May 6, 2016

President Ilves and the Suwalki Gap

U.S. Navy/Sipa
BALTIC SEA (April 12, 2016) A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft makes a low altitude pass by USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) April 12, 2016. Donald Cook, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer forward deployed to Rota, Spain, is conducting a routine patrol in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations in support of U.S. national security interests in Europe.
BALTIC SEA (April 12, 2016) A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft makes a low altitude pass by USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) April 12, 2016. Donald Cook, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer forward deployed to Rota, Spain, is conducting a routine patrol in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations in support of U.S. national security interests in Europe.

When talking about security, it is important to use common terms and be on the same page.

It is impossible to make sense of the world without language and words. If the existing vocabulary is no longer sufficient and new phenomena that have not been experienced before need to be discussed, languages invent new words by borrowing, adapting, creating and combining them. If there are not enough words to describe the world in one’s native language, foreign expressions are used. If there are not enough precise terms in the current vocabulary on security to describe the changing world, new words need to be invented.

Apposite language to engage one’s interlocutor in the field of security is important and necessary—especially now that Estonia has been striving to increase the allied military presence on NATO’s eastern border in the Baltic States since the 2014 war in Ukraine. Likewise, it is naturally important for the government to explain its choices, and the background to them, to the public. Society has the right to answers from the government in matters concerning Estonian national defence, foreign and security policy.

But let us return to the diplomatic level: in NATO, Estonia’s task is to be the ambassador of our region and explain our problems calmly, unremittingly and determinedly. We must explain subjects that for us are self-evident over and over again to convince our Western friends, because not all allies understand security in the same way. The Alliance stretches across the whole of Europe and beyond, and different states have varying security concerns. Everyone sees matters from their own viewpoint.
That understanding gave the President the idea to use the term “Suwalki Gap”—in reference to the Cold-War-era term “Fulda Gap”—at a meeting with the German Minister of Defence in Kadriorg in April 2015, to describe the military vulnerability of the Baltic States.

The so-called Fulda Gap or Fulda corridor was the weakest point in NATO near the border between East and West Germany during the Cold War. During that era, the term “Fulda Gap” was widely used to signify a plain between East Germany and Frankfurt that Eastern Bloc forces could have used to attack allied forces in the city of Frankfurt and its vicinity had the war escalated from cold to hot. The Fulda plain was considered the most likely route Soviet tank convoys would have taken to attack Western Europe.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves thought of using Suwalki in a new security concept minutes before meeting the German representative. The Estonian head of state was browsing an online map website and hummed the carol “’Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’ („ Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming) because Wikipedia stated that German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen’s childhood pet name had been Röschen, “little rose”. She used the pseudonym “Rose Ladson” to protect herself from German left-wing terrorists while studying at the London School of Economics.

Ilves found Suwalki on the map by chance. The purpose of using this geographical location in a security context was to find a common language with a politician who knew the Cold War era. Moreover, Fulda was located in Germany, and we needed to convince that country that the presence of allied units in Estonia was highly necessary.

Suwalki is a city on the border between Lithuania and Poland that is also situated in a 100-km-wide corridor between Kaliningrad and Belarus. In a broader sense, the Suwalki Gap is a plain between Lithuania and Poland that is similar to Fulda. The region is crucial for Estonian security because allied reinforcements would need to use that corridor to get to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in an emergency. Should Russia, however, organise the military occupation of the Suwalki corridor during an unannounced exercise, other NATO members would not have land access to the three Baltic States from the rest of the Alliance’s territory. In that case, NATO could only help the region from the sea and air.

On one side of the Suwalki Gap lies Kaliningrad and on the other Belarus. It is obvious that the opponent’s first interest would be to close the border during a war. “The flanks of the Suwalki Gap are still heavily forested and, coincidentally, are reserved as military training areas for the Russian and Belarusian armies. The sounds of firing are frequently heard from across the border, and residents complain of shattered windows,” wrote Vaidas Saldžiūnas, a freelance defence journalist from Lithuania, in Diplomaatia as recently as February 2016. In addition, Russia has learnt to surprise the West with the speed of its attacks in recent years. Russian forces can move very fast—the annexation of Crimea, the war in the Donbass, and the operation in Syria all proved that. This, in turn, means that any early-warning period would be much shorter than has been expected in the past.

In a broader sense, the Suwalki Gap has come to mean the vulnerability of NATO’s existing defence plans. The Baltic States are connected by land to the rest of the Alliance only through this narrow corridor. NATO officers and analysts fear that Russia will try to take control of the Suwalki area, thus creating a zone that restricts NATO’s access and freedom to act around the Kaliningrad oblast. A recent study published by the ICDS revealed that artillery fire from the Kaliningrad oblast and Belarus would be sufficient to achieve this objective.

The risk of occupying the Suwalki Gap has created a strong argument for Estonia to justify increasing NATO’s permanent presence in the Baltics. If the Suwalki area is the only mainland route through which NATO reinforcements could reach the Baltics in an emergency, and if there is a real danger that Russia might close the corridor when it wished, it is necessary to increase the current allied presence in the Baltics and make it more permanent.

It is in the interest of the credibility of NATO’s military deterrence to bring at least one US battalion to each of the Baltic States instead of the company currently stationed there (there are currently 150 servicemen in Estonia), i.e. the number of servicemen should be tripled or quadrupled, and other reinforcements should be brought in. Steps were taken to move forward with the plan at the last meeting of the Alliance’s defence ministers. Final decisions will be made at the NATO Warsaw summit.

But this rhetoric and these developments have emerged only in the past year, before the play of words invented by President Ilves found wider use. A year ago Ilves convinced Ursula von der Leyen that effective deterrence in the Baltic Sea region depended on the military balance in the area. Ilves emphasised that, although Russia’s military forces would be defeated by NATO’s collective strength, the number of armed units in the Baltic Sea region was in Russia’s favour, which is why it was important to increase the allied presence on NATO’s eastern border. “The actual danger may come from a single corridor, a strip of land only 100 kilometres wide, that I would call the Suwalki Gap,” Ilves emphasised.

The timing of their meeting was important because security relations between Estonia and Germany had reached a significant stage last April. Germany is one of the four most important NATO allies for Estonia, and it has been more and more active in international politics since the Ukraine crisis. Berlin has been taking the initiative both in negotiations with Ukraine and in contributing to the protection of NATO’s eastern border.

We needed to convince Germany about the necessity of NATO’s military presence because our German colleagues thought that this breached the 1997 NATO–Russia Founding Act, which covered the issue of not positioning substantial military forces on the territories of new member states.

Ilves cited a section of the 1997 Act: “… [I]n the current and foreseeable security environment, the Alliance will carry out its collective defence and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces”. On the basis of this, he concluded that the treaty should be viewed within the context of its time. In today’s security situation, a treaty from 1997 cannot hinder the positioning of permanent deterrence units in NATO border states. Ilves compared Suwalki to Fulda and drew the conclusion that NATO members did not need to overthink the matter but must remain true to implementing solutions concerned with credible deterrence.

The comparison between the Suwalki and Fulda corridors was repeated several times in 2015 —at Ilves’ meetings with the US Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, last June; with the commander of US Army Europe, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges; as well as at various public speaking engagements of the President. The US generals seemed to like the phrase Suwalki Gap so much that both General Hodges and the former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Philip Breedlove, have used the reference repeatedly in public talks, thereby drawing attention to the strategically important narrow corridor and warning that it might be the target of Russian military aggression. Newsweek wrote about the Suwalki Gap in February 2016.1

New expressions appear in language when new phenomena emerge in life. The new words created during the Estonian neologism competition may be useful but they will not gain significance if they do not enter everyday language. Language is all about using words. If we do not use new words, they will perish. The term “Suwalki Gap” is now widely used in security circles. The ICDS has also helped to spread the expression with its new publication on the strategic balance in the Baltic Sea region.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.