National Security

Army Commander: Russia Could Cut Off U.S., NATO Allies from the Baltics

Putin has conducted military exercises and placed advanced missiles in Kaliningrad, near Poland and Lithuania

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin / AP

Russia could split NATO’s defenses by launching an offensive from the enclave of Kaliningrad near Poland, the commander of U.S. Army Europe warned this week.

The Soviet Union annexed Kaliningrad—a territory sandwiched between Poland to the south and Lithuania to the east—after World War II. It has continued to be of great strategic importance for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who deployed short-range, nuclear-capable Iskander ballistic missiles there in 2013 to counter European missile defenses.

Russian military activity in the region has captured the attention of Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe, Military.com reports:

Hodges pointed to the "Suwalki gap," a 60-mile sliver of flat terrain in northern Poland that runs east-to-west from Russian-ally Belarus to Lithuania and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, where Russian President Vladimir Putin has placed his most advanced anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles.

Putin has ratcheted up tensions in the area with frequent, unannounced "snap exercises" of his military near the Suwalki region, combined with the construction of a new airbase in Belarus.

"There's never an observer there" when Putin calls a snap exercise, Hodges said. "We find out about them when they're happening. That's a threat, a concern that we have."

A Russian offensive in the area could cut off other NATO allies from the Baltic Sea and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia:

A surprise thrust by the Russians through the Suwalki gap would cut off the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia—all NATO members—and the troops and weaponry already stationed in Kaliningrad could limit a NATO response.

"They could make it very difficult for any of us to get up the Baltic Sea if we needed to in a contingency."

Russia is also challenging NATO’s periphery in Ukraine, where it has backed separatists in a conflict that has claimed more than 9,000 lives. The United Nations said this week that Moscow continues to funnel ammunition, arms, and fighters into the eastern part of the country.