Securing The Suwałki Corridor

Strategy, Statecraft, Deterrence,
and Defense
July 2018

LTG (Ret.) Ben Hodges
Janusz Bugajski
Peter B. Doran


An effective political and military alliance must understand its weakest points and undertake effective remedial action. The Suwałki Corridor is one such area. Current dangers emanating from the Corridor require new ideas in strategy, statecraft, deterrence, and defense.

In the event of an unwanted future crisis between Russia and NATO, the Kremlin’s land forces operating from the Kaliningrad exclave and Belarus are in a position to close
the Suwałki Corridor and impede NATO as a security guarantor to its three Baltic members: Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. The moment that a contest for control of Suwałki starts—likely from a hybrid or non-kinetic trigger—any dispute with Russia could escalate with alarming speed. It will be exceptionally difficult to “off-ramp” or “de-conflict.” This is a primary reason why NATO’s Cold War-era strategy and force posture needs an update. The Alliance must keep pace with new dangers. Western forces need to be closer to areas where NATO members face a threat; their positioning around Russia’s borders should demonstrate the readiness, resolve, and speed of allies to respond when challenged.

By now, NATO allies and partner countries should have no doubt: Russian forces pose a threat to the territorial integrity of the entire transatlantic Alliance. This danger is not exclusive to low-intensity, hybrid forms of conflict. The Suwałki Corridor is where the many weaknesses in NATO’s strategy and force posture converge. If Russia attempted to establish control over the Suwałki region, or even threatened the free movement of NATO personnel and equipment from within the borders of Kaliningrad and Belarus, it could cut the Baltic states off from the rest of the Alliance. This would make reinforcing the Baltic states by land exceptionally difficult. Deterring any potential action (or even the threat of action) against Suwałki is therefore essential for NATO’s credibility and Western cohesion. In learning how this can be better accomplished, the applicable lessons from Suwałki can and should be applied throughout NATO’s eastern frontline

Despite NATO’s ironclad commitment to the defense of all member states, questions remain about the overall effectiveness of the Alliance’s “tripwire” deployments in Poland and the Baltic States. These questions embody the age-old strategic problems of space, time, and scale.
If an opponent knows the location of a tripwire, they might simply avoid it (space). Meanwhile, the lack of a permanent presence of U.S. and other allied troops is premised on an assumption: small national militaries, local citizen reserves, and paramilitary cadres, together with the limited combat power of allied tripwires, will significantly impede an attacker. This delay (time) will theoretically allow for the arrival of counterattacking NATO forces, who will almost immediately move up through Central and Western Europe with overwhelming firepower and numbers (scale). There are a lot of “ifs” and assumptions embedded into this strategy—perhaps too many to mitigate the danger of retaliatory escalation by Russia or guarantee the success of NATO’s defensive operations

If Russia attempted to challenge NATO, its leaders must wager that they can swiftly exploit doubts, uncertainties, and political cleavages within the Alliance. It is a calculated gamble—but one that is not entirely without merit when seen from Moscow’s perspective. Should the Kremlin try to test NATO, its potential opening moves are almost unlimited: from low-threshold “hybrid” probes, limited or temporary incursions, or rapid “stab, grab, and hold” maneuvers aimed at creating a fait accompli at the negotiating table. Russia could seek to maintain its “escalation dominance” across multiple
battlefield domains, as well as in the realms of diplomacy and strategic communications.
All points could converge at Suwałki.


Any effective political and military alliance must understand its weakest points and undertake effective remedial action. The Suwałki Corridor, a 65-kilometer wide strip of territory linking Poland with Lithuania, is NATO’s most vulnerable choke point along its Eastern Flank. In the event of armed conflict between Russia and NATO, Russia’s land forces operating from the Kaliningrad exclave and from Belarus could attempt to close the Suwałki Corridor and incapacitate NATO as a security provider for its three Baltic members.

This report locates and gives recommendations for closing the gaps in NATO capabilities, preparedness, responsiveness, reinforcement, logistics, and cohesion. It serves to better inform policy makers on how the Suwałki Corridor can be reinforced to defend against Kremlin subversion and potential military assault. If Russian forces established control over the Suwałki Corridor, it would cut the Baltic States off from the rest of the Alliance and turn their reinforcement by a land route into a difficult undertaking. Defending Suwałki is therefore essential for NATO’s credibility and Western cohesion.

The Alliance has intensified its determination to defend its most vulnerable members bordering Russia. It has bolstered its deterrence capabilities in the Baltic region by establishing a network of rotational forces, warehousing equipment, and holding regular exercises. At the 2016 Warsaw Summit, NATO agreed to deploy four multinational battalion battle groups on a rotational basis in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania,
and Poland. These units are led by the UK, Canada, Germany, and the U.S. respectively and are deployed to deter Russian military incursions that would trigger a rapid influx of a much larger contingent of NATO troops.

The multinational forces are positioned as a tripwire that, if breached, would trigger the deployment of a 40,000-strong rapid-reaction force and a full-scale NATO counterassault.
The challenge for NATO is to create the capabilities, including troops, transport, and infrastructure, for quickly mobilizing reinforcements to defend each ally. Such a posture is the key to an effective deterrence. The Suwałki Corridor is particularly vulnerable given the continued militarization of Kaliningrad and Russia’s Western Military District. For Moscow, closing the Suwałki Gap is likely to be a part of a broader strategic offensive. The aim would not necessarily be to hold the area but to deny it to NATO and its reinforcements

Although NATO does not have comparable military capabilities to Russia in the Baltic zone, it possesses significant assets in Germany and other parts of Europe that can be deployed in the event of crisis. The focus must be on guaranteeing that these forces can be mobilized to rapidly enter the combat theater. Indeed, the speed and nature of NATO’s military response should serve as a deterrent to Russia’s initial aggression. In addition to a guaranteed surge of NATO reinforcements, each state bordering Russia requires three fundamental elements: early warning of Moscow’s covert subversion of a targeted area that can be thwarted or contained; capable forces that can respond quickly to an assault on their territorial integrity; and adequate infrastructure and
prepositioned equipment to allow for the speedy deployment of NATO troops

Center for European Policy Analysis
w w w . c e p a . o r g July 2018

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