Growing Tension Along
NATO’s Eastern Border
Tensions are growing this week as several military moves by Belarus, Russia, Poland, and NATO are demonstrating that the war in Ukraine has the potential of spilling over into neighboring countries.
This week, Poland accused Belarus of violating Polish airspace with two Belarus helicopters. Poland’s Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak noted the violation was another “element in escalating the tension at the Polish Belarusian border.
Although Belarus did warn that its air force would be holding exercises near the border, the helicopters did cross the border and were photographed by numerous people with their cell phones.
The exercises were more worrying as they were low level flights in a part of the border where Polish radar coverage was light, and the helicopters weren’t quickly detected by Polish radar. The exercises were carried out near Bialowieza.
One result of the border violation was that Poland has moved more forces into the area. They have also notified NATO about the incident.
This incident only added to tensions as it was reported that elements of the Wagner Group were moved closer to the Polish/Belarus border last month. It didn’t help that Belarus President Lukashenko said Wagner group were eager to move into Poland. “They want to go west,” the Belarussian president said; perhaps jokingly.
Poland has also warned that Wagner Group forces might try to cross the border dressed as immigrants.
It also appears that 100 soldiers of the Wagner Group are carrying out exercises in conjunction with the Belarus army according to the Polish government. The exercises are close to the Suwalki Gap, a strategic land corridor that joins the Baltic nations to Poland and the rest of NATO. It also isolates the Russian territory of Kaliningrad.
The Wagner Group’s soldiers are a worry as they do not fall under the control of a national military authority, as has been seen in many operations in Africa over the decades. They could be used to carry out a military operation along the border with Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine that Russia and Belarus would deny. Given Poland’s historic animus towards Russia, such a military operation would likely elicit a strong Polish response. Yet, an independent Wagner group may not have received any permission to carry out such an operation.
And, if such an operation is carried out, would Poland believe Belarus? Would they retaliate? Would NATO nations be willing to go to war over an incursion by a private army like the Wagner Group?
Another military exercise that is worrying analysts is the Russian naval exercise called Ocean Shield 2023. The exercise is being held in the Baltic Sea; now considered a NATO lake, with the membership of Finland and Sweden. The exercise is employing 30 warships, 20 support vessels, and 6,000 personnel. It is a direct challenge to NATO control of an area that secures NATO control of northern Europe.
With NATO control of the Baltic Sea, the closing of Sevastopol, the war, and the extreme cold weather of Murmansk, much of the Russian fleet in Europe and the Atlantic is bottled up.
However, Russian forces in the Baltic do have an impact on NATO. Part of the Russian Defense Ministry press release on Ocean Shield 2023 mentioned exercises that moved troops on the Baltic. Obviously, this implied reinforcing the enclave of Kaliningrad – especially if 20 support ships are included in the exercise.
The Suwalki Gap
One of the most strategic areas in Europe is the Suwalki Gap, a sparsely populated region that is the border between Poland and Lithuania, but the Russian Kaliningrad Oblast and Belarus borders are within long range artillery and missile range of the whole gap. Consequently, Russian and Belarus forces could bombard troops, vehicles, and supplies moving from Poland to Lithuania.
During the Cold War, the area had nonmilitary value, although several battles were fought there in the past, including Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.
Since the Baltic States joined NATO, it has become a strategic choke point and numerous military exercises have been held there. Poland proposed stationing an armored division, but NATO is constrained from building a permanent base in the gap.
In the meantime, NATO has held exercises like Iron Wolf and Operation Saber Strike over the past few years.
Several NATO units are permanently stationed near the gap. These include the Iron Wolf mechanized brigade that is part of the NATO multinational collective defense. The American 185th Infantry Regiment is stationed there along with 400 soldiers of the British Royal Dragoons. Up to 40,000troops within the NATO Response Force are also available along with other Polish units not under NATO command. Other American combat units are regularly stationed in the area for periods of time.
In 2022, the NATO General Secretary General Stoltenberg announced that NATO would place a brigade in each Baltic state along with Poland. The NATO Response Force would be increased to 300,000 troops.
Before the Ukraine War, it was thought that Russia could cut off the Baltic States in 30 to 60 hours. However, the NATO buildup and higher alert, along with the poor Russian showing in Ukraine leads many military experts to think that NATO could hold the Russian forces, especially with the addition of Finnish and Swedish membership in NATO. These countries make reinforcement and supply easier if Russia and Belarus cut off the Suwalki Gap.
Which brings us back to the Russian naval exercises. Russia must at the least be ready to reinforce Kaliningrad in a period of international tension. They do have missile units stationed in the enclave that can easily reach any part of the Suwalki Gap. In a period of international tension, we can expect the Russians to resupply and reinforce Kaliningrad. This will preclude the easy movement of NATO forces and supplies through the Suwalki Gap and force a shifting of NATO units along the Kaliningrad sector.
By themselves, these incidents along the Polish/Belarus border and the Russian naval maneuvers mean little. Nor do the regular fighter interceptions by NATO and Russian aircraft.
But accidents happen. Russian missiles have hit targets less than 2 miles from the Ukraine/Romania border. What if a missile strays over the border and kills civilians during a time of international tension?
No doubt, the likelihood of a war that involves NATO is growing.