No Country for Old Tanks

The expression ‘Tank country’ desrcibes an area suitable for armoured warfare, and in particular for tanks. The image this usually stir up is that of open fields, with slowly rolling hills.

Russland, Unternehmen "Zitadelle", Fahrzeuge
Quintessential tank country, German units on the move during Operation Zitadelle (Battle of Kursk). Source: Federal German Archives via Wikimedia Commons

This idea is however somewhat oversimplified, as major Mikkonen of the Finnish Armoured Brigade explained in the Defence Forces’ podcast (Finnish). In open areas tanks are able to bring their mobility and good optics to bear on the enemy. However, it is often forgotten that a tank in open country is visible to the enemy as well, and it is generally easier to spot a 65 tonne steel beast than an infantry squad lying in a ditch with their ATGM (ask the Israelis). Another factor is that of air superiority, you don’t want to park your tanks out in the open if the enemy control the skies. If the enemy is able to field more tanks than your force (or more firepower in some other suitable way), meeting them out in the open fields might also not be recommendable.

So what do you do if your tanks aren’t able to deploy out in the open fields? You put them somewhere where they are hard to spot (especially from the air), somewhere where the enemy isn’t able to make use of their numbers, where the distances are short enough that ATGM’s won’t be able to use their range advantage, and somewhere where own infantry is able to make sure that enemy infantry isn’t able to get in close. In Finland, that would generally be a forrest. In other places, a city would do as well.

Traditionally, it has been held that tanks better stay out of cities. Incidents such as the destruction of Russian motorised units and their armour support during the first battle of Grozny has added to this idea. A closer look at the history of armour in urban warfare gives a more nuanced picture, with the protection offered by heavy armour proving quite useful in urban operations. The most famous example is probably the ‘Thunder runs‘ of the 64th Armoured Regiment into downtown Baghdad, but also e.g. Israeli experiences in Gaza seem to trend towards the usage of heavy armour (both tanks and heavy APC’s) for combat operations in urban terrain. Operation Protective Edge saw no less than three armoured brigades deploy units to the strip.

Why is any of this relevant? Well, the British contribution to NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence include a single tank troop (currently from the Queen’s Royal Hussars) of three Challenger 2 MBT’s, a number so small that very relevant questions have been asked about if they really can make an impact. Then this happened.

Source: Royal Tank Regiment

AJAX, the first squadron of the Royal Tank Regiment, suddenly showed off a number of Challenger 2’s painted in the iconic Berlin Brigade-camo, a patchwork of  differently sized fields of white, brown, and (a slightly blueish) grey with straight horizontal and vertical demarcations.

The camouflage dates back to the 1980’s, when the British Berlin Brigade was deployed in Berlin with their Chieftains finished in the then standard bronze-green camouflage. The officer in charge of 4/7 Royal Dragoon Guards tank squadron felt this to be out of place, and inspired by the dazzle paint schemes of sea wars gone by he started looking for a suitable answer.

Long story short, he noticed the light shades of buildings together with small patches of shade and an abundance of straight lines in a modern city, and started designing a camouflage around this phenomenon. While close up the pattern looks like something out of a circus it improved with range, as the major behind it explained: “50 to 60 yards was the minimum, as you got further away the target almost disappeared at 100 yards.”

The original Berlin Brigade pattern on the British Chieftains. Source: US DoD picture via Wikimedia Commons

So why then does this (arguably useful) monstrosity resurface almost thirty years after the reunification of Berlin? The Facebook-post by RTR is open with the fact that the paint job is “part of an ongoing study into proving and improving the utility of Main Battle Tanks in the urban environment.” The RTR also notes that further modifications will be made, specifically mentioning the fitting of BEMA dozer blades (an acronym for Blade, earth moving attachment). The BEMA has been available for the Challenger 2 for quite some time already, but in practice seeing one fitted has been rare.

This seemingly rather ordinary study becomes really interesting when tied in with the question of defence of the Baltics. While three Challengers won’t be of much use when trying to stop a Russian mechanized brigade out in the fields of Estonia, being deployed in support of light infantry within the country’s cities might prove to radically increase both the survivability of the EFP tank troop and their usefulness (though urban fire support might not be the kind of Blitzkrieg the tankers had in mind when they signed up for the job). The (in)famous RAND report predicting the fall of the Baltic countries within three days did include the caveat that “quality light forces, like the U.S. airborne infantry that the NATO players typically deployed into Riga and Tallinn, can put up stout resistance when dug into urban terrain”, but also noted that “the cost of mounting such a defense to the city and its residents is typically very high [and] whether Estonia’s or Latvia’s leaders would choose to turn their biggest cities into battlefields—indeed, whether they should—is, of course, uncertain.”

Challengers taking part in exercise Sabre Strike -17 in Estonia in June this year. Source:

We don’t know if the British/Estonian battle plan is to park urbanized Challengers in the side alleys of Tallinn to ambush Russian armour columns at short range, but it certainly is a possible scenario. One interesting data point is also the fact that the Challenger is the last western MBT to feature a rifled main gun, in the form of the L30A1 55-calibre. This choice, which has serious drawbacks when firing the APSFDS rounds which are today’s standard anti-tank rounds, is due to the British preference of firing HESH-rounds for both anti-tank and general high-explosive work. These high-explosive squash head rounds are filled with plastic explosives, which upon the round impacting on the targets spreads out on it’s surface, before detonating and sending a shockwave through the target.

While the HESH isn’t really up to par with destroying modern armour, one of the places where it does outshine other kinds of tank rounds is for destroying buildings and fortifications. As such, putting the Challengers to fight in an urban environment would be a classic example of playing to the strengths of an otherwise outdated technology.

Soldiers of the Estonian Kuperjanovi jalaväepataljon practicing urban operations. The battalion is attached to Estonia’s 2. Infantry brigade, destined for operations in the central/southern parts of the country. Source: Kuperjanovi jalaväepataljon FB-page

Guest Post: A Picture in Moscow

The following post was originally posted by Swedish blogger Jägarchefen on his excellent blog. As the topic is highly relevant for but rarely discussed here in Finland, I asked for and got permission to translate it. The below translation is not a word for word one, but instead I have included some explanatory comments on issues which are assumed to be known to Swedish readers but which might not be immediately obvious to foreigners, as well as diving deeper into how this all affects Finland.

Valery Gerasimov, the Russian Chief of the General Staff, held a speech at the annual security conference in Moscow 26 to 27 April. The speech included how the actions and preparations of NATO aimed at providing the basis for a rapid surge of reinforcements to NATO’s eastern flank would affect Russian security. In one of the pictures he showed both Swedish and Finnish territory were marked as part of NATO’s preparatory actions. This indicates that Russia sees Finnish and Swedish territory as an extension of NATO territory, though whether they are seen as an integrated part is better left unsaid. What is clear is that in the Russian strategic military doctrine from 2014 and in the national security strategy from 2015 NATO is described as a threat to Russian security.

Regarding Sweden this isn’t news. Based on a number of books published during the last two decades it is clear that the Soviet Union during the better part of the Cold War regarded Sweden as an unofficial NATO member, making the current Russian view of Sweden as a part of NATO less than surprising. In addition to the historical case, this is also based on Sweden being one of five states with the possibility of deeper cooperation (the famous ‘Gold Card’) and the recently signed Host Nation Support Agreement.

More surprising is the view that Finland would constitute an extension of NATO. Granted, Finland, like Sweden, has signed the HNS agreement and received the ‘Gold Card’, but Finland and Russia still make occasional statement about the special relationship that prevail between the countries. From that point of view, the statement by the Russian Chief of Staff is somewhat out of sync, as it indirectly labels Finland as a threat. It is also interesting to see the raging debate about the nature of Finnish support in case of a conflict in the region in context with Gerasimov’s picture.

What then did the picture show? It showed four geographical areas, as well as a possible continuous  support or staging area. On Swedish territory, it appeared to show Varberg or Halmstad port as a possible staging ground for naval assets. On the Swedish east coast it appeared to show the port of Gävle as a staging ground for naval assets. It also seemed to indicate Sundsvall as a supporting area for air operations (in other words Midlanda airport). Finally, on Finnish territory it seemed to show Vasa as a supporting area for naval assets and Kauhava as a supporting area for air operations. The continuous supporting/staging area seemingly consisting of Gävle – Sundsvall – Vasa – Kauhava.

Map courtesy of Jägarchefen

To some extent this is strategic signalling. The Russian leadership is showing their unhappiness with the current Swedish and Finnish defence cooperation with NATO, and this could be a way of trying to pressure Finland and Sweden diminish or even stop the cooperation. Another alternative is that Russia is trying to send a message: “We know what you are preparing and we want you to know that”. The aim then would be to make preparations and/or cooperation more difficult.

Starting with the Swedish west coast, it is clear that it is vital for Sweden in peace as well as in war. This comes both from its role in the influx of crucial goods, as well as from its use as the gateway for any reinforcements brought in from the west. The main focus has been on the port of Gothenburg, which in peacetime handles almost 30% of Swedish imports, is ice-free year-round, and has a significant rail network enabling efficient distribution of goods to other parts of Sweden. One possibility is obviously that the location of the marker is wrong, and that the real intention was to highlight Gothenburg and not Varberg or Halmstad. However, the other possibility is that the military units would stay out of the crowded port, and instead choose a less busy civilian port for bringing in reinforcements and basing naval vessels.

Sundsvall/Midlanda airport. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Felix Wikström

Even more interesting is Gävle and the Sundsvall – Vasa – Kauhava area. The reasoning behind Gävle might be its use as the port of departure for the forward-deployed US Marine Corps Brigade that is currently found in the caves of Trøndelag, in central Norway. From Gävle, the unit could then be shipped out to the Baltic states in case of a grave security crises. Gävle could also be used as a base for naval units from Finland and/or NATO countries for operations in the northern Baltic Sea. The use of Midlanda (Sundsvall) airport likely refers to its use as a base for fighter and strike aircraft. In case of transport of personnel the US forces would likely directly use the airports in Trøndelag instead. Another possibility is that the base would be used to provide strategic depth for Finnish fighters.

The most curious aspect is Vasa as a naval base or staging area, as well as Kauhava as a base for airborne assets. It is possible that Vasa would be part of a protected staging area for naval vessels operating in the northern parts of the Baltic Sea as well as in the Gulf of Finland. Notably however, no airports in southern or central parts of Sweden, nor the naval base in Karlskrona, are included in the picture. In the by now rather well-known RAND study of how a Russian attack on the Baltics could look, the use of air bases in central Sweden is highlighted as being of crucial importance to NATO.

It could be that Russia feels it has the ability to interfere with operations in southern and central Sweden to the extent that the area is not seen as a threat in case NATO would base forces there. In this case Gerasimov’s picture would indicate that the marked areas would not be as affected by the Russian actions, and as such would be more of a threat.

This makes the transfer of two Buyan-M class corvettes from the Black Sea Fleet to the Baltic Fleet during the autumn of 2016 especially interesting, as it provides the opportunity for Russia to target the Swedish west coast with Kalibr long-range cruise missiles without these overflying the territory of other nations, which would have been the case if the missiles would have been fired from the North Fleet.


Added to this the Swedish broadcasting corporation’s radio earlier this year reported that some unknown entity seems to try and map out people working for the regional council in Jämtland, including those that play a role in upholding comprehensive security in the region. There are no information on the situation in Västernorrland county, but it can be assumed to be similar, as these two constitute a continuous geographical area of operations due to the forward-deployed storages in Trøndelag.

These two counties, together making up the region of Mellersta Norrland (literally ‘Middle Norrland’), seems to be an area of great military strategic interest for Russia, indirectly making them an area of strategic military interest for Sweden as well. This is in addition to the five areas identified earlier, which include:

  • Southern Scania, which controls the waterways between the Baltic Sea and the North Sea
  • Gotland, which could be employed as a basing area for long-range weapon systems
  • Gothenburg/the west coast, discussed above
  • Stockholm, the national capital
  • Northern Norrland, as a transit area for flanking operations during any battle between Norwegian and Russian forces

With a sixth area added to these, it is clear that the Swedish Defence Forces lacks the quantity needed to defend all of these at the same time.

It should be noted that the highlighting of Mellersta Norrland is in line with earlier posts on Jägarchefen’s blog, where during the last two year several indications have been reported which point to Mellersta Norrland being strategically more important that generally assumed. This can now be seen as confirmed by the Russian general staff.

Own comments:

For Finland, the situation is somewhat similar. Traditionally, the main strategic areas have been identified as the southern parts of the country, where the capital of Helsinki and the major cities of Turku and Tampere are found, as well as the northern parts of the country which would be important in case of a major conflict where Finnish territory could be used for flanking maneuvers in the battles for Murmansk and northern Norway. A third possible axis of attack would be the Kajaani – Oulu axis, which was attempted in the Winter War as a way of cutting Finland in half.

Southern Ostrobothnia has traditionally not been seen as a primary target. Kauhava has a long history as an air force base, and would likely be used for dispersed basing in case of war. From a NATO point of view, its value is more limited, as bases in northern Sweden would likely be a better choice for basing fighters due to the strategic depth they offer, while for air transport several other civilian airports hold similar facilities and at least equal road and rail connections (and in some cases local ports can be used as a complement).

Swedish corvette HSwMS Sundsvall (K24) entering the civilian port of Kokkola during a joint exercise in 2010. Source: Own picture


One possibility is that the designation of Vasa as a port of interest does portray a more general concept of using civilian ports as naval bases. Finland has a notoriously high number of ports along the coast, and the Ostrobothnian shore is no exception. While no ‘true’ naval bases are found in the area, there are a number of differently sized ports which could be used for refuelling and replenishment, in effect a dispersed basing concept for naval vessels. From the relative protection of the Gulf of Bothnia the vessels could then sortie out to strike against enemy movements in the northern Baltic Sea, before again withdrawing back to safety.

The conclusions drawn by Jägarchefen are the following:

  1. As Russia sees NATO as a threat to their national security, and as they see Finnish and Swedish territory as being potential areas supporting NATO operations, Russia does see Finland and Sweden as well as threats to their security. This has (or rather, should have) a significant impact on the discussions on Finland’s role in case of war in the Baltics.
  2. This has now been clearly communicated at the highest military level, making it also a political signal as well to Finland and Sweden.
  3. Mellersta Norrland must be seen as an area of strategic military importance. In Finland, this goes for Southern Ostrobothnia as well.
  4. This must lead to a discussion at the political level about the importance of this area. Currently, the area feature more or less the same security vacuum Gotland enjoyed before the island became home for permanently stationed troops again. While Finland stresses that peacetime garrisons should not be seen as indicative of where any given unit would fight, it is very much open (as it should be) if current defence planning recognises the importance of this area, and how e.g. the Local Voluntary Units (Maakuntajoukot) tasked with defending the area has been briefed and equipped to meet this increased threat level.

Have a good one! // Jägarchefen

Kaliningrad and the Suwałki Gap – a look from the other side

The discussion regarding the potential of an armed conflict, or even regional war, between NATO and Russia over the Baltics have become a staple of the post-Crimean world. Most of the focus has been placed on the difficulty in reinforcing the Baltic states in the face of a Russian anti-access/area denial ‘bubble’ (A2/AD) created with Kaliningrad as the centre of the bubble, and the potential of strengthening this bubble by rapidly occupying the Swedish island of Gotland. If this was to happen, the only way of reinforcing the Baltic states would be over the Polish-Lithuanian border, a strip of land which rapidly has become known as the Suwałki gap (named after the Polish town at one end of the gap). The Suwałki gap in turn is claimed to be extremely vulnerable, as it is wedged in between the Kaliningrad enclave and the Belarusian border.

I will argue that this is, in certain aspects, an oversimplification, but that contrary to what one might expect, this does not lessen the risk of a confrontation.

The A2/AD Bubble

With regards to the A2/AD bubble set up in Kaliningrad, it is usually seen as blocking maritime and airborne forces. By using a combination of long-range high quality surface-to-air missiles and anti-shipping weapons (land based missiles as well as surface and subsurface units), Russia would be able to deny NATO forces entry into the southern parts of the Baltic Sea, and any units operating there would be under constant threat. These two features are a key part of the definition of A2/AD challenges, see e.g. [1]. As NATO is lacking both numbers and key capabilities (such as mechanized and armoured units) in the Baltic states, any NATO response to an incursion would have to include a rapid transfer of reinforcements from other NATO countries and into the Baltic states. The ability to hinder or disrupt these reinforcements would ensure that Russia can maintain superiority on the battlefield in terms of both numbers and lethality of the weapon systems employed.

This description is usually accompanied by maps featuring rings at 400 km, the stated maximum range for the longest ranged surface-to-air missile in current Russian inventory (the 40N6 missile of the S-400 Triumf system) [2], as well as at 300 km, the approximate maximum range of the K-300P Bastion-P coastal defence system’s P-800 ‘Yakhont’/’Oniks’ missiles [3].

Scale models of P-800 Yakhont/Oniks missile and vehicles from a K-300P coastal defence battery. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Vitaly Kuzmin

However, this fails to account for a number of facts. To begin with, at maximum range missiles lacks the energy to be able to chase down and hit maneuvering targets such as fighters. The very long range nature of the 40N6 also by necessity dictates that the missile is extremely large, further degrading the performance against maneuvering targets. As such the main use of the 40N6 is likely against large high-value targets such as AWACS, tankers, stand-off jammers, and transport aircraft. A more fitting maximum range when discussing fighter-sized targets would be that of the somewhat smaller and shorter-ranged 48N6E missile, which in its latest version feature ranges over 200 km [4]. This is still a highly potent weapon, but the area covered is roughly a quarter of that of the 40N6.

For anti-ship missiles, the need to maneuver isn’t as crucial, but going out to maximum range means that a measure of tactical flexibility is lost. This includes routing the missiles to attack from unexpected vectors, or simultaneous impact by missiles approaching from different directions, see e.g. video clip from Ruptly [5].

The main problem operating out at very long ranges is target acquisition. The range of radars are usually limited by the horizon, which is the reason that aircraft mounted radars are so popular. This is a problem for Kaliningrad, as the whole area is easily covered by NATO air defence networks (more on which later), and as such Russia has installed over the horizon (OTH) radar arrays in the area. In the case of Kaliningrad, it was recently disclosed that the Sunflower-E (Ru. Подсолнух-Э / Podsolnukh-E) long-range air- and surface radar will be installed in Kaliningrad [6]. Note that the picture in the source is of the anti-missile radar Voronezh-M, also found in Kaliningrad [7], and not of the Sunflower-E. The exact range of this array is unclear, but the manufacturer claims it can be used to cover the 200-mile (320 km) economic zone of coastal countries [8], while the earlier quoted Russia Today article cited ranges ‘up to 450 km’. This latter figure is likely against large airborne targets at altitude, which is also in accordance with a widely circulated but unsourced graphic [9]. The radar array is made up of a ‘forest’ of individual antennas, which means that it is likely very resistant to shock waves from bomb blasts. However, the largely immobile nature and size of the installation means that its exact location is well-known, and while the antennas might be hard to destroy and do feature a certain degree of redundancy if damaged, the system likely has other key components (power supply, transmitters, receivers, and operator centrals) which are more vulnerable.

Radars are also inherently active, which means that they can be located once they start transmitting. To avoid this both anti-ship missiles and the S-400 has the ability to be fed targeting data from passive sources such as emitter locators, which work by locating an emitting radar of the adversary. This is particularly effective if the enemy forces have used active jamming to make the use of own radars impossible, as the active jammer is a very strong source of emission, and hence easily targeted. As a general rule, these systems are however less accurate than active systems, and the difference is emphasised when operating at very long ranges. The fact that all missiles discussed here have their own active radars does remedy this to a certain extent.

In summary

  • The A2/AD bubble in Kaliningrad is made up of some of the world’s most modern anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles
  • To achieve accurate targeting data at extreme ranges, it relies on potentially vulnerable sensor systems
  • Secondary sensors are available, but offer a somewhat degraded picture
  • The bubble does not start at an absolute range (e.g. 400 km), but instead gradually increases in capability and lethality the closer one gets to Kaliningrad

Logistics and Kaliningrad as an enclave

Often overlooked in the discussion is the logistics of the A2/AD bubble and the vulnerability of Kaliningrad itself. The long range missiles of the S-400 and K-300P systems are large and bulky, with e.g. the 48N6E being 7,5 m long. The TEL firing units as well as transport units for reloads are all based on either 6×6 all-terrain trucks pulling semi-trailers or self-propelled 8×8 heavy all-terrain vehicles. The pure size means that the battery won’t have too many missiles with it in the field. Notable for Kaliningrad, if reinforcements are needed fast, only large transports are able to airlift the loaded vehicles, and only a limited number at a time.

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Out in the field, the battery moves as a large convoy of bulky vehicles. The firing battery comprises an engagement radar and up to twelve TEL’s, each with four missiles. These are then backed up by the supporting vehicles, including missile transports (roughly similar to the TEL’s in outward appearance) and the reload vehicle with a heavy-duty crane. The firing batteries are then linked to a centralised command vehicle and a long-range acquisition radar. This means that any S-400 battery on the move will include ten to twenty oversized trucks. For the K-300P, the composition is roughly similar.

This mobility is one of the great benefits of the S-400 and K-300P systems. The whole battery can be moved around quickly, and deployed in a spread out fashion to hide from enemy units, see e.g. example of K-300P firing P-800 Yakhont from a concealed position [10]. However, as soon as the radar starts emitting, the rough position of the battery can be found out. This means that for the the systems to heighten its chance of survival, the battery will frequently need to change positions. This in turn means that there needs to be several batteries moving around in a coordinated fashion, so that at any given time there will be a firing ready battery somewhere. For the anti-ship batteries the need to operate with the battery’s radar on is smaller, and by extension they can more easily stay hidden.

Kaliningrad is roughly 200 km long (east-west) and 100 km wide (north-south). This rather small area would have to host a number of S-400 batteries, one or two of which at any given time are shifting from one firing position to another. It is clear that during the movement phase the large trucks would be vulnerable to detection, and by extension suppression and destruction. The same would be true for the large resupply vehicles bringing new missiles from warehouses out to the firing units deployed in the field.

The logistics for the missile batteries is but a small piece of the larger logistical headache concerning the Kaliningrad enclave as a whole. As mentioned, it is wedged in between NATO countries, and while it can disrupt air and seaborne reinforcements into the Baltic countries, it is in fact even more tightly besieged itself.

Artillery coverage Kaliningrad.jpg
The range covered by three artillery batteries deployed in Siluté (Lithuania), Budry, and Gorowo Ilaweckie in green. The ranges are 48 km for the battery in Siluté, based on the XM982 Excalibur guided munition in service with the German PzH 2000 (though currently not with the Lithuanian army), while the range for the Polish batteries are a more generic 40 km. In blue we have the 160 km of the US ATACMS missile fired by the M270 MLRS, with the batteries deployed to Suwałki and Elblag.
SAM coverage Kaliningrad.jpg
The range of three SAM batteries with ~100 km range (e.g. Patriot PAC-3, SAMP/T), deployed in Tauragé (Lithuania), Elblag, and Suwałki.

If we for a moment turn the table, and start drawing range rings based upon NATO weapons systems, it soon becomes clear that current medium/long range systems such as the Patriot PAC-3 or the SAMP/T could seal of the airspace of Kaliningrad. Similarly, the narrow width in the north-south direction means that large areas of Kaliningrad are covered by current Polish and Lithuanian artillery systems deployed inside their own borders. This means that the suppression of enemy air defences mission (SEAD) could in part be undertaken by artillery units equipped with modern munitions instead of risking aircrafts and pilots as would usually be the case. If long-range surface-to-surface systems such as the US ATACMS missile system are used, the whole enclave can be covered by ground based systems.


In summary

  • The small size of the Kaliningrad is problematic with regards to keeping the location of the SAM batteries concealed when shifting position
  • The whole enclave would be under siege from the onset of hostilities, as the whole airspace can be covered by a small number of units operating current surface-to-air missiles
  • The size of the enclave means that NATO ground based systems would have a large impact, including performing missions usually reserved for airborne systems (such as SEAD)

The Suwałki gap

As a consequence, the importance of the Suwałki gap to both sides becomes clear. The gap, roughly the area coloured yellow in the map below, constitute the sole land route between the Baltic countries and the core of the NATO countries found in the European mainland. Similarly, the area marks the shortest distance from the Kaliningrad enclave to Belarusian territory, and as such is the most likely place for a Russian attempt to relieve the surrounded enclave.

Suwałki gap

The gap is often described as ‘vulnerable’ from a NATO point of view, mainly due to it being only 65 km wide at its narrowest point. This means that the entire width of the gap is within range of Russian artillery, and ground units could cover the distance in a matter of days (or less if unopposed).

However, this fails to account for a number of factors. While disrupting the movement of troops on the two main roads (Suwałki-Kaunas and Augustów-Alytus-Vilnius) and  single railway that passes though the gap is possible not only with artillery as well as with e.g. special forces on foot, cutting it off completely and opening a corridor to Kaliningrad is another thing completely. The main transport arteries of the gap, as mentioned, traverse the region in the northeast-southwest direction, i.e. between Poland and Lithuania. There are a number of smaller roads going in the opposite direction, but in general it is easier to move troops and materiel between Poland and Lithuania than between Kaliningrad and Belarus. The main road going east from Kaliningrad goes north of the gap, and passes through the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, before continuing on to Minsk. The terrain is also very varied, with especially the area bordering Belarus being heavily forested. As such, the terrain is well-suited for the kind of light infantry that makes up the majority of the Lithuanian army. Below is an example of the terrain found in this area, featuring the road from Belarus to Druskininkai, Lithuania.

Perhaps the most often overlooked factor is the Polish army. At the same time many NATO countries have shifted to lighter and smaller units, Poland has maintained a core of heavy units, lead by the formidable 11th “Lubuska” Armoured Cavalry Division [11]. The unit is a full-fledged armoured division, featuring two armoured brigades equipped with Leopard 2A4 tanks, to be upgraded to the Leopard 2PL standard [12]. Backed up by two mechanised divisions equipped with PT-91 Twardy, a locally modernised MBT based on the T-72, it could provide the core of a complete armoured corps, one of very few left in NATO.

The big difference between the Polish army and others large armoured units in NATO is that it is based close to the Baltic countries, and, crucially, that the political leadership in Poland and the Baltic states largely shares the same view of Russia and the need to counter an increasingly aggressive Kremlin. As has been noted in other scenarios, the key to countering a Russian aggression in the Baltic states would be to get qualified units on the ground as soon as possible, to boost deterrence and provide an answer to the heavily mechanised Russian ground units that otherwise would be hard to counter for the light infantry units that make up the core of the Baltic armies [13]. Importantly, if a crises were to start to unfold, the Polish units might be the only ones where there would be both the political will and a short enough transfer time that they might pass through the Suwałki gap and take up position before the gap would be under serious threat. The distance from Suwałki to e.g. Tartu is just over 600 km by road, a far cry from the logistics involved in getting a US or British armoured division deployed to Estonia.

Polish Leopard 2A4 from the 11th “Lubuska” divsion during exercise Steadfast Jazz, held in Poland and the Baltic States during 2013. Note the winged hussar emblem on the turret. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Cpl Madis Veltman, Estonian army

It is obviously not without problems to deploy these units to the Baltic states. To begin with, the eastern Polish border can hardly be left undefended. Also, there is a gauge break between the Polish and Lithuanian railway systems, meaning that, until Rail Baltica is ready, what would otherwise be the most efficient way of rapidly moving tracked vehicles from Poland to the Baltic states feature a severe bottleneck. Also, the 11th “Lubuska” division is deployed in the southwestern parts of Poland, more or less as far from Lithuania as possible. The 16th “Pomeranian” Mechanised Division is however deployed opposite Kaliningrad, and while its PT-91’s are inferior to the Leopard 2PL, they are superior to anything currently deployed in the Kaliningrad enclave.

In summary

  • The main logistical arteries of the Suwałki gap, constituting two major roads and a railway, all go in parallel from Poland to Lithuania, with only smaller roads in the gap connecting Kaliningrad and Belarus
  • While part of the Suwałki gap is open ‘tank country’, other parts are heavily forested and/or broken up by water. A mechanised force would be vulnerable to ambushes and being funneled into bottlenecks
  • The Polish army fields a considerable striking force in the form of heavy armoured and mechanised units, as well as what is likely a lower threshold to deploy these in the Baltic states in the face of a crises compared to NATO countries located further from Russia


All in all, the Kaliningrad enclave does constitute a strategic problem for NATO in times of crises, due to its location at the entrance to the Baltic states and with the long ranged systems based there interfering with any NATO operations in the southern Baltic Sea. However, it is not an absolute hinder to NATO operations in the area, and in a prolonged conflict it would effectively be under siege. Similarly, the Suwałki gap is not necessarily as vulnerable as it is sometimes portrayed. Also, while the draw down amongst the traditional major NATO countries have left gaps in the ability of NATO to rapidly project military power with heavy units, Poland still upholds a sizeable mechanised force within striking distance of the Baltic states, coupled with a more assertive political leadership compared to what is often seen in the traditional NATO countries.

However, while all this might seem to be good news for NATO in the face of increased Russian aggression and the reckless behavior displayed by the Kremlin in relation to several of their neighboring countries, I will argue that the opposite is in fact the case.

The ability of NATO to respond to a Russian aggression aimed at the Baltic states, as well as the possibility to move Polish units into the Baltic states at short notice, create a scenario where, in an unfolding crises, time would not be on Russia’s side. In fact, if Russia would conclude that a confrontation was inevitable, it would make sense to strike sooner rather than later. Through this, the capabilities of NATO and the relatively weak position of Kaliningrad might actually become catalysts for instead of deterring an open conflict.

While a regional conflict over part of the Baltic states would be bad enough, this is far from the worst scenario. St Petersburg is within 150 km from the Estonian border. If the Kremlin actually start believing their own narrative of an aggressive and expansionist NATO, even the possibility of NATO moving a mechanised division into Estonia might be the spark that ignites a larger confrontation. And a conflict in which Russia feels that its very heartland is threatened by NATO tanks is one from which it won’t back down. I am strongly of the opinion that appeasement is not the best way forward when it comes to Russian aggression. But if Putin makes a move towards the Baltic, NATO just might be out of good options.



Is Finland About to Betray the Baltic States?

During last week, a speech by the President of Finland, Sauli Niinistö, has received a considerable amount of press and social media coverage. “Finland won’t fight for it Baltic neighbours” the headlines have screamed, with even normally cool-headed people asking what he means, and why he would have gone and said so something like that. Is he trying to say that Finland wants to stay out of a possible war between NATO and Russia?

It seems apparent that most people have only read the quote itself, and not the speech as a whole. To give a bit of background, the speech was held to a gathering of ambassadors, which is a yearly event in Finland, and is available in Finnish and Swedish on the official homepage (note that the Swedish version include some slightly strange translations in key passages), and is too long for me to translate in its full length here. However, a short recap is in order:

The Second World War ended 70 years ago, and the Cold War that followed was a conflict, but at least it over time developed its own set of rules. The times after that promised eternal summer (although he notes that we Finns never really trusted that promise), which proved to be wrong. Today, the international community is being reshaped, and the current day is marked by towering threats and great uncertainty.

After this, he moves on to Ukraine, Russia, the Middle East, the migrant crises, Greece, the Euro, and nationalism, until he eventually comes to the Finnish philosopher J.V. Snellman. Snellman represents a realist view on foreign politics, and in the quote used by Niininstö, he notes that while young people dream of nations working for the good of humanity, in  reality all nations first and foremost look after themselves. This, the President notes, does not mean that we should strive towards non-alignment or nationalistic narrow-mindedness, but accept reality and plan according to it.

Towards the end, he notes that our security rests on four pillars: national defence, Finland’s integration into the geopolitical West, bilateral relations to Russia, and the international order. The strength of each of these differs with time, and currently we are seeing that three of the pillars are getting weaker.

President Niinistö argues that we have to strengthen all pillars we can, and deeper cooperation in the fields of defence and security with Sweden and our partners in NATO is one of his core points.

Still, he says, while sometimes it is argued that Finland has a share in the responsibility of defending the Baltic countries, this is not the case:

“I have had to be rather precise in this question. For the simple reason that Finland is not in a position where we can provide to others such military security guarantees, which we don’t have ourselves. We are not a superpower that has spare ‘ammunition’ to hand out.”

Own translation.

This question, he notes, is directly connected to the military security guarantees of the European Union (through the Treaty of Lisbon). Some say this is a dead letter, while others say that it makes it our responsibly to defend other EU countries, including the Baltic countries.

“One shouldn’t unnecessarily inflate the importance of the EU military security guarantees. But this does not mean that one shouldn’t try and strengthen them.”

What then does the Treaty of Lisbon say in its (in)famous 42nd article? Paragraph 7 is the passage in question:

“7. If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States.

Commitments and cooperation in this area shall be consistent with commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which, for those States which are members of it, remains the foundation of their collective defence and the forum for its implementation.”

Article 51 of the UN Charter in turn says.

“Article 51

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.“

In other words: The Treaty of Lisbon states that if a member is attacked, the other states shall aid and assist “by all means in their power”, and shall report to the UN Security Council what actions have been taken.

What President Niinistö has said, is that if Russia was to invade a Baltic country, it is not in our power to participate militarily in its defence. This boils down to some straightforward facts: Finland is a large country (64th largest in the world), with a small population (114th most populous), meaning we are one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world (201st in population density). We also have a land border with Russia that is longer than the current border between NATO-countries and Russia taken together. To defend ourselves, we will need more or less all of the 230,000 soldiers we plan to mobilize in case of war. As we can’t be sure of foreign assistance, we can’t promise to come to the aid of others.

However, Niinistö does not state that Finland won’t aid our neighbours, if we have the opportunity to do so. This might include supplies, vehicles, materials, or even troops, but it is all dependent on how the situation would develop. In the case of a NATO-Russian conflict that Finland gets dragged into, Finnish naval and air units would almost certainly be integrated into the NATO+1 alliance’s grander schemes, and receive missions aimed at safeguarding Estonia and parts of Latvia, while the Norwegian Air Force would help secure our northern flank.

Noteworthy here is the reaction from the Baltic countries themselves, which have been rather unspectacular. Estonia’s permanent representative to the North Atlantic Council, Ambassador Lauri Lepik, is apparently also a follower of the realist school of foreign politics, and commented the news on twitter:

The only other high-ranking politician from any of the Baltic countries I’ve seen commenting on the issue is Lithuanian Minister of Defence, Juozas Olekas, who in a radio show said that Lithuania, in turn, has no direct obligation to defend Finland, but if something was to happen, he believed Lithuania and the other NATO countries would try to assist in some way.

“With Finland, Sweden, and other non-NATO countries, especially the other EU countries, we are developing our military co-operation, but we have no direct defense commitment. I think we would try to support Finland in some way, where it is relevant. But it is not part of our direct defensive commitment.”

This interview was then naturally turned into a Sputnik propaganda-piece, under the headline: “Tiny Baltic State Takes Offense at Finland Over Much-Feared Russian Threat”

The bottom line is that it seems that it is mostly non-Baltic western media that has taken offense. In the Finnish defence debate the concensus seems to be that most agree on the issue, but opinions differ about whether the President should express it publicly. In my personal opinion, the speech, and especially the passage about the Baltic States, is somewhat muddled, and not one of Niininstö’s best. Still, there is nothing new to get excited over, which is also seen in the way the Baltic States have acknowledged the statement.

Ending note: the Finnish stance on a responsibility to defend its neighbours is different compared to Sweden’s, which unilaterally has declared that they will come to the aid of others, and expect others to come to their aid (point 4.4).