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The Suwalki Gap and Putin's gambit for Prigozhin

August 4, 2023 at 3:30 pm

A view of Kremlin after the drone attack in Moscow, Russia on May 03, 2023. [Sefa Karacan – Anadolu Agency]

The Prigozhin saga is unprecedented in Russian history. In the past, if a highly placed personality lost the trust of the Kremlin and were declared enemy of the state, the price would be dire.

Prigozhin appears to be an exception. While his mutiny had many military personnel killed, including several pilots, the Wagner boss did not face the consequences of his actions and walked free from prosecution. In fact, Putin granted Prigozhin a second chance, demanding that the Wagner units settle in Belarus. This request gave the signal to Prigozhin that his services were still needed.

The Wagner mercenaries, renowned for their war expertise, represent a formidable, disciplined, and motivated force akin to an iron fist. Even though they are mercenaries, their courage is driven by Russian patriotism. Therefore, the most pragmatic move for Putin was to harness and exploit such power rather than destroy it.

For Russia, mired in the Ukraine quagmire, Prigozhin is like a pawn on a chessboard — difficult to relinquish. As the game unfolds, this pawn has been strategically moved to Belarus, taking one step forward. The mastermind behind the chess game will ultimately determine whether the pawn shall be promoted to a ‘Queen’ in the future. However, there is a long and uncertain way to reach such an outcome.

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After Wagner’s deployment to Belarus, Moscow issued statements that disturbed Western capitals, particularly Warsaw. Following the news that Wagner mercenaries were training Belarusian special forces and conducting exercises on the Polish border, Belarus President Lukashenko said he was holding the Wagner mercenaries on a tight leash to prevent them from attacking Poland.

Putin and other high-profile Russian officials have repeatedly emphasised that sizable chunks of Polish territory were a gift from Stalin, which raises suspicions that Wagner units could move towards the Suwalki Gap. Putin made similar historical references on the eve of the start of the war in Ukraine.

The Suwalki Gap is a strategic location within Polish territory. This 104-kilometre stretch of land is located between two Russian military bastions. To the southeast is Belarus, a close Russian ally which hosts the bulk of the Wagner troops. To the northwest is Kaliningrad, a Russian advanced and fortified city garrison.

Hence, this region, also labelled ‘danger spot’ by NATO strategists, is crucial. If Russia seizes it, it will cut off Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from other Western nations. Thus, any attack on this corridor would make all hell break loose for NATO. However, the likelihood of such a situation is uncertain and depends on various geopolitical factors and actions taken by all parties involved.

The Suwalki Gap gained even more significance after NATO’s Warsaw summit in 2016 due to Russia’s destabilisation of Ukraine, when approximately 15,000 Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) forces were brought to the Polish and Lithuanian borders to face any Russian advance.

Russia VS NATO: Ukraine, gas, Death Sea... - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Russia VS NATO: Ukraine, gas, Death Sea… – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Kaliningrad, Russia’s gateway to Europe before 2014, is now viewed from Russia’s perspective as being isolated by NATO through blockade measures. Russia has undertaken retaliatory measures since NATO’s assertive actions in the region through EFP. In 2017, in retaliation for NATO’s exercises, Russia conducted the Zapad (West) 2017 military exercise in Kaliningrad and Belarus.

Russian sources often publish claims that Poland is preparing to exploit the war in Ukraine and invade western Ukraine. These claims are frequently repeated and spread doubt about Poland’s intentions. Moscow wants to create the perception that Poland nurtures aggressive ambitions to reclaim not only its “historical lands” from Ukraine but also from Belarus.

To prevent such a hypothetical condition, the Kremlin justifies the deployment of troops to protect Belarusian territories. Having Wagner troops at Lukashenko’s disposal (with Russia’s consent) gives the Belarusian president a powerful deterrent to counter any potential menace from Poland. The increasing presence of Wagner in Belarus raises tensions and could potentially lead to a flare-up between NATO and Russia. However, neither Russia nor the US seek such a confrontation.

For Russia, which is facing challenges even in Ukraine, it would not be sensible to escalate the war on multiple fronts. Thus, deploying Wagner in Belarus was done primarily for defensive purposes. This is a way to buy time during the transitional period when Wagner’s influence was rendered ineffective due to intra-state dynamics.

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There may be many flaws in the Kremlin’s endeavours. The Ukraine War is a case in point as it has revealed the limits of what the Russian state can achieve realistically. However, the Russian president is known for his shrewd planning. It doesn’t make sense for him to provoke Poland unnecessarily.

In fact, Putin’s strategy relies on buying time. This approach will kill three birds with one stone. First, the Wagner forces are salvaged from internal feuds and recycled for a greater undertaking. Second, NATO spreads its resources from Ukraine to other theatres. Finally, creating false divisions and driving a wedge between NATO allies. Tensions already exist between Warsaw and Kyiv over other issues and additional Russian psychological operations could only exacerbate the situation.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.