“The Russians could come at any time”: fear at Suwałki Gap on the EU border | Poland

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STefan Bilas, 68, says he sometimes hears the Russians. It may be the roar of tanks drowning out the soft clucking of chickens in its front yard, or more often the roar of attack helicopters or the deafening roar of fighter jets, destination unknown.

Artillery fire was heard the other night and there is a firing range somewhere there, he says. The lights of a Russian watchtower can be seen in the middle of the night. “Peace,” toasts the retired farmer, spilling a vodka.

Bilas, the son of a Ukrainian forcibly resettled in the region by the Soviets in 1947 as part of Operation Vistula, Joseph Stalin’s attempt to de-Germanise the territory under his control, was born and raised in this Polish village , Rudziszki, where the unique road of 63 houses ends in a closed gate to a forest. Entry is prohibited. Strangers to the village are not even allowed to walk to Bilas’ house.

That’s because the trees mark where Poland ends and the 5,800 square mile (15,000 km2) enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea begins. The small whitewashed house of Bilas is the last on the road, about 50 meters from the door.

The forest – only 100 meters deep but thick and high – covers almost all the sins. Because while Bilas and his wife, Halina, 65, and their neighbors Henryka Wolodzko, 63, and Jan Wolodzko, 67, can hear the Russians, they can’t see them, they say, as Halina places a plate garlic sausage and salted tomato slices. on the kitchen table. They don’t want it either.

Stefan Bilas (left) visits his neighbors Jan Wolodzko and Henryka Wolodzko. Bilas’ wife, Halina, is on the right. Photograph: Anna Liminowicz/The Guardian

“I think about it every day,” Bilas said, fending off another punch. “They could come at any time. Kill us in our beds. “What do I think of them?” he said, taking out a copy of a biography in Polish of Ukrainian President Volodoymr Zelenskiy. “I better not say anything.”

This is the “Suwałki Gap” territory, the strip of land about 60 miles long around the border of Poland and Lithuania which is overlapped to the west by the Russians and to the east by the Belarus friend of the Kremlin.

Map of Suwalki Gap

It is, say military analysts, that Vladimir Putin would likely strike first if he decided that the West’s involvement in his war in Ukraine left him with nothing to lose.

The Kremlin’s strategy, war planners believe, would be to storm Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia from mainland Russia. Baltic capitals could be taken in less than three days, analysts suggest.

Simultaneously, Putin would try to cut off NATO reinforcement attempts by turning this swath of borderland, the only land corridor that would be available to the Western military alliance, into an impenetrable hellscape.

There are only two roads and a railway line from Poland to Lithuania through the gap, which is otherwise swampy and difficult terrain for a mechanized army.

Belarusian dictatorial leader Alexander Lukashenko showed during the war in Ukraine that he was ready to let Putin use his country as a launching pad for an invasion.

Kaliningrad is full of weapons, including hypersonic missiles. In recent days, Russian news agencies reported that service personnel of the Russian Federation’s Baltic Sea Fleet, based in Kaliningrad, were conducting a training exercise for missile and artillery units.

The provocative timing of the Russian drills is undoubtedly deliberate. The Suwałki Gap has been the subject of intense interest at home and abroad in light of the feud between Lithuania and the Kremlin.

Lithuania has been accused of ‘blocking’ Kaliningrad after its national railways refused to allow rail transit of steel and iron ore, now banned for import into the EU, from mainland Russia to Kaliningrad .

The Russian Foreign Ministry has warned the government in Vilnius against reprisals which “will have a serious negative impact on the Lithuanian population”.

Kaliningrad, once comfortably nestled within the Soviet Union, is in the post-communist world locked between EU and NATO allies and dependent on much of its commodities – including metal, coal, gas and oil – arriving on the 100 trains from mainland Russia which are allowed to pass through Lithuania under agreements reached in 2004.

The Kremlin says blocking the transit of any goods destined only for Kaliningrad is an “illegal and unprecedented” act that goes against these agreements. Lithuania said it was only applying EU laws.

The European Commission, on whose advice Lithuania acted, was visibly alarmed. EU Foreign Affairs High Representative Josep Borrell said on Monday he would “double-check” whether the Lithuanians were acting to the letter of the law.

A peaceful street scene in Suwalki, Poland.  However, the mayor of the city has compiled a list of buildings that can be adapted as bomb shelters
A peaceful street scene in Suwalki, Poland. However, the city’s mayor has compiled a list of buildings that can be adapted as bomb shelters. Photograph: Anna Liminowicz/The Guardian

The commission later said it would issue additional guidance that would “avoid circumvention of sanctions while allowing free transit”, in what appeared to be a sort of retreat. But maybe not the one Lithuanians are willing to do.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė told a leaders’ summit in Brussels that the ban on the transit of steel and ferrous metals through the EU was part of the bloc’s sanctions and had been accepted by the 27 members.

Petras Auštrevičius, a Lithuanian MEP, said he was unimpressed with the committee’s attempt to get involved in an issue that concerned leaders and not civil servants in Brussels.

Lithuania is among the post-Soviet states that rallied the EU and NATO to be tougher on the Kremlin. If people on trains carrying permitted goods on the railway to Kaliningrad peek through their curtained windows, they will be met at a stop in Vilnius and at the customs post at the Kaliningrad border with the sight of large posters showing images of the war in Ukraine.

It is unclear whether Vilnius will take a step back.

Much is said about the dispute in Suwałki, 100 miles east of the village of Bilas, for which the breach is named. The mayor drew up a list of buildings that could be adapted as bomb shelters, while Malgorzata Olszewska, 52, and Diana Hiczel, 37, returned via the city’s Constitution Park after a shift in the kitchen from a local restaurant, say the talk radio is filled with gossip about it. “Yes, we are worried,” says Olszewska, before explaining the military concept. Hiczel nods. “Everyone is worried,” she said.

Margorzata Olszewska (left) and Diana Hiczel in Suwałki.
Malgorzata Olszewska (left) and Diana Hiczel. “Yes, we are worried. Everyone is worried. Photograph: Anna Liminowicz/The Guardian

Besides the Polish forces, the NATO troops closest to Suwałki are in a large military camp in Bemowo Piskie, a village 60 miles to the south. It is filled with 800 troops from the 1st Battalion, 185th Infantry Regiment of the California National Guard, along with another 400 from the British Royal Dragoons and other Romanian and Croatian units. A volleyball competition between the village and NATO is being held on Sunday, local mayor Boguslaw Bednarski, 56, said. It’s a close-knit military community. His daughter is married to a soldier from Tennessee whom she met during the American tour here. “They will never attack Poland and Lithuania – we have NATO,” Bednarski said.

Sir Richard Shirreff, who served as NATO’s deputy supreme commander in Europe between 2011 and 2014, and wrote a 2017 thriller in which Putin’s Russia invades Ukraine before attacking Lithuania and the other Baltic states, is not so convinced.

“What does Putin want? he asks. “He wants to restore a Russian empire, he wants to unite Russian speakers under the banner of Mother Russia, to neutralize or destroy NATO, to decouple America from European security. He said it.

“During this time, he looked at the West and saw a constant weakness of the West: the disarmament of European countries; he looked at Barack Obama’s chemical weapons red line in 2013 and saw Obama backing down; absolutely watched how Trump dealt with the NATO alliance and the collapse of the NATO mission in Afghanistan. What he saw was a constant weakness of the West and he decided to seize the opportunity to achieve his strategic goals.

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Shirreff says the saber slashes of the past few days should not be dismissed, but rather lead to a much greater buildup of NATO forces in the region.

He says: “The threat to Lithuania, especially given that the Lithuanians have imposed sanctions on Russian goods bound for Kaliningrad, is certainly a real concern. The reality is that number one Russia is completely fixated on Ukraine at the moment, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a threat. The only answer is reinforcement.

As for the consequences if Russia succeeds in blocking the Suwałki Gap, Shirreff sees nothing good for Bilas and his neighbors. “There’s no way NATO can take over the Baltic states without mounting a D-Day scale operation anymore, frankly,” he says.

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