The Next Phase in the NATO-Russian War in Ukraine?

By Pippa Malmgren

Did Russia really have an attempted coup?

Or, did The Wagner Group manage to move thousands of men from their location to another much closer to Ukraine without anyone noticing?

Did the Wagner troops lose their nerve, as the Head of the CIA says?

Or was the whole thing theatre?

Either way, there are so many Wagner and Russian troops in Belarus now that NATO is monitoring this closely. They are also closer to Ukraine and to the critical strategic location known as NATO’s Achilles Heel: The Suwalki Gap. I wrote about this Gap back in January 2022. Russia has taken its time to surround itself with its military assets.

Here’s why we all need to watch the Suwalki Gap.

A glance at the map of Europe shows this little 40-mile gap that separates Belarus from Kaliningrad, right on the border between Poland and Lithuania. 40 miles is not very far. Here’s what Russia would get if they tried to grab this little stretch of land. Russia would be able to access the sea directly through Kaliningrad. They’d create a wedge that separates the Baltic states from the West, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, all of whom have been seen as a thorn in the side of Russia ever since their independence.

Russia will also face a direct fight with NATO if one centimeter of Poland is touched. Poland and Lithuania used to form a single Kingdom. Both nations are reinforcing that ancient alliance now, so even if Russia kept the fight on the Lithuanian side of the border, we can be sure that Poland would get involved immediately and forcefully. Remember that Poland is about to have the largest military in Europe, and they have the toughest attitude of all to Russian adventuring.

It is easy to imagine a moment where NATO says let’s not respond to a Russian provocation, and Poland says let’s respond without NATO.

Already forces are assembling at this choke point. The Wagner troops are already massing on the Belarus border, readying to hit NATO’s “soft underbelly.”

The Polish Defence Minister is tweeting that Poland has already created a new military engineering battalion to address this border problem. He adds, as Newsweek reports, “This is another military unit built by us from scratch, and I assure you that it will not be the last one,” adding, “We care about the security of the eastern flank!”

Lithuania already closed the border with the Kaliningrad Oblast last year.  To be clear, Kaliningrad is not an independent state. It is Russia. The Lithuanians blocked all outbound shipments of Kaliningrad’s main exports, including components for fertilizer. Ukraine depends on fertilizers that are made possible by Kaliningrad’s fertilizer components. Belarus is effectively a Russian puppet state and is now home to President Putin’s private army. Putin rightly says private armies are not allowed in Russia, but he is happy to have one he uses outside of Russia. Perhaps this is a key reason why the Wagner troops are in Belarus and not in Kaliningrad.

The Russians are livid that Poland recently decided to rename the Kaliningrad Oblast as Królewiec, which was its name in the 16th and 17th centuries when it was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom, which was one of the largest political units in Europe for four centuries. According to the BBC, Russia made it clear that the decision was “bordering on madness” and “a hostile act” Latvia’s official language body just announced that Latvia agrees with Poland. To remind everyone, Poland is building a 210k electronic border with Kaliningrad that should be finished this Autumn.

It is common knowledge that the EU believes that Russia has been loading Belarus with migrants and pushing them across the borders into Poland and Latvia.

This served two purposes. First, to create a refugee problem for these two countries. Second, to gain intelligence about the crossing. Did the streams of migrants include undercover Russian operatives, whether Wagner or Russian military? Who knows. It is clear that there are fears about this. The weaponization of immigrants strategy has happened in other European countries, including Italy and Greece. So, it’s taken seriously.

Notice that Russia has announced that any ship approaching a Ukrainian port “will be regarded as potential carriers of military cargo.” In other words, Russia is escalating the conflict by threatening commercial ships. So, Russia is massing troops on the North side of Ukraine and threatening to sink even commercial vessels that might try to supply the South side of Ukraine. This is a pincer movement.

While these maneuverings are happening on the ground, there are other maneuverings just to the North in the Baltic Sea. NATO is trying to lock Russian subs and naval vessels out of that space. Russia is trying to stop this from happening. The naval fight over the Baltic is an important element of the pincer movement on Ukraine. Russia no doubt believe they can at least distract or disrupt NATO enough to prevent a NATO response should they cross into the Suwalki Gap.

President Putin has also just raised the age of Russians in military service by five years. This means more troops at a time when the ground war in Ukraine risks expanding into neighboring states. All this explains why the Poles and the Baltic states take such a hard-line view of Russia and the Suwalki Gap. It may only be 40 miles, but, if Russia can establish a land bridge there, the map of Europe will look very different. Wagner troops are now only five miles away from the Gap.

It is possible that one big truck accident on that highway would allow Wagner and Russia could take control of this Gap before anybody clocked that something was in play. Suwalki will either remain a place nobody ever heard of or become the place where the war in Ukraine metastasized into a broader European, NATO against Russia conflict.

Politico called The Suwalki Gap “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth” a year ago for good reason. Hamish Bretton-Gordon, writing in The Telegraph, argues that Prigozhin, the Head of Wagner, is, strangely, still alive after his attempted coup. Perhaps he needs a Wagner win to curry favor again with his boss, Putin. Might Wagner make some reckless leaps in order to repair the damage from an internal and fraternal fight? Yes has to be the answer. Do we underestimate Prigozhin and Wagner? The Brits say yes.

I have long argued that the West has underestimated President Putin’s determination to ensure that we understand that this war is not only occurring in Ukraine. It is also occurring in space. It is occurring over subsea internet cables which are regularly being cut, starting in January 2020 in Svalbard. It is occurring around physical energy infrastructure (Nordstream II). The open question is whether it is spilling into NATO locations, even into the US itself. There is much discussion, but suppressed discussion, about the many strange events in the US.

Most recently, President Obama’s personal chef was found dead, having been paddleboarding. The progression of the story was odd. He couldn’t swim. But then a video of him swimming strongly was released. He apparently had a life vest but drowned anyway and was found 100 feet down despite having a floatation device. The Obama’s were not home. Then the Obama’s were at home. The paddleboard is said to be the one the former President usually uses.

Let’s remember that “The Chef” in Russia, Prigozhin, had open support from Putin’s main opponent, Michael Khodorkovsky. No doubt Putin believes Khodorkovsky has support from the US. Is it such a leap to imagine that Putin might want to retaliate against the West for their support of his Chef? Is this one Chef for another? Is there a macabre sense of humor at work here?

Meanwhile, three US Marines were found dead at a gas station very close to Camp Lejeune, which is the main Marine base in the US. Initially, press reports said there was nothing suspicious which is itself odd. Then an investigation was announced. It’s pretty hard to imagine how three seemingly active-duty Marines all died at the same time and ended up in a gas station parking lot.

The verdict, as of today, is carbon monoxide poisoning. Their units, Combat Logistics Battalion 2, Combat Logistics Regiment 2, and 2nd Marine Logistics are all involved with NATO operations in The Baltic. The picture of them below was released by the DOD and accompanied by a caption that reads: “Marines assigned to the Combat Logistics Battalion 6, Combat Logistics Regiment 2, 2nd Marine Logistics Group, drive a Finnish G-Class landing craft while operating the Amy, an unmanned surface vehicle on the Baltic Sea, off the coast of Finland, Nov. 25, 2022. Task Force Red Cloud, headquartered by elements of CLB-6, is deployed to Finland in support of Exercises SYD 2022 and Freezing Winds 2022 to enhance U.S. and Finnish interdependence in the maritime domain.” The Russians would see them as their opponents in The Baltic.

It seems coincidentally very interesting that Russia’s top submarine commander, Stanislav Rzhitskiy, a former commander of the Krasnodar submarine of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, was killed point blank by four shots from a Russian handgun on July 10th.  He had been on Ukraine’s blacklist for having ordered the strikes on Ukrainian civilians a year ago. His location had been evident from a live feed coming from his Strava health app. He obviously hadn’t seen that Strava had been banned by Western militaries since 2018 when they realized the troops were giving away the locations of bases.

Are we starting to witness retaliations? Can the U.S. Government admit that there is a risk that Russian military operatives are present in the U.S. and a threat to former U.S. Presidents and active Marines?

No. Even if none of this is true and its all coincidence, that question still stands.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky recently told Newsweek that Putin only has one “red line.” If somebody trips it, he will go nuclear.

What is that red line? Crimea.

What’s happened there since then?

Someone blew up the Kerch Bridge, which is the main link to Crimea. Then someone blew up a big munitions dump in Crimea. So, his red lines have already been crossed. Drones are attacking Crimea as well. There is little doubt that the recent attacks in Crimea at a munitions depot and the hit to the Kerch Bridgeon July 17th will have enraged President Putin and mobilized the Russian Army too.

Crimea remains the one spot that Russia will fight to the bitter end for. The munitions depot was apparently hit by a Storm Shadow cruise missile (British-made) which deepens the likelihood that Putin aims at NATO directly now that NATO members are helping Ukraine with much better and more equipment.

I remain convinced that Putin’s strategy can be described as a “go ahead and hit me” approach. He is hoping that NATO throws a direct punch because that would mobilize any Russian opposition to using nuclear weapons. It’s like a character in a movie who keeps pushing you in the chest, saying, “You got a problem,” and then hits you repeatedly. Eventually, you snap and hit them, providing the excuse for a serious brawl.

The real threat remains that Russia may try to escalate things by deploying a tactical nuclear weapon. The question now is why haven’t they done this yet given Putin’s obvious desire to.  I remain convinced that the Russian military remains opposed and won’t help him execute a launch. Is this still true now that Gerasimov is gone? He remains the most respected person amongst the Russian military establishment. I bet, yes.

But, the enticing prospect of capturing the Sulwalki Gap may convert members of the Russian military.

The threat of a tactical nuke may be precisely what allows Russia to reach into the Gap.

After all, it seems unlikely that the West is prepared to be embroiled in a ground war with Russia in Europe, where nuclear weapons are already primed.

Can Poland and Lithuania handle this on their own?


Will NATO be drawn in? Maybe.

The bottom line is that the war in Ukraine is expanding beyond Ukraine’s borders.

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