RUKLA, Lithuania — A 60-mile long sliver of flat land just inside NATO member Poland gives the U.S Army’s commander in Europe sleepless nights.
It’s called the “Suwalki Gap” and should Vladimir Putin decide to invade, it would be perfect for advancing Russian tanks. Sandwiched between Moscow-ally Belarus to the east and Russia’s far western enclave of Kaliningrad, it's also why the military alliance is training harder — and faster.
If the Russian president gave the order to sweep across Suwalki, his forces would initially split the Baltics from the rest of NATO before the West could do anything to stop it.
While ISIS in Iraq and Syria may preoccupy his peers, Lt. Gen Ben Hodges worries about the growing number of "snap" Russian war games on NATO’s border — live-fire exercises with units at fighting levels, unannounced and unmonitored by Western observers. Several have been held right next to the tiny Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — NATO’S soft underbelly.
Gesturing from his Black Hawk helicopter while flying over the potential flashpoint, Hodges explained the nightmare scenario. "You get thousands of Russian troops in exercises on both ends of the Suwalki Gap, and now everybody’s in the field," he said. "They have equipment — so there’s a potential for them to transition from an exercise to an operation — that’s our concern."
Since he took command in 2014, Hodges has counted dozens of violations of NATO airspace by Russian fighter jets and bombers, often flying with their transponders off, making them difficult to track.
Earlier this month, NATO amassed more than 30,000 troops and hundreds of aircraft and warships in the largest display of Western military strength and speed since 9/11. The exercise included a 5,000-strong rapid-reaction force.
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It also offered a message to the three Russian observers — invited by NATO to witness the exercise — to take back to the Kremlin.
"We can mobilize brigades and divisions within days. So this should be quite clear to any potential adversary that NATO is the strongest military alliance that exists today," said Lt. Gen. John Nicholson, NATO’s allied land commander and one of its key strategists. "That ability to respond, we think, will actually prevent conflict … we think it will give them pause before they choose to do anything rash or [make] a mistake or miscalculation."
Still, if deterrence doesn’t stop Putin, NATO commanders agree that any counterattack to take back the Baltics would be extremely bloody. Russian military vehicles have already moved scores of Iskander missiles into Kaliningrad — each nuclear-capable and with a range of 250 miles.
"We are committed to the sovereignty of Lithuania, the sovereignty of Poland and all the other countries, so we will do whatever it takes to reestablish that," Hodges said. "[But] it’s not inevitable that it goes to a Third World War. Nobody wants that, including the Russians."
Meanwhile, Polish soldiers man watchtowers around-the-clock along the Suwalki Gap, looking for suspicious Russian border activity. It's an echo back to the Cold War days when some 300,000 U.S. troops waited for a Soviet tank invasion across the Fulda Gap in central Germany.
Today, Hodges has about one-tenth the number of U.S. soldiers to carry out the same mission: deterring a Russian attack on a NATO state.
But there are many voices — even in Russia — who say that an invasion of the Baltics by Putin is the stuff of fantasy.
It’s true, they admit, that Kaliningrad is highly weaponized, but only in reaction to NATO’s encroachment of Russia’s western border.
"I’m very, very surprised that people are talking in the West from a position of weakness, because the West [NATO] is dozens of times more powerful than Russia," said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "It just defies normal logic to think in terms of a country being overwhelmed by the Russians."
Hodges agreed that a Russian invasion of a NATO country appears unlikely. "It would make no sense to us," he said. "But I was surprised when [Putin] went into Crimea [which was later annexed by Moscow]. That didn’t make sense to me. I was surprised when he went into Syria."
And while Putin recently joined the U.S. in the fight against ISIS, few see any signs of a long-term improvement in relations.
“After this particular issue is solved, everybody will just revert to the previous confrontational phase," said Fyodor Lukyanov, a political analyst and editor of "Russia in Global Affairs."
He added: "This is how the modern world works — enmity is not all-encompassing and can be suspended when it benefits the players."
“It’s surreal, 35 years later," the Florida native added. "But the Russians have been the Russians, when they were under Peter the Great, Stalin, or now under Putin. They respect strength. It’s in their DNA."
Jim Maceda is a former NBC News foreign correspondent and author of "Scythes & Rounds" and "Kamila & Yossi," published by Cyberpress at www.stageplays.com.
Jim Maceda is a former NBC News foreign correspondent and author and "Scythes & Rounds" and "Kamila and Yossi," published by Cyberpress at www.stageplays.com.
In a career spanning 40 years, Maceda covered more than 100 countries and many conflicts, terrorist attacks and natural disasters, as well as cultural and human interest stories. He has interviewed dozens of world leaders. Maceda has reported from the front lines of Rhodesia, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, and Chechnya, as well as on the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, including NATO airstrikes in Serbia and Kosovo. He is the veteran of scores of embeds in Afghanistan and Iraq, doing stories on the U.S. Army, Marines and Special Forces as well as insurgents and civilians torn apart by war.
Maceda was named NBC News' Germany correspondent in 1994, based in Frankfurt, from where he covered Eastern Europe, the Bosnian civil war and peacekeeping missions in the former Yugoslavia and Haiti. In addition, he covered major breaking news in Iran, Russia, China and the Middle East.
In 1990, Maceda became the NBC News Moscow correspondent, covering an array of stories from the Soviet Union and Russia, including the attempted coup on then-President Mikhail G. Gorbachev and the fall of the Soviet Union. In February 1992, Maceda became the first foreign TV correspondent to gain access to a secret nuclear city in Siberia, named K-26, which housed the biggest plutonium weapons factory in the former Soviet Union. Maceda also covered the civil war and the failed U.S. peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
Maceda was based in Manila from 1988 to 1990 as an NBC News Asia reporter and producer. He covered a wide range of datelines, including the Cambodian War, the Burma Revolt, the Drug War in Colombia and the Panama Invasion. In 1989 he won an Emmy for his reporting on the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing.
From 1984 to 1988, Maceda was a senior news producer in London. During that time, he was part of the first U.S. television team to cover the devastating famine in Ethiopia. In 1988, he won an Emmy for his coverage of the Palestinian Intifada, or Uprising, the same year he made his switch to on-air reporting. He also served as the acting bureau chief for NBC News in Manila in 1986, during the People Power Revolt and fall of Ferdinand Marcos.
Maceda was the deputy bureau chief and producer for NBC News in Tel Aviv from 1981 to 1983 where he covered major events including Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights, its handing over of the Sinai to Egypt and the 1982 Lebanon War. While in Beirut, he produced the heralded 17-part "Lebanon Diary" series.
Maceda got his start in journalism as an associate producer for CBS News in Paris, from 1973 to 1976. As a freelance reporter and producer for French TV from 1976 to 1980, he was the first to secure a joint interview for a European TV network with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat after the Camp David Accords. In 1980 he joined NBC News' Paris Bureau as an associate producer and researcher.
Maceda has won numerous awards and citations, including an Edward R. Murrow award for his coverage of the 7/7 London terror bombings, seven Emmy nominations, four Overseas Press Club awards, and three National Headliner awards. In 1991, he received the Olive Branch Award from Columbia University for his stories on Russian nuclear proliferation. Maceda has had the distinction of reporting exclusively for two, long-running news series on "Nightly News with Brian Williams": "Putin’s Russia" (2007-2008) and "Far From Home" (in Afghanistan, 2010-12).
Maceda graduated from Stanford University in 1970 with a Bachelor of Arts in English. He then pursued post-graduate studies at the Paris Sorbonne. He is married to Cindy Lilles, has a grown daughter from a previous marriage, and is the doting grandpa of three young girls.