Russia’s aggression against its neighbors is often called “hybrid” war because it makes use of techniques that give the Kremlin deniability in the eyes of some while allowing Russia to advance its power into the territories of other states. If one accepts that definition, even if not the term itself, then Moscow is now waging a hybrid “rail war” against Latvia, using a quirk of history to project its own power while undermining that of Riga’s. But unless the Euro-Atlantic community recognizes and counteracts this threat, Russia may end up acquiring dangerous leverage over Latvia—a member of both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as well as the European Union.
After the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) disintegrated and the Baltic States recovered their independence, there was only one Soviet-legacy institution that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania remained full members of—a council of heads of national railways that has continued to meet and make plans so that their railroads can continue to work together. Like the interstate body that supervises the sharing of water among the countries of Central Asia, this railroad body deals with something that is difficult if not impossible to divide but that is often enmeshed in controversy because the interests of the member countries often do not coincide.
Just such a “controversy” has now arisen between Moscow and Riga. Nominally, their bilateral disagreement has been over the repair of Russian rail lines leading into Latvia. But in reality, the Russian government is invoking this excuse to justify blocking the east–west flow of cargo through Latvian ports in retaliation for Riga’s support of Western sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. On the surface, this may seem like a small act of economic leverage on Moscow’s part. However, an earlier case involving a Russian oil pipeline into Lithuania that Moscow blocked for years, purportedly due to “technical reasons,” shows that such actions can have long-term consequences as serious in political terms as a military invasion (see EDM, August 3, 2006; August 18, 2006; June 6, 2007). And this is especially true since Latvia’s allies are not likely to respond to this “economic” act as they would to a “military” one.
According to a Moscow commentary by Sergey Orlov entitled, “ ‘Rail War’ in the Latvian Direction,” Moscow’s decision to repair its railways feeding into Latvia and thus restrict or even shut down the flow of cargo into this Baltic country “has generated shock in Riga.” When Moscow first indicated its disruptive maintenance plans, Orlov says, the Latvian transportation minister requested a meeting with his Russian counterpart. But the latter turned the Latvian official’s request down, saying that he did not have time on his schedule to meet (Svpressa.ru, September 25).
The reason for Riga’s concern is obvious, Orlov continues. Latvian experts say that if the repair of the Russian line takes place in a way uncoordinated with Riga, approximately 50,000 Latvians will lose their jobs, and Latvia’s GDP will fall by 1.6 billion euros ($2 billion). That is because 77 percent of all cargo coming into Latvia did so via rail, almost all of it from Russia rather than from Estonia, Lithuania or Belarus. The head of the Riga seaport suggested that even the temporary closure of the Russian line could lead to the shutdown of coal transit through Latvia’s largest ports. The loss of each ton of transit would cost Riga ten euros ($13).
Latvia’s foreign ministry has played down the threat, suggesting that apocalyptic predictions about the impact of “repair” work of the Russian lines on the Latvian economy are unwarranted. Indeed, Foreign Minister Edgar Rinkēvičs says that he views such commentaries as “part of the information propaganda” Russia has been directing against Latvia for some time. They are certainly that, but they also reflect some serious problems for Latvia—problems that Moscow is clearly interested in exacerbating (Svpressa.ru, September 25).
Two issues are especially worrisome to the Latvian authorities. On the one hand, there is evidence that Russia has gained influence over Latvian railways by giving bribes to some of its officials. Such evidence has led Latvian outlets to speak about “a fifth column” and “agents of influence” in that Latvian government structure. And these charges have led to the arrest of the head of Latvian Railways (Lsm.lv, August 13).
On the other hand, many Latvian analysts are worried that Russia’s “repair” of its rail lines leading to Latvia will not end anytime soon but rather result in the redirection of traffic away from Latvia’s ports to new Baltic ports in the Russian Federation at Ust Luga and St. Petersburg. Were that to happen, the Latvian economy would have to fundamentally change in order to survive.
Those analysts point to something similar that happened to Lithuania in July 2006. In particular, Moscow announced that it was conducting “repairs” on the branch line of the Friendship oil pipeline going into Lithuania. That ended the supply of oil to Mazeikiai refinery plant, almost leading to its complete closure. Vilnius compensated by importing Russian oil via tankers, but that was “much more expensive,” analysts say. “And the branch” that was supposed to be repaired “remains empty to this day” (Svpressa.ru, September 25).
Thus, the “repair” of Russian railways heading into Latvia could become a serious challenge for Riga, the EU and the West—which is exactly what Moscow intends by its hybrid rail war.