Explainer: Suwalki Gap and Lithuania-Russia face-off over Kaliningrad

The Suwalki Gap is 70-km long narrow stretch of land, separating Kaliningrad and Belarus. For years it has been dubbed NATO’s Achilles Heel. [Stratfor.com]

Lithuania has partly closed rail transit of Russian goods to and from its exclave of Kaliningrad, saying it was enacting EU sanctions. Kaliningrad is home to significant Russian forces, including its Baltic fleet, and Lithuania’s move has angered Moscow. Russia has promised to react, igniting fears over the so-called Suwałki Gap.

LRT (Lithuanian National Radio and Television), a partner of EURACTIV in Lithuania, has published an explainer about the country’s current face-off with Russia over the enclave of Kaliningrad and the strategic importance of the Suwałki Gap.

Russia demands Lithuania lift Kaliningrad transit ban immediately

Russia on Monday (20 June) demanded that Lithuania immediately lift a ban on the transit of some goods to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

The Suwałki Gap is a narrow 70-km long stretch of land connecting Kaliningrad and Belarus. For years it has been dubbed NATO’s Achilles Heel.

The current rail transit via the Suwałki Gap, ferrying both goods and passengers via Lithuania, takes place under an agreement between Brussels and Moscow. In the early 2000s, with Lithuania moving toward the EU and NATO, Brussels secured a deal with Moscow on the transit of passengers and freight.

The Kremlin accepted although it had previously attempted to pressure Lithuania into agreeing to a military corridor or a continued Russian troop presence. Such a corridor, however, would have essentially grounded the country’s NATO aspirations to a halt.

The simplified transit mechanism started operating on 1 July 2003, less than a year before Lithuania joined the EU on 1 May 2004.

Around a hundred trains enter Lithuania from Belarus each month and continue via Vilnius onward to Kaliningrad.

EU says Lithuania acted 'by the book' in Kaliningrad standoff with Russia

Lithuania was not acting unilaterally and was only applying EU sanctions when it decided to ban the transit of some goods to Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell said on Monday (20 June).

War games, war scenarios

In 2017 and 2021, joint Belarusian and Russian war games simulated a conflict under a scenario in which Russia takes over the corridor between Belarus and Kaliningrad.

If this happened, the three Baltic countries would be territorially cut off from the rest of NATO.

Such a scenario is likely to be a casus belli between NATO and Russia.

But in a scenario under which Finland and Sweden join NATO, the alliance would have the possibility of blocking Russia by sea in response to a takeover of the Suwałki Gap.

“You [Russia] block my Suwałki, I block your Finnish Gulf,” Lieutenant General Martin Herem, the top Estonian military commander, said in a recent interview.

Russian exiled political scientist Ivan Preobrazhensky pointed out that Vladimir Putin could fly civilian planes through the Suwałki gap despite the fact that Lithuania, along with the rest of the EU, has closed its airspace to Russian aircraft.

In such a scenario, Putin could then threaten to shoot down NATO jets intercepting the civilian airliners, according to Preobrazhensky.

The same warning was echoed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian oligarch and now a prominent dissident.

[Edited by Georgi Gotev/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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