Suwalki Gap

„Lithuania will build a wall and Russia will pay for it,“ so sounds a joke paraphrasing of US President Donald Trump‘s pledge to build a border wall with Mexico for which the Mexicans would pay themselves. The Lithuanians‘ ambitions are more modest, but it turns out that the intention to wall off from Russia may actually be accomplished already this year. As for its meaning – it is not just symbolic.

A recent piece of news that this year‘s budget has 3.6 million euro earmarked for a border fence from the Russian owned Kaliningrad Oblast has already received much attention. The plan was conceived roughly half a year ago and is soon to have a public procurement competition begun for it. The fence itself will be begun when the weather warms and already this year a section of tens of kilometres of border is to be fenced off.

That said the decision has raised a number of questions. While it was admitted this would be no Great Wall of China, just a reinforced fence, there are doubts on the utility of such a project.
After all if the fence is being constructed in order to protect from potential Russian aggression, it could look to be a waste of funds – Russian special forces and particularly its armour could easily breach such a barrier. Even smugglers would have little trouble dealing with a fence.

“Lithuanians, why the fence?”

The news about the fence project was immediately broadcast in the Russian public sphere and caused a storm of hysterical comments. Some were surprised why Lithuania would raise a fence, others laughed that the Lithuanian government wants to keep Lithuanians in, seeking better life even in Russia.

Russian propaganda tends to exaggerate Lithuanian emigration statistics and can even turn to the Russian President Vladimir Putin for inspiration, who has spoken of drastic inhabitant reductions in public several times, supposedly the population is down to 1.4 million citizens.

Meanwhile Kaliningrad Oblast governor Anton Alikhanov jokes that the brick factories placed near the border can supply the Lithuanians with bricks.

“If Lithuania wants it we can supply the bricks for them to build the wall. If your colleagues think that building a wall will aid in dealing with contraband, which concerns both Moscow and Vilnius, then go ahead,” the governor said.

He is mistaken however because the main function of the new fence is not to combat contraband though it can partially aid with obstruction and prevention. Furthermore similar border fences with “the large Eastern neighbour” are not just a Lithuanian initiative.

Such fences with Russia were begun by Estonia and Latvia in 2015 and 2016. Last year Norway also decided to construct several hundred meters of fencing at one of its border control points, having had enough of the flow of refugees from Russia.

The governor was also mistaken in that the wall will not be made out of bricks. In fact it will not even be constructed along the whole 253.7 km border with Russia, excluding the Curonian Lagoon and the sea wall. The idea’s originators mention that initially it will be only one of the most vulnerable sections that will be fenced – a 45km land segment.

The remaining part of the border goes along bodies of water – Nemunas and Šešupė, while these can be crossed, but they are nevertheless natural obstacles. The aforementioned section from Smalininkai in the Jurbarkas region up to the Nemunas estuary is marked with border posts. Similar border posts were also raised in the section from Smalininkai to the Vyštytis Lake, that said this section is only partially guarded by Šešupė.

So far on land it was possible to rely on the State Border Security Service (VSAT) watchfulness and the 13 meter wide border strip which is emptied of al trees, bushes and other shrubbery. In it lies a border footprint strip and a patrol path.

That said there has so far been no justification provided for the tens of kilometres of fence for 3.6 million euro. The head of Latvian border control Normunds Garbars explains his government’s decision to fence off from Russia in a simple manner – while any obstacle can be easily overcome, unless it is a 3 meter tall concrete wall, the Latvian border guard can notice breaches.

“It is important to do this as fast as possible, preferably at the latest after an hour of the border breach. Where it will not be possible, a wall will be established,” the officer explained, stressing that border breaches are also done by common smugglers.

The Seimas National Security and Defence Committee member Arvydas Anušauskas responds similarly. He explains that the fence itself could make access more difficult for smugglers and Russian special forces troops who according to Anušauskas “constantly train and model covert access of the territories of neighbouring states.” With Delfi inquiring for more details on the border fence project, more details were revealed.

A psychological border which leaves no room for lies

Guarding the state border is the responsibility of the VSAT. While this and next year will see increased funding from the EU and the government budget for border control, this will not be enough. The practice of financing external border control through EU funding has already become regular.

For now only 73 km of the ground border has been fenced off. But the fence is only a part of border control as monitoring systems are an important matter as well – cameras, various sensors. It is, however, admitted that of 1070 km of the external border only a third is monitored with various systems, while in the land section – even less.

Even with 17 million euro investment planned for 2017-2018, the 136km long stretch of border with Russia would not be fully covered by monitoring systems. In order to accomplish this goal – to fully control the entire external border (not just with Russia, but also Belarus) just monitoring equipment would require 69.7 million euro.

There is also talk of compound protection which would also include fencing along with the monitoring systems. Specifically this “compound defence” formulation is what hides the most of the details yet to be revealed since it talks of the aforementioned 45 km border section with Russia and the fencing for 3.6 million euro. But why is the section from Jurbarkas to Vištytis in a rush to be built by autumn this year?

According to Delfi sources such a decision has a symbolic meaning, furthermore it is a reaction to conventional threats. This is because in autumn 2017 the joint Russian and Belarussian military exercises Zapad are to begin.

Such exercises performed every other year for a decade have often caused concern in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia as the training includes imitations of invasion scenarios of the Baltic States. Furthermore after the Crimean annexation it is not just the Baltics, but also high NATO officials, among them the head of US forces in Europe Lt. Gen. Benjamin Hodges spoke up about the so called Suvalkai corridor – a narrow strip of land which connects Lithuania and thus the rest of the Baltics with Poland.

Russian forces have trained numerous times how to close this corridor by military means and cut off the Baltic States from NATO. While this section is called the Suwalki gap, it is likely that any military operations would be done not in Polish territory where the Suwalki town is located, but specifically in Lithuania.

Conditions for such aggression are favourable because the Lithuanian Southeast is close to Grodno and the Gozha training range where Russian troops have trained a number of times during Zapad.
Meanwhile in the forested border area of Kaliningrad close to Lithuania, the Dobrovolsk training range has been established, the activity of which can be attested to by even Lithuanian citizens, during artillery training the windows of the inhabitants of Kudirkos Naumiestis shook.

During the first Cold War NATO analysts often modelled situations when tensions rose between the West and East and Moscow organised military training of unprecedented size. With them ending the troops were not returned to their permanent stations and instead initiate a surprise attack on an early morning. Such a scenario is feared now as well because in recent years Russia has organised unannounced mass military training, one of them happening immediately prior to the 2014 Crimean annexation.

If the troops in the Dobrovolsk and Gozha training ranges were to be used for real, under the cover of “a sudden uprising” in Lithuania or feigning the existence of “lost” or “on holiday” Russian troops, who were “kidnapped by mad Lithuanian border guards” (this being the Kremlin’s justification for the 1940 occupation of Lithuania), reaction time is particularly important.

Further concerns are raised by the shift of a Russian tank battalion of the 79th bridgade from Gusev (Gumbinė) closer to the Lithuanian border – to Sovetsk (Tilžė).

This detachment was moved from Sovetsk in 2008, but has now returned, the whole Kaliningrad military complex is being strengthened. And while the tanks and other armoured vehicles can traverse the rivers, both through Nemunas, where there is a bridge and even more so through Šešupė, it would take far longer than moving by ground. Furthermore such movement is easier to detect and the bridge can even be destroyed.

Specifically under such circumstances, Delfi sources which are acquainted with the border fence project details, it is important to have a symbolic barrier, which, if crossed would be a clear breach of the border.

According to the sources while the border would be symbolic because it is not hard to breach, it would also be a psychological barrier. For example in 2014 the Estonian intelligence officer Eston Kohver was kidnapped at the Estonian-Russian border. It is still disputed which side – the Estonian or Russian – the operative was kidnapped from. Russia accused him of spying and sentenced him to 15 years of imprisonment, but finally Kohver was released in return for a Russian spy sentenced in Estonia.

With a border fence there would be no such doubts, what side the events happened on or whether the border was breached by Russian tanks, there would be visual proof, which can be sent to the NATO headquarters and then it would only be a matter of time until the 5th article of the Washington agreement comes into force.

That said for this it would be necessary to establish monitoring systems and “other means” next to the fence which could observe the gathering of hostile forces and mass movement several tens of kilometres away. This would require another 5 million euro, but for this Lithuania would obtain priceless opportunities which would be incredibly important for all of NATO.

According to sources there are plans for the aforementioned means to appear along with the fence – numerous sensors along with several modern ground radars. They could be deployed and overseen by currently publically undisclosed Lithuanian allies.

Specifically they along with the Lithuanians could be the first to spot the incoming attack and could immediately send a message to NATO high command. In turn it could hurry to activate the Alliance battalion deployed in Lithuania and the rotational US forces.

It is no secret that both radars and sensors can be supressed, in recent years NATO has expressed concern that Russia has strongly progressed in implementing various dampeners.

They were put to use by Russia during the war in Eastern Ukraine. But just the use of intensive dampeners is a signal that something is going on and can warn of incoming threats, which can then be noticed by the border control and troops.

Specifically due to such, initially seemingly symbolic means at the border, Russian anger and interest was raised.

In the end everything can turn in an ironic direction as the assignations for the fence could be directly or indirectly covered by Russia - from the EU Internal Security Fund, compensating for funds not received for travel documents to Russian citizens or even better – by establishing special tariffs for Russia, which has “gifted” Lithuania with various sanctions anyway.

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