Union Is Strength


Rail Baltica in the shadow of an aggressive Russia

Rail Baltica is said to be the biggest project in the Baltic region in the last century. Planning started almost a decade ago. The war in Ukraine has not only damaged the world's economy and food systems and put NATO on the agenda. It has also undermined this regional transport development project.

Juliette Ovigneur (FR) / Kristiana Nitisa (LV) - Translated by Harry Bowden, Voxeurop

Version française / Latviešu versija

The question remains open as to the impact of Rail Baltica on relations between Russia and Latvia
The question remains open as to the impact of Rail Baltica on relations between Russia and Latvia. | Clara Servant

Rail Baltica is a rail transport infrastructure project supported by the European Union's Cohesion Fund. Its aim is to integrate the Baltic countries into the European rail network. It is the largest infrastructure project in the Baltic region in the last 100 years, and one of Europe's most substantial investments to improve mobility and travel options. The project will create a train line from Tallinn to the Lithuanian-Polish border, so as to connect the Baltic countries to the rest of Europe by rail. The new 870-kilometre standard-gauge (1435 millimetres) railway will support a maximum train speed of 240 km/h.

The plan dates back to the 1990s, when the idea of connecting the Baltic states with the rest of Europe gained traction. From its beginning in 2014, Rail Baltica was conceived for both civilian and military purposes, which opened an opportunity for neighbouring Russia to adopt a defensive posture. This is especially the case now that the political situation in Eastern Europe has become more charged with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin's disinformation is also sharpening the project’s military objectives.

The EU Military Mobility Project existed before the war in Ukraine, but many believe that funding for dual-use infrastructure now needs to be accelerated. "Against the backdrop of Russian aggression, it is very clear how important it was to decide on a separate measure for the military mobility project and I hope that all member states will use it as effectively as possible to increase European capabilities," says Henrik Holloway, Director General for Mobility and Transport at the European Commission.

In an interview, Kārlis Eņģelis, director of Latvia's Rail Policy and Infrastructure Department, reveals that "in terms of cost-benefit assessments based on civilian transport, Rail Baltica is essentially a civilian project." But from the very beginning it has had a dual function. Military cargo is one of its uses, and this is of growing relevance.

In Ukraine, for example, rail is a major means of mass transport, so is particularly important in crisis situations. Much attention has been paid to the infrastructure aspect of Rail Baltica and its suitability for military requirements – weight, dimensions, proximity of buildings, additional infrastructure for moving freight on rails. The urgency has increased, but the guidelines for the project were already in place before the war in Ukraine.

The war's implications for the project in Latvia

In the interview, Eņģelis noted that the Latvian government and the project coordinators at EU level hold a shared position – that the importance of the project has increased since 24 February and this is reason to consider all possibilities to accelerate it. But Rail Baltica's completion has become more complicated due to logistical problems.

Firstly, many of the construction materials that were planned to be sourced from Russia and Belarus cannot be obtained due to sanctions, so materials have to be imported from other countries. Next, with the increase in material prices on the global market, the pressure on project costs is increasing.

A third factor is the rise in fuel costs, which makes transport costs for construction more expensive. The deliveries themselves have also become more difficult – in wartime conditions it becomes harder than ever to transport goods from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.

Russia is at war, but its disinformation does not sleep

Russian-language Latvian media, as well as the Russian media, have been criticising Rail Baltica for years. The Sputnik network has followed the project closely, publishing false reports not only in Russian but in many other languages – the construction of the railway is presented as economically unviable and intended only to meet NATO's military needs.

In 2015, the Latvian state-security services found that topics related to Rail Baltica had been leaked to the Latvian media thanks to Russian "troll factories". But Baiba Gulbe, communications manager at the transport ministry, says that there has been no increased attention on the project from Russia recently.

Concerns about a new pretext for war

For Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, especially those old enough to remember Soviet domination, Russia's attitude towards Ukraine is fuelling fears that the Baltic states could be the next target. Rising tensions have brought back memories of deportations and oppression.

Conversely, surveys show that the Rail Baltica project is associated with positive emotions in the Baltics. The most frequently mentioned connotations of are "fast", "modern" and "future". The perception is that the scheme would better integrate the Baltic countries into the European Union.

But there are also those who see the project as a threat. Marija, a resident of Salaspils, is circumspect: "We can expect no favours from Russia. Maybe they are busy with the war and Ukraine, but no one can predict what will happen in a few years when the railway is finished. What if it is used as a pretext for war because Russia does not like Baltic development? I think that would be a good enough reason for Putin's anger. If not now, then perhaps in the future."

According to the latest data, only 0.5-2% of the Latvian population is ready and able to take action in a military defence crisis. In July, the defence ministry proposed to gradually introduce mandatory national service from 2023. The plan is to train around 50,000 people who would be ready to act in the event of an invasion. Defence Minister Artis Pabriks says that "there is no reason to think that Russia will want to give up these imperial ambitions in the next five years".

The transport ministry refused to comment on the possible future reaction from Russia, saying only that "from the railway side, we did not specify the impact on international relations. On economic cooperation, it is difficult to comment, as the situation is currently fluid and unclear". Rail Baltica representatives similarly declined to speculate. The question remains open as to the impact of Rail Baltica on relations between Russia and Latvia.

European unionThis article was produced as part of the Union Is Strength competition, organised by Slate.fr with the financial support of the European Union. The article reflects the views of the author and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for its content or use.