May-June 2022 Articles

Geo-Diplomacy: When Geography Impacts Global Security

Russia's Kaliningrad "Exclave" on the Baltic and the Suwalki Gap

Where geographic anomaly meets regional security

Kaliningrad, a key port city, transportation hub and industrial center located on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania and the administrative center of a Russian oblast (administrative region) is a prime example of what is diplomatically known as an exclave. In essence, an exclave is a piece of territory physically detached from the mother country which can be reached only by passing through the territory of two or more sovereign states that are not the mother country.  Kaliningrad, as shown on the map is Russian territory. But, it can only be reached from Russia by passing through the territory of Belarus and either Poland or Lithuania.  Technically, geographers might point out, Kaliningrad can be reached from St. Petersburg via sea passage through the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea  making it a semi-exclave.

Modern control of Kaliningrad by the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation is a geographic anomaly resulting from the events of World War II.  Known for centuries as Königsburg under Prussian and German rule, the city was liberated and occupied by Russian forces in 1944-45.  Among the many territorial claims that Stalin presented in the face of Germany’s defeat was that the Soviet Union would take control of Königsburg.  Stalin’s “fact on the ground,” control of this exclave on the Baltic, was acknowledged by President Truman and British Prime Minister Clement Atlee in the Potsdam Agreement of 1945.

Kaliningrad’s strategic position provides Russia with a Baltic seaport that is ice-free year round, and the city’s port – Baltiysk – serves as home port for Russia’s Baltic fleet giving it easy access to the Scandinavian states, passage to the North Sea and hence to the open water of the North Atlantic. In the current context, where Kaliningrad is the outpost of Russian presence in the southern Baltic rim, the Russian Federation views the port city as a vital outpost and a major industrial center directly or indirectly serving the military.  Russia’s Baltic Sea fleet frequently carries out naval training exercises rehearsing protection and control of the sea lanes and potentially threatening key communications links (underwater cables) adjoining the Scandinavian states and providing access to the North Atlantic for both surface vessel and submarines.

A vital crossroads and a vital strategic link
The so-called Suwalki Gap (also known as the Suwalki Corridor), named after the Polish city of Suwalki, is a narrow land bridge that provides the critical overland link between Lithuania and Poland.  Equally important, that same narrow strip of land lies between the Russian exclave in Kaliningrad to the west and Belarus, a close Russian ally, to the east.  Looking at the map of Northern Europe it immediately becomes clear that this “gap” is the only overland supply link between the Baltic countries and their NATO Allies to the south.  That critical link is quite narrow, only 60 miles (100 km) wide.

The Suwalki Corridor is hemmed in from all directions – Kaliningrad to the northwest and Belarus to the southeast, Lithuania to the north and Poland to the south – making it a vital transportation link for both the NATO alliance, if the Baltic states are not to lose a vital supply line, and for the Russian Federation if Kaliningrad is not to be stranded amid an enlarged NATO community.

Estonia and NATO have seen the Russian military exercising operations designed to seize quickly this strip of land between Poland and Lithuania with the goal of cutting – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – away from the rest of NATO.  As it stands right now the Baltic countries are perched along the shore of the north Baltic Sea like a peninsula.  If the Suwalki Gap link were cut, that action would leave the Baltics a very vulnerable outpost of NATO.

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