelligence sharing among its regional allies. Another is to pay more attention to Belarus. Russia cannot "close the gap" without either launching missiles from, sending missiles over or deploying troops through Belarus. Any of these moves would prove so profoundly escalatory that it would justify strikes against Kaliningrad, any Russian forces located in Belarus, and possibly into Russia itself. After all, the Suwalki Gap exists because of how international borders are drawn. They are but lines on a map that may cease to matter in an open military confrontation.

In fact, such a scenario leaves the United States and NATO with many options for "flipping" the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threat on its head against Russia. Rather than simply allow Russia to complicate their efforts to move into and within the Baltic theater, U.S. and NATO forces can hold local Russian assets at risk so as to hamper Moscow from achieving its goals at acceptable cost. If they take care to make sure these risks are well understood in advance, Belarus might prove reluctant to passively or actively support aggression against NATO. Political foot-dragging can complicate Russian war-planning and provide opportunities for early warning so long as the United States and NATO deploy the intelligence resources to look out for such indicators.

Finally, the United States must demonstrate that it is willing to counter Russian aggression over the long haul. Accordingly, it should seriously consider establishing a permanent presence in Poland. Rather than building a massive, Cold War vintage base, the United States should instead opt for a series of hardened and widely dispersed bases. This approach will both reassure local allies that the United States is committed to their defense while also conveying to Russia that it does not intend on using Poland as some sort of staging point for offensive military preparations. Of course, Russia will protest any permanent U.S. military presence east of Berlin, but such protests will lack substance if the United States is careful about how it designs its bases and the kinds of forces it garrisons within them.

At the end of the day, the United States and NATO need not choose between adopting a robust military posture around the Suwalki Gap and doing nothing at all. Many options exist between these extremes. Nor does it have to settle on one particular interpretation of Russia's "true" intentions towards the Baltic states and Poland, which are probably unknowable in any case. And so the United States and its regional allies must be levelheaded in their assessments of what Russia can — and what it cannot — accomplish militarily. By respecting Russia's capabilities and recognizing its many sources of vulnerability, the United States and NATO can find cost-effective ways to assure and threaten at the same time.

Michael A. Hunzeker is an assistant professor at George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government and is the associate director of the school's Center for Security Policy Studies. He also served as an active duty Marine Corps officer from 2000 to 2006.

Alexander Lanoszka is an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Waterloo and an honorary fellow at City, University of London. He recently published the book titled "Atomic Assurance: The Alliance Politics of Nuclear Proliferation" with Cornell University Press.

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