The next hotbed of war is the Baltics - ANALYSIS

Today, the world press writes about the Suwalki corridor on the Polish-Lithuanian border as the most likely zone of direct military confrontation between NATO and Russia. It is noted that, in fact, the Lithuanian army is not even theoretically able to resist Russia. However, Vilnius is still leading to a clear escalation of the situation.

It's easy to forget you're surrounded by Russian weaponry as you walk through the luxurious 19th-century villas, fountains and lakes surrounding this quiet resort town. The town of Druskininkai on the southeastern border of Lithuania is adjacent to a narrow strategic strip known as the Suwalki Gap. Western military strategists warn that the area along the Polish-Lithuanian border between Belarus in the east and Russia's Kaliningrad in the west is likely to be one of Russia's first targets in the direct confrontation with NATO. Eastern European officials, who want to draw attention to the weaknesses of the Western military alliance in the east, see this as a problem.

Druskininkai, with a population of about 12,000, is no stranger to Russia and is directly acquainted with the turbulent course of the European history. In 1837, Tsar Nicholas the First turned it into an official recreation center for Russian government officials, despite the fact that the mineral-rich city has come under the control of first Prussia, then Poland, Russia, and then the Soviet Army, was attracting tourists from all over Central and Eastern Europe.

During the Cold War, the resorts of the region became a favorite vacation spot of the Soviet people. Today, Druskininkay hosts one of the largest indoor snow arenas in the world and a fascinating water park. And until the entrance to the city was closed as a result of a special Russian operation, the Russians and Belarusians made up the absolute majority of visitors.

Such a close acquaintance with the city fully explains the optimism of some locals about the prospects of the Russian occupation. "We do not feel any fear" said Danukas, a 22-year-old boy who grew up in Druskininkai. "If it does happen, then yes people will start to, but for now everything is fine," he said.

Danukas, who did not want to be named, expressed confidence that NATO would protect Lithuania and its 2.8 million people. Otherwise, he will "just leave the country" because serving in the army is "not for him."

As you drive along the pine trees on the border with Belarus, just ten kilometers from the city center, you realize that it is not a bad idea to start packing. It is noteworthy that one of the two border posts is closed and abandoned. There are no soldiers or border guards around. In fact, no military equipment or soldiers were seen during the observations on the Lithuanian side of the Suwalki corridor, which is rich in small farms, fields and forests.

Ramunas Sherpetauskas, commander of the local route of the Lithuanian Rifle Union, said that everything is still calm on the eastern front of Lithuania. Although Russia is continuing the fight in Ukraine, it is not expected that they will take any action, and he and his comrades are monitoring the situation in the border area. The Suwalki corridor is called the Achilles' heel of Lithuania. "Some people think it's pointless to attack us, but Kaliningrad has a direct land route. If they can beat Ukraine, the next blow will probably come here."

The last reminder that Vilnius is on the tipping point in its relations with Moscow came over the weekend when Lithuanian railways decided to suspend transit of some goods from Belarus to Kaliningrad in order to comply with European sanctions. The goods exported to Kaliningrad included a limited amount of coal, metals and construction materials.

"We consider this a gross violation," Kaliningrad Governor Anton Alikhanov said in response. According to him, the ban will affect about half of Russia's exclave exports.

The most dangerous place on earth - the Suwalki Corridor

According to former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, he coined the name "Suwalki Corridor" in 2015, just minutes before meeting with then-German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, to address concerns about a "hole" in Western defense. The concern is that if a conflict occurs, Russia could enter the corridor from the east and west at the same time, cutting off the EU's ties with the Baltic states. "This is a very sensitive place, because if this occupation takes place, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia may lose contact with the rest of NATO," Ilves said.

Moreover, such a step would immediately lead to a confrontation between Moscow and NATO members with nuclear weapons, to the point of destroying the world.

Ilves's warning, now issued by European Commission President von der Leyen, came a year after Russia's annexation of Crimea, and remains relevant today in the wake of Putin's special operation in Ukraine.

By capturing the city of Mariupol to build a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, the Russian Army will have opened a land route to the Kaliningrad exclave by occupying the Polish city of Suwalki. In this case, the Russian troops in the exclave may join forces with Russian troops stationed in Belarus. Today in Kaliningrad, Russia has created a strong military contingent of nuclear weapons, the Baltic Fleet and tens of thousands of troops. It should be noted that by the end of World War II, the exclave with a population of about one million was German territory and was called Königsberg. After the war, the Soviet Union took control of the region, renamed it Kaliningrad, and expelled the entire local German population.

In fact, there is no reason for Russia to attack this corridor, but it seems that the Russian leader enjoys confusing the West and distracting them about what the next step will be. Earlier this month, Putin's reference to Peter the Great's imperial policy, saying "the country could be either sovereign or colonial," began to worry residents of the Baltic states. Former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov poured oil on the fire last week, saying "the Baltic states will be next" after Ukraine's defeat. Sweden and Finland's upcoming accession to NATO has exacerbated tensions between Russia and the alliance. Linas Kojala, director of the Vilnius-based Center for Eastern European Studies, said Sweden's and Finland's membership in NATO reduced Russia's chances of maneuvering, but did not guarantee that those countries would be safe.

Despite the concerns of the Baltic states, the most dangerous factor in the context of the Suwalki Corridor is its relative uselessness. Russia's attack on Poland or Lithuania will openly launch the collective defense mechanism provided for in Article 5 of the NATO Charter, and all members of the alliance, from Turkiye and Bulgaria to France and the United States, will immediately join the conflict.

At least theoretically. To what extent are Washington and NATO ready to take the risk of a nuclear Armageddon over a virtually vacant farmland unaware of the existence of most of its citizens? Apparently, this is an extreme situation that Putin wants to test.

Until Finland joins the alliance (if they do), Lithuania's 900-kilometer border with Russia and Belarus will remain the longest border in the alliance. However, Lithuania - like all Baltic states - is not ready for a military confrontation with Moscow, even with the participation of a German combat group based in this country. The country's army consists of 20,000 troops, and the Air Force includes a total of five aircraft, including a transport aircraft and a single-engine Cessna.

"The only answer to this call is to concentrate the NATO contingent here. We know that Russia is ready to take all steps to close the land corridors," said Lithuanian Deputy Defense Minister Margiris Abukevicius.

During a visit to Vilnius in early May, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz tried to convince the hosts that Berlin was committed to ensuring the security of the Baltic states, but in the end this resulted in confusion. Scholz told reporters that Germany will deploy a reliable combat brigade in Lithuania, meaning several thousand soldiers. His aides later gave a completely different interpretation, saying that only a 50-strong military unit would set up headquarters in Lithuania, while most of the troops would remain in Germany.

Will NATO be able to help the Baltic countries?

As NATO prepares for an important summit, the Baltic states are under Russian aggression, and the alliance is considering deploying larger permanent or semi-permanent forces in the region. The US-led bloc has not yet made a final decision, but officials have already indicated that NATO is preparing to significantly strengthen its forces in the Baltic states and across the EU's eastern border. We can talk about a historic change in the strategy of the Alliance and the shift of its operational stability to the east.

NATO has deployed four combating groups of 1,000 people in the region, but political leaders and military strategists in the Baltic states say that is not enough to prevent Russian aggression. Ilves, who was president of Estonia from 2006 to 2016, said: "Yes, there are so-called self-defense forces, but in essence, all of this can be called blatant suicide."

Recently, the Russian military has been using air bases and other military infrastructure in Belarus under the growing influence of Vladimir Putin to strike Ukraine. Simultaneously with the actions in Ukraine, Russia will be able to mobilize the forces needed to attack the Baltic states. It is important for NATO to seize this opportunity to prepare for the worst, including strengthening the air defense of the Baltic states and ensuring maximum integration between their armed forces and the forces of other countries in the alliance.

Another key factor in the defense of the Baltic states is Poland, which has the largest army in the region. As with Putin's pro-Russian sentiment in Donbass, there are speculations that he could take advantage of historical disputes and separatist movements between Poles and Lithuanians living in the Suwalki over the language and rights of minorities on both sides of the border.

According to General Raymund Andrzejczak, a spokesman for Poland's top military leadership, the Polish and Lithuanian armed forces are currently in closest contact in the history of bilateral relations. "We see what the Russians are doing in Ukraine and we do not trust them," he said, adding that Poland was ready to fulfill its allied obligations in the event of a Russian invasion. Russia has stated that it does not intend to give up the road to the Kaliningrad region at any cost. The current calm also signals an impending storm. If the road is closed, Russia could face major obstacles to the delivery of food and other vital supplies to the exclave, and even prepare for the loss of the region. Given that Russia is waging wars to gain more than to lose, we can also witness the emergence of a new hotbed of war in the Baltic country - Lithuania - due to the closure of the corridor.

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