NATO officials are growing increasingly nervous about the possibility of an invasion of the Baltic states ahead of Russian wargames planned this fall on the border of Belarus and Poland that could involve as many as 100,000 troops. That "anxiety" was on display this week, when US and British troops carried out the first NATO military exercise that involved a simulated defense of the Suwalki Gap, an area in northern Poland on the border with Lithuania that serves as the gateway to the Baltic region.
In other words, a drill against a Russian invasion of the Baltics states, and by extension, Europe.
NATO officials described the area as a “choke point” that, if it were taken by an invading force, could potentially isolate the Baltic states from their NATO allies, according to Reuters.
"The gap is vulnerable because of the geography. It's not inevitable that there's going to be an attack, of course, but ... if that was closed, then you have three allies that are north that are potentially isolated from the rest of the alliance", said U.S. Lieutenant General Ben Hodges.
"We have to practice, we have to demonstrate that we can support allies in keeping (the Gap) open, in maintaining that connection," he said.
Since Russia’s annexation of Ukraine back in 2014, NATO has shifted four battlegroups totaling just over 4,500 troops to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
US and UK aircraft took part in the exercises, alongside troops from Poland, Lithuania and Croatia in a simulated defense of the potential flashpoint in an area several hours' drive from where a U.S. battalion is stationed at Orzysz base in Poland, Reuters reported.
Of course, Russia has repeatedly said it has no plans to invade the Baltics, and has warned that the "defensive" buildup in NATO forces against its borders is an unprovoked act of aggression againt Russia.
However, Russia's protests have done little to sway the US Senate, which passed new sanctions against Russia this week, allegedly in retribution for Russia’s meddling in the US election. The measures were included in an Iran sanctions bill that was widely expected to pass, but as the Hill reported yesterday, President Donald Trump is leaning on House Republicans to drop the bill because he fears it could damage US-Russia relations.
In addition to Trump, Germany and Austria have also voiced their displeasure for one measure outlined in the sanctions bill, asking the US drop its opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would pump Russian gas to Germany beneath the Baltic Sea. Austria's Chancellor Christian Kern and Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said earlier this week that it appeared that the opposition of the pipeline was aimed at securing US energy jobs and pushing out Russian gas deliveries to Europe.
“Europe's energy supply is a matter for Europe, and not for the United States of America," Kern and Gabriel said.
Meanwhile, NATO acknowledged the symtoblic nature of the drills, saying the exercises were more of a gesture than a dress rehearsal for war. As Brigadier General Valdemaras Rupsys, head of Lithuania's land forces, explained, “this is only a small-scale drill compared to what would be needed in case of a real attack.”