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The most dangerous place on earth – POLITICO

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Strolling amid the ornate Nineteenth-century villas, fountains and lakes that dot this sleepy spa city, it’s simple to overlook that you simply’re standing in Vladimir Putin’s crosshairs.

Nestled on Lithuania’s southeastern border, Druskininkai opens onto a slender notch of strategic territory often known as the Suwałki Gap. Stretching about 100 kilometers alongside the Lithuanian-Polish frontier, between Belarus within the east and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad to the west, Western army planners warn the world would seemingly be one of many Russian president’s first targets had been he ever to decide on to escalate the battle in Ukraine right into a kinetic confrontation with NATO.

You wouldn’t realize it by it — and that, say Eastern European officers searching for to attract consideration to the Western army alliance’s vulnerabilities within the east, is on the coronary heart of the issue.

Druskininkai, a city of about 12,000, isn’t any stranger to both Russia or to the tumult of European historical past,

Designated an official spa for Russian civil servants by Czar Nicholas I in 1837, the city’s mineral-rich waters have drawn guests from round Central and Eastern Europe ever since, whilst invading armies — Prussian, Polish, Russian, Soviet — shifted management of the area between them.

During the Cold War, the resort was a favourite Soviet vacation vacation spot. Today, it’s dwelling to one of many world’s largest indoor snow arenas and an elaborate water park. And till the battle in Ukraine put it out of attain, it had misplaced little of its attract for Russians, who together with Belarusians, accounted for the most important share of holiday makers.

That familiarity may clarify why some locals are sanguine in regards to the prospects of an invasion. “We don’t live in that fear,” Danukas, a 22-year-old who grew up in Druskininkai, mentioned on a latest afternoon. “If it happens, yes, people will be wondering but right now that’s not really the case.”

Danukas, who requested that his full identify not be used with a view to defend his privateness, mentioned he was assured that NATO would defend Lithuania, a rustic of two.8 million. If it doesn’t, he “would just go out of the country,” Danukas mentioned, including that the army “wasn’t his thing.”

A latest go to down a lonely street lined with pine bushes to the border with Belarus, simply 10 kilometers from the middle of city, advised it could be smart to pack a bag. The border put up, one in every of two close to the city, was closed and abandoned, with neither troopers nor border patrol anyplace in sight.

In reality, on a daylong journey throughout the Lithuanian facet of the Suwałki hall, a rural panorama of small farms, rolling fields of buttercups and forest, this reporter didn’t see even one army automobile or soldier.

“The community trusts in the Lithuanian military and NATO and in their capacity to ensure safety,” the city administration mentioned in a written assertion (The mayor has been away on trip).

Ramūnas Šerpetauskas, who instructions an area firm of Lithuania’s Riflemen’s Union, a voluntary militia with roots stretching again greater than a century, mentioned that every one remained quiet on Lithuania’s jap entrance to this point. While he mentioned he didn’t anticipate Russia to strive something for so long as it had its fingers full in Ukraine, he added that he and his comrades had been monitoring the scenario within the border area, calling the the Suwałki Gap Lithuania’s “Achilles heel.”

The Polish facet of the so-called Suwałki Gap, close to Zerdziny | Janek Skarzynski/AFP by way of Getty Images

“Some think there’s no point to attack us, but it must be noted that this is a direct land route to Kaliningrad,” he mentioned. “If they are able to overcome Ukraine, it is possible that the next blow would fall here.”

The newest reminder of the tightrope Vilnius is strolling with Moscow came visiting the weekend as Lithuania’s nationwide railway mentioned that with a view to adjust to European sanctions, it might not allow the transit of sure items throughout the nation’s territory from Belarus to Kaliningrad, together with coal, metals and constructing supplies.

“We consider this to be a most serious violation,” Kaliningrad’s governor, Anton Alikhanov, said in response to the transfer, which he mentioned would impact as much as half of Russian exports to the exclave.

‘The Baltics will be next’

Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves mentioned he got here up with the identify “Suwałki Gap” minutes earlier than a gathering with then-German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen in 2015 in an effort to lift alarm in regards to the gap in Western defenses.

The fear is that in a battle with the West, Russia may sweep into the hall concurrently from the east and the west, severing the European Union’s Baltic nations from their allies to the south. “It’s a huge vulnerability because an invasion would cut off Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia from the rest of NATO,” mentioned Ilves.

Such a transfer would additionally lead to a right away faceoff between Moscow and NATO’s nuclear-armed members, pushing the world to the brink of world-ending confrontation.

Ilves’ warning to von der Leyen, now president of the European Commission, was a response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea the yr earlier than, however his doomsday situation has gained new credence within the wake of Putin’s newest invasion of Ukraine.

Just as Putin is attempting to create a land bridge between Russia and the Crimea peninsula, taking the Suwałki Gap, which is called for a distinguished city on the Polish facet of the border, may hyperlink Russian troops in Kaliningrad, a key Russian outpost, with these stationed in its de facto protectorate Belarus.

In Kaliningrad, Russia has constructed a formidable army presence, spanning nuclear weapons, its Baltic fleet and tens of hundreds of troopers. (The exclave, which has a inhabitants of almost 1 million, was German territory till after World War II, when it was often known as Königsberg. The Soviet Union wrested management of the area from Germany after the battle, renamed it Kaliningrad and expelled the German inhabitants.) 

While there’s no purpose to counsel an assault is imminent, the Russian chief seems to please in protecting the West guessing what his subsequent transfer will likely be. Earlier this month, he praised the imperial exploits of Peter the Great, declaring that “a country is either a sovereign or a colony,” feedback that did little to reassure the Baltics. Mikhail Kasyanov, a former Russian prime minister underneath Putin, added extra gas to the fireplace final week, predicting that “the Baltic states will be next” if Ukraine falls.

The anticipated NATO accession of Sweden and Finland has additional raised tensions between Russia and the alliance. The addition of the 2 Scandinavian nations may make it tougher for Russia to sever the Baltics from the remainder of the alliance, however it might additionally flip the Baltic Sea into what some are calling a NATO lake, maybe giving Moscow much more of an incentive to construct a bridge to Kaliningrad.

Sweden’s and Finland’s inclusion in NATO makes a Russian transfer “less likely, but that doesn’t mean it’s unlikely,” mentioned Linas Kojala, the director of the Eastern Europe Studies Center, a Vilnius-based assume tank.

Eastern alliance

Despite the Baltics’ strategic issues, what stands out as the most dangerous factor in regards to the Suwałki Gap is its relative irrelevance.

A transfer by Russia on Poland or Lithuania would clearly set off NATO’s Article 5 mutual protection provision, instantly pulling in all of the alliance’s members — from Turkey to Bulgaria to France and the United States.

At least in principle. How keen would Washington and NATO be to threat Armageddon over a stretch of largely unpopulated farmland few of their residents even know exists? It’s precisely the type of edge case that Putin has proved keen to check.

Until (and if) Finland joins, Lithuania’s 900-kilometer border with Russia and Belarus is the longest within the alliance. But with a military of simply 20,000 and an air drive with solely 5 planes together with transport plane and one single-engine Cessna, Lithuania, like its Baltic neighbors, is ill-equipped for a Russian assault — even with assist from the German-led battle group presently stationed within the nation. 

“The only answer to that challenge is an increased NATO presence here,” mentioned Margiris Abukevičius, Lithuania’s vice minister of protection. “We know how Russia is obsessed with closing land corridors.”

During a go to to Vilnius earlier this month, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz tried to reassure his hosts of Berlin’s dedication to Baltic safety however ended up sowing confusion. Scholz instructed reporters that Berlin would transfer “in the direction” of stationing “a robust combat brigade” in Lithuania, implying a number of thousand troops could be deployed. His aides later walked again the feedback, saying that Germany would solely transfer the unit’s headquarters — round 50 personnel — there, whereas the vast majority of the troops would stay in Germany.

Lithuanian military troopers participate a in Suwałki Gap defence train in 2017 | Ints Kalnins/Reuters

As NATO prepares for what many observers say will likely be its most essential summit in many years later this month, the publicity of the Baltics to Russian aggression is on the heart of deliberations over whether or not to station extra alliance troops within the area on a everlasting or semi-permanent foundation.

While the U.S.-led alliance has but to take a last choice, officers have signaled that NATO would considerably bolster forces within the Baltics and elsewhere alongside the EU’s jap frontier, heralding a historic shift in NATO posture and shifting the pact’s heart of gravity to the east.

Though NATO has 4 1,000-strong battle teams stationed throughout the area, Baltic political leaders and army planners argue that rather more could be wanted to discourage Russian aggression.

“You have a so-called trip-wire force, but you may as well call it a suicide mission,” mentioned Ilves, who served as Estonian president from 2006 to 2016.

The U.S. and Germany lengthy cautioned in opposition to such a transfer, partly due to a 1997 accord, often known as the NATO-Russia Founding Act, during which the alliance agreed with Moscow to not set up everlasting bases in new member states in “the current and foreseeable security environment.” Russia’s assault on Ukraine, nonetheless, has satisfied even longtime skeptics of what NATO calls “forward defense” in Eastern Europe that the time has come.

“I’ve changed my mind,” mentioned Ben Hodges, a retired American lieutenant basic who commanded the U.S. Army in Europe from 2014 to 2017. “Our good faith efforts to engage with Russia have failed.”

A Polish border put up on frontier with NATO accomplice Lithuania | Janek Skarzynski/AFP by way of Getty Images

In Belarus, over which Putin has lately asserted extra affect, the Russian army has lately used air bases and different army infrastructure to launch assaults on Ukraine.  

Hodges mentioned he doubts whether or not Russia, which is struggling in Ukraine, may muster the capabilities it must assault the Baltics for now. But he mentioned it was important for NATO to make use of this chance to organize for the worst, together with by bolstering the Baltics’ air defenses and making certain higher integration between native forces and the remainder of the alliance. He mentioned he may envision a system with a “rotating permanent presence” of NATO forces within the area, much like how the U.S. operates in South Korea.

Another key issue within the area’s protection is Poland, which has the most important army within the area. Historic disputes between Poles and Lithuanians within the Suwałki hall over language and minority rights on either side of the border have led to hypothesis that Putin may use these tensions to his benefit, equally to his tactic in Donbas, the place he succeeded in harnessing pro-Russian sentiment to unleash a separatist motion.

That has but to occur. Cross-border cooperation between the Polish and Lithuanian militaries has by no means been nearer, in keeping with General Rajmund Andrzejczak, Poland’s prime army commander.

“We see what the Russians are doing in Ukraine, so we don’t trust them,” mentioned the overall, who as soon as served within the Suwałki area, stressing that Poland was ready to honor its alliance obligations in direction of Lithuania if Russia strikes in.

“We have to be very, very ready,” he mentioned.

Jurgis Vedrickas contributed reporting to this text.

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