Geo-Economics and Politics

The Suwałki Gap: why this small part of Europe could have global implications

A Polish border sign in the Suwałki Gap.

A Polish border sign in the Suwałki Gap. Image: REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

John Letzing
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  • The Suwałki Gap is a diminutive stretch of NATO territory separating a Russian ally from the Russian exclave Kaliningrad.
  • Concerns about the area elevated recently after Russia was prevented from transporting sanctioned goods to Kaliningrad.
  • The dustup underlines the unity required to effectively apply sanctions as the invasion of Ukraine continues.

It’s been called NATO’s “soft underbelly,” and the “most dangerous place on Earth.”

The Suwałki Gap is a barely 100-kilometre-long stretch of land between Russia’s ally Belarus and Kaliningrad – an isolated western pocket of Russia well removed from the rest of the country.

Despite its size, the “gap” came into global focus when Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea ramped up geopolitical tensions in Europe. Now, it’s receiving renewed attention after European Union member Lithuania followed through on the bloc’s sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and barred the rail transit of some Russian goods to Kaliningrad.

The move did not go over well in Moscow. Paralyzing bomb threats and a cyberattack directed at Lithuania, which is also a NATO member, followed. So did elevated fears of a seizure of the Suwałki Gap that could sever not just Lithuania but also Latvia and Estonia from their NATO allies, and trigger a cascading conflict.

The scrutiny of this small area points to a big question about the sanctions aimed at Russia for what it's doing in Ukraine: can the EU stick together on applying them long enough to achieve their intended impact?

EU officials have sought a compromise that allows Russian goods to continue flowing across Lithuania to Kaliningrad. Lithuania argues that whatever deal is reached, it “has to be in place for everyone.”

Russia (including Kaliningrad) shaded dark orange, Belarus in light orange, and the Suwałki Gap between them.
Russia (including Kaliningrad) shaded dark orange, Belarus in light orange, and the Suwałki Gap between them. Image: Created with Datawrapper.

The region’s complicated past informs its difficult present.

Kaliningrad was once a German-speaking part of East Prussia, which joined a unified Germany in 1871. Immanuel Kant, the Enlightenment-era German philosopher whose ideas set the stage for the same EU presently at odds with Russia, was born there (his occasionally vandalized tomb is still a tourist attraction).

Hannah Arendt, the 20th-century German philosopher who delved into totalitarianism – and continues to help us understand it – grew up in the same city.

Suwałki Gap, a result of Soviet spoils of war

The Soviet Union incorporated the area as World War II drew to a close, and named it after the Bolshevik hero Mikhail Kalinin. Some 400,000 Russian settlers arrived in 1948 alone, as Germans were expelled.

When the Soviet Union came to an end, the Russian Federation retained Kaliningrad. But the heavily-militarized exclave was now on the other side of Lithuania and Poland, which would both go on to join NATO – forming the Suwałki Gap as a result.

Expectations that a demilitarizing Kaliningrad would develop into “Russia's Hong Kong” as a crossroads for trade and finance went unrealized. Local industrial production fell by 62% by the end of the 1990s.

A period of remilitarization began a bit more than a decade later. Efforts were made to officially downplay the territory’s German past and refashion it into a bulwark against the West.

An excerpt about the Suwałki Gap, from a recent Russian state TV broadcast.
An excerpt about the Suwałki Gap, from a recent Russian state TV broadcast.

An Estonian military official recently opined that Russia’s more likely to focus on hardening its presence in Kaliningrad than to zero in on the Suwałki Gap – which would involve a considerable amount of coordination and risk.

And the contention over transporting goods to Kaliningrad that’s drawn a spotlight to that part of the world isn’t the sole complication for the EU sanctions push. The practical difficulties of enforcing the measures at ports around Europe have been well documented.

Meanwhile Lithuania isn’t even the only NATO member hit with serious pushback for enforcing the sanctions. Norway recently drew threats of retaliation for blocking supplies meant for Russian miners in the Arctic archipelago Svalbard. It later agreed to grant them passage.

Yet, tensions over transit across Lithuania may continue to generate unsettling headlines.

The governor of Kaliningrad reportedly suggested in recent days that an “extraterritorial” corridor be built for receiving goods from Russia – which would cut directly through the Suwałki Gap.


More reading on sanctions, NATO, and security

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • Adding Finland and Sweden as NATO members should lessen the alliance’s vulnerability at the Suwałki Gap by expanding its geographical reach, according to this analysis. (Brookings)
  • This piece notes that recent tensions between Moscow and Vilnius follow discussions in Russia’s State Duma about revoking the Soviet Union’s 1991 recognition of Lithuanian independence. (The Conversation)
  • In search of a “code of coercion.” This piece argues that the EU needs a codified alliance for economic defence, to help take the guesswork out of uniformly applying sanctions. (European Council on Foreign Relations)
  • “It looks like threats are paying off for Russia.” According to this report, not everyone is happy with the idea of a compromise solution on barring the transit of Russian goods across Lithuania. (Der Spiegel)
  • By the end of this year 65% of Russian imports to the EU will be banned, up from 10% as of April, according to this detailed rundown of the effort to date. (CEPII)
  • The effectiveness of one type of missile recently deployed by Russia to Kaliningrad was actually demonstrated by Ukraine’s earlier sinking of Russia’s Black Sea flagship, according to this report. (In Depth News)
  • The “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” This analysis details Kaliningrad’s history and current status as a critical military asset. (The Conversation)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Geopolitics, Geo-economics and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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