Poland, Lithuania leaders meet troops at NATO bottleneck

SZYPLISZKI, Poland (AP) — The presidents of NATO members Poland and Lithuania voiced confidence Thursday that allied troops can fully safeguard a strategically vital corridor, which links their countries, between Russian ally Belarus and a Russian Baltic Sea exclave.

Concern over NATO’s ability to defend the Suwalki Gap, a 70-kilometer (43-mile) corridor between Poland and Lithuania, has rocketed since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. The bottleneck separates Belarus from the Kaliningrad exclave, where Russia’s Baltic Fleet — and nuclear-capable missiles — are based.

Presidents Andrzej Duda of Poland and Gitanas Nauseda of Lithuania visited the sparsely populated area Thursday and met with NATO troops on the Polish and the Lithuanian side.

“This is a very sensitive area and the eyes of an aggressor could potentially be directed here,” Nauseda said in Szypliszki, on the Polish side.

The corridor links Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia — all former Soviet republics bordering Russia — to Poland and other NATO members.

“We have decided to come to this place … to show that it is safe … just because of what you can see here today: the daily, calm but full of vigilance service of the Polish, Lithuanian and other NATO troops,” Poland’s Duda said.

At the urging of Poland and the Baltic states, NATO leaders decided at a summit last week in Madrid that the number of allied troops in Eastern Europe will be significantly increased.

At the Suwalki Gap, battalions numbering hundreds of troops will be boosted to brigades with thousands of troops.

Nauseda said the two countries are increasing their spending on defense to about 2.5% of their gross domestic product.

The presidents were accompanied on their visit by their defense ministers. The mobile command unit of the U.S.-led Multinational Division North East is currently going through field exercises in the Szypliszki area.

From there, the two presidents traveled to Mariampoli, Lithuania, to meet a German-led logistical battalion and took a close look at the weapons and vehicles there.

“This land is protected by the most powerful defense alliance in the world and — what we both want to stress — this land is safe,” Duda said in Mariampoli.

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Monika Scislowska reported from Warsaw.

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