SUWALKI, Poland—The bucolic region around the Polish-Lithuanian border has long been known for its rolling farmland, serene lakes and historic towns.
For the generals of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it is now also known as a dangerous spot.
Suwalki, a town of nearly 70,000, lies along the 45-mile corridor of NATO territory between two Russian military strongholds. To the southeast is Belarus, a close ally of Russia that has served as a base for its invasion of Ukraine. To the northwest is Kaliningrad, a part of Russia that was cut off from the rest of the country due to the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Western military strategists call it the Suwalki Gap. What worries them is that Russia, having seized the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and invaded Ukraine this year, may resort to violence to try to seize the border region, which would connect Kaliningrad to Belarus.
Threatening comments from the governments of Russia and Belarus have increased concern in the region, as have moves such as a bill recently introduced in the Russian parliament to revoke Moscow’s recognition of Lithuania’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The invasion of Ukraine has caused similar concern in other nations surrounding Russia that for decades have either been allied with Moscow or seen little threat of attack. Finland and Sweden have applied to join NATO, while Kazakhstan and some other former Soviet republics in Central Asia that have remained in Russia’s orbit have distanced themselves from Moscow, in part because of wariness about its credibility.
The Suwalki Gap region has a long history of conflict. Napoleon’s armies crossed it while invading and retreating from Russia. During the two World Wars, it saw fierce fighting. When World War II ended, it fell under the control of the Soviet Union and Kaliningrad was designated Russian territory.
Today, although military and intelligence officials do not see an immediate military threat from Russia, they are concerned about its aggression and unpredictable behavior.
Ewa Sidorek, a former deputy mayor of Suwalki, said many locals were scared when Russia attacked Ukraine and some remain shocked. He said a friend keeps a suitcase full and her gas tank filled in case she needs to escape. Even more worryingly, people in other parts of Poland believe the region is already under attack.
“People call and ask what the war is like here,” Ms. Sidorek said. Although the area is quite accessible for tourists, he said, the number of visitors has dropped significantly this year, “Tourists think it’s dangerous,” he said.
Suwalki Mayor Czeslaw Renkiewicz predicts tourists will eventually return, but worries talk of Russian aggression will deter investors. When Polish President Andrzej Duda recently met near Suwalki with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, the mayor told Mr Duda that local timber, furniture and construction companies may eventually need government support.
In nearby Goldap, a town of 19th-century Prussian buildings less than three miles from the Kaliningrad border, hotels have faced cancellations and the spring water health center has raised questions about restrictions, said Zuzanna Rozmyslowska-Wasilewska, director at the regional tourist company. centre. “A lot of apartments are for sale now,” he said.
Across the border in Lithuania, Sandra Kvietinskaite, who runs a municipal office supporting startups in the small town of Marijampole, has an evacuation plan ready. After Russia attacked Ukraine, she said, she checked her parents’ passports were valid and packed bags, which she still keeps ready.
In an emergency, she said, she would take her parents to Germany to stay with relatives and go to Norway, where she once worked. “I hope we’re safe,” he said. “I’m crossing my fingers.”
Retired Polish army colonel Kazimierz Kuczynski, who lives in Suwalki, is less concerned. He said Russia has spent so much ammunition in Ukraine that it does not have the resources to attack. “We can sleep easy,” he said.
Andrzej Sek, internal security lecturer at the State Vocational University PUZ in Suwalki, organizes an annual conference on the Suwalki Gap. The meetings discussed issues such as a hybrid war involving cyber attacks, sabotage and other unconventional tactics.
“Today, I don’t see much of a threat to Poland, Lithuania or the Suwalki Gap,” he said. “What comes in the near future, who can say?”
Tensions in the region rose in June when Russia and Lithuania clashed over a train line running through Lithuania linking Kaliningrad to mainland Russia.
For decades, the tracks were on Soviet territory, but the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 and the independence of Lithuania turned the lines into an international route. When the Baltic states joined the European Union in 2004, Russia and Lithuania agreed on terms for the train’s operation. About 250 Russian trains crossed Lithuania every month last year, according to Lithuanian Railways.
EU sanctions on Moscow since February have complicated this arrangement. In June, Lithuanian authorities began imposing EU restrictions banning the shipment of certain prohibited products on the train line. The resulting turmoil temporarily halted all Russian rail traffic to Kaliningrad.
Moscow accused Lithuania of imposing a blockade on Kaliningrad and threatened an unspecified response. As tensions rose in July, Lithuania said it was only enforcing EU rules, while Germany and some other members urged it not to inflame the situation. In late July, Lithuania and its EU allies agreed to an approach aimed at avoiding conflict, but citizens were alarmed.
“There are Russian trains crossing Lithuania. Obviously, we are nervous,” said Migle Onaityte, a 19-year-old resident of Pilviskiai, near the train line.
Many Russian trains are accompanied by Lithuanian helicopters to ensure that they do not stop and that nothing is loaded or unloaded from the train. Lithuanian border guards are now carrying out four times more patrols than in 2020, according to an interior ministry spokesman, and more helicopters are taking part in military exercises.
“People thought the helicopters were Russian,” Ms Onaityte said. “It’s scary.”
“People are also afraid of Belarus,” said Davydas Jasaitis, a friend of Ms. Onaityte who was recently spending the day with her and other friends at Lake Vistytis, which forms part of Lithuania’s border with Kaliningrad.
Behind the visitor center, a road led to a dock where families dived into the water. A short distance away, behind a tall razor-wire fence, a guard tower marks Russian territory.
Tadeusz Szturgulewski, 88, a native of Suwałki, was 5 years old when Soviet troops invaded Poland in 1939, days after Nazi Germany invaded from the west. Two years later, the Germans invaded to invade the Soviet Union, and three years later, Soviet forces were back on their way to Berlin.
Mr Szturgulewski, an activist in Poland’s anti-communist Solidarity movement during the 1980s, said he would grab a rifle to fight if Moscow’s forces returned.
“The Germans were much more civilized than the Russians,” he said. “The Nazis would just shoot you, but the Russians would torture you and then kill you.”
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Russia’s attack on Ukraine has focused attention on Suwalki’s civil defense preparations, even among people who do not fear an invasion. Ms. Sidorek, a former deputy mayor, said the district has drawn up protocols, but the plans are not being made public. “Most people have no idea about alarms or procedures,” he said.
Mr. Renkiewicz, the mayor, said that earlier this year he ordered a search of basements and parking facilities that could serve as shelters, but that he did not make the results public to avoid raising anxiety. He said residents should be made aware of the significance of the different alarms from the city’s 19 civil defense sirens.
Bimonthly visits by U.S. and European NATO troops to a base about 55 miles away, he said, have offset some anxiety. Soldiers have participated in summer picnics and Christmas parties, bringing singing groups and introducing themselves.
“People are seeing that we’re not just saying NATO is here, it’s really here,” Mr Renkiewicz said.
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