October 19, 2016
By Olevs Nikers
Earlier this month (October 2016), the governments of the Baltic States and Poland finally reached all the necessary political, financial and technical agreements to implement one of the most ambitious projects inside the European Union—linking Finland, the Baltic States and Poland with the unified Trans-European Transport Network (NRA, October 10). The agreed-upon project, which will also have important logistical implications for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), envisions a continuous rail link from Tallinn (Estonia) to Warsaw (Poland), via Riga (Latvia) and Kaunas (Lithuania). The construction of this railway—known as “Rail Baltica”—is planned to start by 2020 and should be completed by 2030. The section from Helsinki to Tallinn will for now be operated by existing commercial ferries.
Altogether, the European Commission has allocated 442.2 million euros ($485 million) for the construction of Rail Baltica until 2020, or 81.83 percent of the project’s co-financing. The railway line will be built according to the 1,435-millimeter European standard gauge (LETA, April 30). This past summer, Michael Cramer, the chairman of the European Parliament’s Transport and Tourism Committee, emphasized the importance of this railway connection: “In 2003, I traveled by train from Berlin to Tallinn. This trip lasted 60 hours, and I had to transfer nine times. Before World War II, the same route could be accomplished within 27 hours. Thus, the Rail Baltica project is very important both ecologically, because trains are more environmentally friendly, and, of course, it is necessary to connect the Baltic States with the rest of Europe” (Lsm, August 28).
Last September, Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian and Polish parliamentarians announced, that Rail Baltica would be the most important project for the Baltic States in the 21st century. This railway will be of crucial to the Baltics’ national security, regional economic growth, as well as the promotion of solidarity and good neighborly relations among these states. The Rail Baltica project had long been stalled by disagreements over how to share the value added tax (VAT) related to the project’s construction. In July, the Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian ministers signed a preliminary agreement on the allocation of VAT (BNN, September 19). But the final agreement was not reached until early October.
As European Commission representative Catherine Trautmane has admitted, there are certain risks related to this project: “One of the risks is the compatibility of standards and technology. Although this problem is slowly being solved. There are also associated environmental risks because the route Warsaw–Tallinn [passes through] some protected areas.” Another risk is related to the unresolved administrative barriers among the three Baltic countries, she said (LETA, April 30).
Such obstacles aside, experts and politicians have mainly stressed the Rail Baltica project’s economic benefits for the countries involved. But there are also important security implications of this proposed railway. In 2011, the British research company AECOM Ltd. published one of the earliest feasibility studies of Rail Baltica project that stressed its impact on military logistics in the region. AECOM’s report indicates that the construction of the new European standard rail line would, if necessary, allow for the direct delivery of military equipment from Central Europe to the Baltic States (Sam.gov.lv, May 31, 2011). Since then, many other politicians, government officials and experts have advocated for the Rail Baltica project specifically on “military” grounds.
Dr. Māris Andžāns, of the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, who recently has studied the impact of Rail Baltica on regional security, stresses that the new railway connection will have crucial importance for strengthening military logistics and the operational capabilities of all three Baltic States. The railway will bring more efficient transportation options for military goods than any of the transit routes currently available by sea, air or road (Māris Andžāns, Latvian Institute of International Affairs, 2016).
The military importance of railways was clearly demonstrated during the 2008 Russian-Georgian War, as well as during the ongoing armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine. A typical train can move up to 120 armored units—tanks, armored vehicles or other machines—in a single trip. It is possible to move even more equipment at a time by sea; but compared to rail, the time required for this transport is longer. While most NATO member states have railroads that use the standard 1,435 mm gauge, the Baltics still rely on the wider, Russian- and Soviet-built 1,520 mm rail lines. But even these are extremely limited in their density. When built, the new Rail Baltica line would thus allow the North Atlantic Alliance to move large volumes of military cargo from Germany and Poland to the Baltic States without interruption—saving time and limiting the numbers of personnel and transport equipment involved in the logistics. This railway, therefore, has the potential to become crucial to the Baltic States’ defense.
Since the European standard gauge ends at the Polish-Lithuanian border, the United States Army Europe has had to rely on much more difficult logistics routes to reach the Baltic States. One option is to ship equipment across the Baltic Sea to the ports of Klaipeda, Ventspils, Liepaja, Riga or Tallinn; another option is to fly equipment in via Riga Airport (TVNET, June 13). The first attempt to deliver US heavy armored equipment to the Baltics was practiced during the military exercise Baltops 2010, when several vehicles, including an Abrams main battle tanks, were transported from the Western port of Ventspils to Garkalne railway station (the site near the largest shooting range and military base of Ādaži) in central Latvia and back (Māris Andžāns, Latvian Institute of International Affairs, 2016).
Of course the act of moving heavy equipment off of a boat and onto a train adds additional time and complexity to a logistical operation—a fact that may be particularly perilous in war time. A rail connection between the Baltic States and the rest of Europe, however, promises to dramatically improve this vulnerable transportation chain, which is undoubtedly good news to both Baltic and NATO defense planners.