Here's a seemingly remote place you've never heard of but might be hearing a lot more about in the next few weeks.
It's called the "Suwalki gap," after a nearby town in Poland of the same name, and it is a new locus of attention in the growing tensions between NATO and Russia. The gap is actually a 60-mile land border between Poland and Lithuania ending on either side at the borders of Russian ally Belarus and the Russian exclave Kaliningrad. The narrow corridor represents the Baltic states' only border with the rest of NATO.
Many in the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) feel that they would be next to fall prey to Russia's territorial ambitions, which it demonstrated by annexing Crimea in 2014. Russia has sent a clear message that it believes a war with U.S.-led NATO is within the realm of possibility. Russian soldiers awoke on March 16, 2015, to snap exercises that grew to encompass 80,000 service members — a number so large that it could only have been practice for such an event.
NATO has responded in kind with huge, and highly visible, troop mobilizations meant to assuage fears — mostly in Poland, Finland and the Baltic states, all of which border Russia — that the alliance's most powerful states will shirk their responsibility to defend member nations in times of need.
Last Tuesday, NATO defense ministers agreed to send 4,000 troops to Poland and the Baltic States, with many on either side of the Suwalki gap. On the same day, Russia began a week-long series of snap exercises. NATO countries are simultaneously participating in the largest military exercise in Poland since the end of the Cold War. The Pentagon has proposed quadrupling its spending on European security in the fiscal 2017 budget and calls the program the European Reassurance Initiative.
On Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared on Fareed Zakaria's show on CNN to play down the idea that his country and NATO were edging toward a "new cold war." He accused NATO, along with the Ukranian government, of "scaremongering" after the annexation of Crimea. "If we stick to this very logic, the scaremongering, that's probably the way to a cold war,” he told Zakaria, through a translator.
The United States, Britain, Germany, Canada and Poland will all contribute "battle groups" of about 800 soldiers that would be in place as early as 2017. Britain's battle group, according to the Financial Times, will be based in Estonia. The Americans are likely to be based in Poland, the Germans in Lithuania and the Canadians in Latvia. The particulars will be ironed out at a NATO summit in Warsaw next month.
It is unlikely that the Suwalki gap itself will see much troop buildup, but the battle groups are meant to give a sense of security that the gap fails to provide. Russia has more than 50 warships based in Kaliningrad, as well as submarines, land troops, two air bases and scores of nuclear-enabled missiles. Belarus, on the other side, is seen as firmly within the Kremlin's orbit.
Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who commands the U.S. Army in Europe, told NBC News a few months ago that Russian troop movements toward the Suwalki gap are his nightmare scenario. "You get thousands of Russian troops in exercises on both ends of the Suwalki Gap, and now everybody's in the field," he said. "They have equipment — so there's a potential for them to transition from an exercise to an operation — that's our concern."
What Hodges is saying might be construed by Putin as scaremongering. But Hodges and his fellow army strategists think that adding troops to the region contributes to a deterrence mechanism against Russia. That said, his rhetoric has been rather stark.
"We are committed to the sovereignty of Lithuania, the sovereignty of Poland and all the other countries, so we will do whatever it takes to reestablish that," Hodges told NBC News. "[But] it's not inevitable that it goes to a Third World War. Nobody wants that, including the Russians."
On CNN on Sunday, Putin went out of his way to say that the United States is the world's only superpower. Russian analysts have guffawed at the idea that Russia wants to pick a fight against NATO that it would surely lose. For Russia, threatening the Suwalki gap would come with far greater costs than benefits, and NATO's new battle groups haven't even arrived yet.