As tensions between Russia and the West once more ratchet upwards, NATO planners eye the strategically important area of northeast Poland abutting Lithuania with some concern. Could this be Europe’s Spratlys? Is this where the next balloon might go up?
This is the tenor of some press reports circulating in European capitals over the last few days. Part of the war of words between NATO and its potential enemy to the east involves a degree of scaremongering in order to marshal public support for continued expenditure of effort, resources and cold hard cash. MONCh believes there is an issue, but it is in danger of being hugely overstated – which might itself be a contributory factor to potential escalation.
The area has been strategically important for centuries. It formed the lynchpin of logistical support for Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia 204 years ago. More recently, Stalin carved the Kaliningrad enclave out of it after the defeat of Nazism. Indeed, it is that enclave that lies at the heart of one of today’s dominant issues. Where Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Kaliningrad come together there is just a 60 mile stretch of land – the Sulwaki corridor – connecting the Baltics with the rest of the EU. A Russian blitzkrieg, with the support or at least connivance of subservient Belarus – is all it would take for isolation to be achieved.
At least in theory. But MONCh questions whether isolation can truly be achieved in a purely terrestrial context in modern conflict. Given NATO air and naval assets in the region (poor, admittedly, but sufficient to give any possible Russian aggressor pause), it is unlikely that said aggressor is going to be willing to commit the forces required to overcome or counter them. A minor occupation of an obscure area of land is one thing in the court of public opinion – a full scale invasion with strong air and naval forces is quite another, and one that Moscow’s spin doctors are unlikely to want to have to explain.
But didn’t someone say the same thing about Crimea immediately prior to Russia’s occupation? The truth is the situation is uncertain. Which is not unusual and is something NATO planners prepare for. In theory. The issue, in MONCH’s view, is that while deterrence in the form of forward deployed troops in the Baltic republics has evidently had an effect, public discussion of the paucity (or lack) of resources to support the troops on the ground, coupled with often ill-informed speculation as to the quality of their equipment, dilutes the effect their presence has. Local exercises to demonstrate the opposite notwithstanding, the answer, surely, is to bolster those forces and to do so in such a way that Moscow’s insincere but no less outraged splutterings can be largely disarmed.
It is popular to portray Putin as a tyrannical megalomaniac bent on winning any contest of brinksmanship. The truth is far more complex. In the wake of the Novichok poisonings in Britain, one of the theories that has emerged is that the initiative was taken by Putin underlings eager to do what they thought the master would wish. Which has some credibility, though hard evidence, as in most intelligence matters, is sparse, at least as far as the public domain is concerned. One thing Putin clearly understands, however, is strength. NATO’s presence in the region needs to be significantly increased and resourced. That would be a deterrent initiative, not a provocative one.