The proposed E40 Waterway would connect the Baltic and Black seas, from the Port of Gdańsk, in Poland, to the Port of Kherson, in Ukraine, running through Belarus. This riverine route offers numerous potential benefits to its participating countries, such as providing greater integration, diversifying trade routes, and developing local regions. For Belarus, the completion of the waterway means closer integration with EU-NATO member Poland and Western-leaning Ukraine, and economic benefits such as access to transport corridors leading to increased trade with Turkey, Central Asia, the South Caucasus and further afield, alongside the strategic benefit of direct access to the Baltic and Black seas.
At the same time, however, the development of the E40 presents a number of drawbacks, including fierce environmental opposition, questions of economic viability, expensive bottlenecks and funding concerns. The options for financing the more than $14.5 billion project are varied, with potential investors including the European Union, the Three Seas Initiative and states such as China. Yet funding looks to be dependent on the E40’s economic benefits offsetting the potential environmental damage. This waterway has so far attracted varying degrees of support from the governments of Ukraine, Poland and Belarus.
Until recently, the E40 Waterway proposal highlighted Minsk’s evolving geopolitical outlook, underscoring the Belarusian state’s willingness to deepen cooperation with Ukraine and Poland. The current political crisis and social unrest in Belarus following the August presidential election, however, has seen relations between the partners cool considerably. That said, Belarus’s long-term outlook may still see the country seeking closer integration with both Poland and Ukraine eventually. To date, construction of the E40 Waterway has faced significant setbacks. Nonetheless, Ukraine has already begun dredging part of the route, Belarus had approached investors for the construction of a deep-water port, and Poland is investing heavily to enhance its position as a key transit hub, demonstrating that the project is by no means dead in the water.
The E40 Waterway is a proposed 2,000-kilometer inland shipping route linking the Black Sea with the Baltic. The waterway would flow from Gdańsk, Poland, to Kherson, Ukraine, running through Belarus and along five rivers: the Vistula, the Bug, the Pina, the Pripyat and the Dnieper. The proposed route would also pass alongside major cities in the region, including Brest (Belarus), Warsaw (Poland), and Kyiv (Ukraine). To an extent, the course is already navigable, but use of the route as a complete waterway is hindered by the section between Warsaw and Brest, along the Bug, that requires the construction of a new canal. Development of the E40 also involves deepening existing waterways and building locks, dams and weirs to ensure consistent water levels.
The route is of particular significance to landlocked Belarus, giving the country more direct access to both the Baltic and Black seas, along with potential links to other Western inland waterways via Poland such as the E70, which, when completed, will allow for passage all the way to Berlin and Rotterdam. The E40 could also result in numerous geopolitical transformations and benefits for Central and Eastern Europe, further raising Poland’s role as a regional leader, reducing Belarus’s economic dependencies on Russia, and offering Belarus and Ukraine closer ties to the European Union through trade and infrastructure. The localized benefits could be numerous as well, with large investment in the communities through which the waterway would pass.
One of the EU’s current priorities is the restoration and development of sustainable transport, including inland waterways. The European Commission’s 2018 white paper, “Roadmap to a Single European Transport Area—Towards a Competitive and Resource Efficient Transport System,” considered transport by inland waterways as key to the sustainability of the European transport system. The EU aims to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 60 percent by 2050; moreover, it wants to shift at least 30 percent of all roadway transit over 300 km to rail and water by 2030, and to raise this proportion to 50 percent by 2050. Other ongoing development plans in the region, such as the Three Seas Initiative and Chinese infrastructure investment through the Belt and Road Initiative, could feasibly help realize the project.
A number of serious concerns persist, however, including the environmental cost of the project as well as questions of funding, economic viability and the waterway’s advantages over railroad investment. The funding options available, such as through the EU, largely depend on the proposed waterway’s ability to offset the environmental concerns. Meanwhile, the contentious August presidential election in Belarus, followed by heavy-handed government repressions, Minsk’s restored reliance on Moscow, a possible economic downturn and forthcoming EU sanctions, have raised additional considerable challenges to the construction of the waterway, at least in the short term.
Despite those apprehensions, Belarus and Ukraine are at the early stages of implementing the E40 Waterway. Belarus intends to build a new deep-water port in the Nizhniye Zhary village to handle extra cargo and has been in talks with Turkish private investors. Ukraine also announced an investment of 80 million hryvnia ($3.15 million) to begin dredging the Dnieper River. In October 2019, during a visit to Ukraine, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka stressed the benefits of the waterway, saying “Ukraine’s and Belarus’s transit appeal can be enhanced by navigation along the Dnieper River, along the Pripyat River, and its integration into the international [waterway] E40.” In April 2020, Ukraine reported that during the first three months of 2020, the volume of dredging works carried out was more than four times that for the same period in 2019, including dredging on the Kherson sea channels, a key part of the E40 route that feeds into the Black Sea. Poland is currently conducting a second feasibility study on the E40, due for release in late 2020.
History of Waterways in the E40 Region
Goods and people have traveled along inland waterways since time immemorial, and most of the world’s major cities are still in proximity to rivers and coastal areas. The designers of the E40 have emphasized their intention to restore a previously existing waterway and reinstate this pathway for modern usage, drawing on its historic legacy. Notably, the famous medieval trade path “from the Varangians to the Greeks” ran through the same region, from the markets of Scandinavia and the southern Baltic shores all the way to the Dnieper. The proposed E40 waterway would resurrect a part of this passage that the Viking longships navigated on their way to Constantinople to connect with the trans-Eurasian Silk Road.
The different segments of the E40 Waterway each have their own long history of trade. During the Early Middle Ages, the Vistula River in Poland was used to transport mainly salt upstream from Gdańsk and downstream from mines in Bochnia and Wieliczka. Copper was also carried down the Vistula from mines in present-day Slovakia. Salt and amber were some of Poland’s main natural resources, and the Gdańsk Bay area was considered the center of the European amber trade and craft industry.
The canals along the route also have a long history, such as the Dnieper-Bug Canal, which was first constructed in 1775 to grant access to Baltic ports. Originally named the Royal Canal, it was built by the last king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Stanisław August Poniatowski. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Royal Canal was of strategic importance for the Russian Empire, as it was the only navigable water route connecting the Black and Baltic seas. Following Russia’s repudiation of the Treaty of Paris in 1870, which had called for the demilitarization of the Black Sea following the Crimean War, five destroyers that were part of the Black Sea Fleet were transferred from the Baltic Sea to Sevastopol via the canal in 1886 and 1890.
The Dnieper River connected with the Baltic Sea by the old Royal, Berezina and Oginsky canals, through part of the E40 route, but they were almost completely destroyed during the Second World War. The Soviets had plans to build an integrated, deep-water, inland navigation system, similar to the E40 proposals, by connecting the Western Dvina, Dnieper, Don, Volga and Kama, en route to the Black and Caspian Seas. The Pripyat and Niemen would also then have allowed for a connection to the Baltic Sea, and the Dnieper, with the Niemen and Pripyat, would serve as a route down to the Black Sea. However, the Soviets never fully integrated the water system as they became more interested in connecting the Baltic with the White Sea, the Volga with the Baltic Sea, and the Volga with the Don as strategic linchpins for defense.
At the end of the 20th century, the European Agreement on the Main Inland Waterways of International Importance (AGN) was accepted by the United Nations Economic Commission, in Geneva. It established a network of European waterways within the framework of the broader European transport network (TNT-T). This led to the selection of waterways of European importance, one of which was the E40 (Gdańsk–Warsaw–Brest–Pinsk–Kyiv–Kherson) route.
Current Waterway Use in Europe
The share of inland waterway shipping in cargo carriages in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine is significantly lower than the EU average. The mean EU-wide use of such inland navigation makes up 6.7 percent of freight transport, compared with 75 percent road and 17 percent rail. In Belarus inland water navigation makes up 0.96 percent of cargo transported, at four million tons of freight, compared with 40.85 percent road and 29.71 percent rail. In Ukraine the amount of cargo transported by inland waterways is 0.23 percent (68 percent road, 24 percent rail), and in Poland 0.38 percent (75 percent road, 12 percent rail).
In the EU, the share of containers transported on inland waterways increased every year from 2009 to 2017, with more than 10 percent growth in 2014 and reaching 11.3 percent growth in 2017. However, when analyzing freight transport, the 2018 figures reveal a decrease of –8.3 percent from 2017. This was predominantly due to low water levels on the Rhine, one of Europe’s core shipping routes, which made parts of the Rhine-Danube corridor unnavigable. In 2019, Europe saw a sharp contraction in the manufacturing sector due to trade tensions and this led to a further decline in transportation of goods on inland waterways. Container transport on the Rhine fell 4.0 percent in 2019 compared with 2018. In Europe, the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium are by far the main contributors to inland waterway transport. These countries are hosts for large transit ports (Rotterdam and Antwerp) or a major source or destination for container movements (Germany).
The main types of goods transported on waterways in the EU in 2018 included metal ores, coke and refined petroleum products, chemicals, nuclear and agricultural products. The main cargo currently transported by ships on rivers in Belarus are sand, gravel, building stone, wood, potash, granulated slag, and heavy and oversized cargo. Freight on inland waterways in Ukraine includes construction materials, iron ore, grain, coal, coke and fertilizers. In Poland, the majority of goods transported by inland waterways are metal ores and other mining and quarrying products, as well as coal. The E40 is predicted to transport primarily coal, ore minerals, construction materials, chemicals, and fertilizers and agricultural goods.
Goods transported by inland waterways are closely connected with the transshipment (the movement of cargo from one vessel to another) of goods at seaports, as rivers and canals can act as a continuation of sea routes. Currently, the transshipment of goods at Western European ports occurs at a much larger volume than at the seaports linked to the E40 in Poland and Ukraine. In 2017, the largest port in Europe, Rotterdam, handled 467 million tons of cargo—11.5 times higher than the Port of Gdańsk, in Poland (40.6 million tons). The Ukrainian Kherson Sea Port handled only 3.3 million tons in 2017. However, a total of 133 million tons of cargo were transshipped through the seaports of Ukraine combined, which is comparable to the performance of individual Western European ports.
Poland and Ukraine are seeing considerable port growth and development. In October 2019, the Port of Gdańsk outlined huge expansion plans designed to double its cargo volumes to 100 million tons a year. This included investment opportunities in a new €2.8 billion ($3.2 billion) Central Port, cited as “the biggest maritime investment project in Europe.” The Port of Gdańsk grew by 20 percent in 2018 and 9 percent in 2019. Furthermore, in 2019, the Kherson Port in Ukraine handled 18 percent more cargo than in 2018, and there is good reason to expect further growth due to the inclusion of Ukraine in the routes of the Chinese Silk Road and the Transport Corridor Europe–Caucasus–Asia (TRACECA). The first cargo utilizing this route was delivered in 2019.
Overview of Work and Costs of the E40 Waterway
The overall cost of the waterway is estimated at €12,720 billion ($14.5 billion) in the initial feasibility study. This includes the cost of environmental compensatory measures, estimated at between €420 million and €600 million ($480 million–$680 million). The Belarusian total is predicted to cost between €96 million and €171 million ($110 million–$195 million), and this includes work such as the reconstruction of existing hydrotechnical structures on the Dnieper-Bug Canal, engineering work to increase the dimensions of the navigation channel, the creation of a navigable section of the waterway on the Polish-Belarusian border, and construction of the Zhirovskoe reservoir.
Polish costs are estimated at €11,915.19 million ($13.5 billion), the bulk of the overall estimate. The price tag of the Polish section is so high due to an unnavigable section along the Bug Canal, which requires the construction of a second canal alongside the Bug to connect the Vistula and Mukhavets rivers. The costs also include the restoration of the Vistula waterway and resuming the navigability of the Lower and Middle Vistula.
Estimated Ukrainian costs are the lowest out of the three countries, at €31 million ($35 million), and involve capital investment for the reconstruction of the Dnieper navigation locks along with further maintenance costs. These expenditures are by no means inclusive of all aspects of the waterway and are based on initial estimates.
Impact of the Waterway on Belarus
Benefits of the E40 Waterway include the possibility of transporting six million tons of cargo per year along the route, ensuring significant trade flows among Belarus, Poland and Ukraine as well as between the EU, Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries and further afield. The E40 would boost regional trade through the Black Sea with Turkey, the South Caucasus and Central Asia, enhancing the region’s position as the “trade gates” to Europe. In Ukraine, the multi-modal TRACECA route links Europe through the Caucasus and the Black Sea with Central Asian countries. With the exception of Russia, some of the biggest importers of Belarusian goods are the Netherlands, Ukraine, Poland, and Germany. The additional construction of the E70 Waterway in Poland, which would connect riverine routes from Rotterdam with Kaliningrad, would create further benefits for the E40 as it would become a substantial artery connecting the Black Sea to Western Europe. Belarus’s trade relations with the Netherlands and Germany would also benefit from having this connected inland waterway system in place. Neighboring Russia is unlikely to see the construction of the E40 as a genuine threat to trade relations as the initial economic benefits for Belarus will be small in comparison with Russian trade.
Waterways are one of the most environmentally friendly forms of transport, with associated CO2 emissions five times lower than from road freight transport. One barge can replace up to 40 trucks carrying containers, dramatically relieving road congestion. Inland shipping may be a slower form of transport, at 230 hours from Gdańsk to Kherson as opposed to 66 hours by rail and 31 hours by road, but it is significantly cheaper. A proposed rate for the transportation of forty 40-foot containers by water from Gdańsk to Kherson would amount to €56,000 ($63,000), while transport by rail along the same distance would cost more than €82,000 ($93,000), and €78,000 ($89,000) by road.
Forecast studies conducted by the Maritime Institute in Gdańsk indicate that the cargo types with the greatest growth potential for shifting to inland waterways are bulk cargo, namely coal, sand and gravel, but also building materials, energy resources, municipal waste, and heavy and oversized cargo. The majority of these materials are already transported in small amounts on waterways in Belarus.
The E40 Waterway could lead to investment in the regions through which it flows, potentially leading to rising living standards and the creation of new jobs, particularly at the construction stage. New jobs would also be created on the water border crossings in administration and customs. Belarus Digest reported that several major firms in southern Belarus could take advantage of the waterway to transport large volumes of cargo, such as the Mikashevichy-based firm Hranit, which has been using the Pripyat to transport its granite for many years. The Mazyr oil refinery or the Salihorsk-based potash company Belaruskali could also transport their products using river routes.
Brest, in southwestern Belarus, is an example of one of the primary regions that could benefit from the E40. Companies of the Brest region maintain trade and economic cooperation with more than 100 countries worldwide: trade partners include Russia, Poland, Germany, China, Ukraine, Norway, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Italy and Lithuania. Businesses in the Brest region currently account for around 5 percent of foreign trade turnover with Poland. The Brest Free Economic Zone (FEZ Brest), which borders Poland along 10 km of the Bug River, was founded in 1996. FEZ Brest is currently home to 71 resident companies from about 20 countries. Since the establishment of the zone, the total volume of investment has exceeded $1.6 billion, with $107 million invested in 2019. Brest is also located on the E30 Berlin–Warsaw–Brest–Minsk–Moscow highway route, a key transit corridor. The railway junction in Brest is one of the largest in Central and Eastern Europe, handling cargo in transit between the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries and the countries of Western Europe. The E40 could further enhance Brest’s regional role in trade.
One of the biggest drawbacks to this waterway’s realization is the environmental impact from its construction. Despite waterways being one of the more environmentally friendly modes of transport, the actual construction of the waterway could have a serious impact on the surrounding environment, and environmental opposition has been some of the most vocal. Several civic associations have already been established to protest against the E40 for environmental reasons, such as BirdLife, BUEE and Bahna in Belarus, NECU and USPB in Ukraine, and OTOP in Poland. The repercussions of a waterway’s artificial alteration are only partly predictable, and in all three partner countries this is causing serious concern.
In Belarus, the E40 would run through the Western Polesie and Polesie Prypeckie, also known as “Europe’s Amazon.” About 70 species living in Polesie Prypeckie are listed in the Red Book of the Republic of Belarus, a list of plant and animal species threatened with extinction, or are protected in accordance with international obligations. The system of protected areas in Polesie Prypeckie includes Pripyat National Park, 10 national nature reserves and 13 nature reserves of local importance, as well as 30 natural monuments. Another issue for Belarus is the fortress of Brest, with high historic and cultural value, which is on the Polish-Belarusian border between the Mukhavets and the Bug. The section of the route connecting the Polish part of the waterway with the Mukhavets River must be completed without violating the historical fortifications.
For Poland, the new canal along the Bug River could be in conflict with the protection of areas such as the Bug Landscape Park and five Natura 2000 protected areas situated in the planned construction zones. However, according to EU guidance on inland water transport and Natura 2000, it is noted that Natura 2000 sites are not designed to be “no development zones” and new developments are not excluded. Instead, their designation requires that any new developments be undertaken in a way that safeguards the local species and habitat.
The Ukrainian part of the E40 would pass only 2.5 kilometers from the nuclear reactor in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Matti Maasikas, the head of the EU delegation to Ukraine, warned that during construction, dredging works in the Kyiv reservoir could disturb sludge contaminated with the radioactive isotope cesium-137 and others, which would lead to the pollution of the drinking water supply system for Kyiv and others cities downstream. In Ukraine, the Dnieper estuary and the surrounding land are also included in the Emerald network, an area of special conservation interest.
Environmental issues plagued waterways across Europe throughout 2019. The extremely low water levels on the continent’s major rivers led to a substantial decrease in volumes of goods transported along European waterways. In the E40 region, the trend of low river levels was also seen in Poland. A graph released by the Institute of Meteorology and Water Management, National Research Institute (IMGW) showed a dramatic drop in water levels recorded on the Vistula River around Warsaw. In May 2019, the river was 579 centimeters deep; but by the end of July, the water level had sunk to just 40 cm. By April 2020, the level at one spot in the capital was already 26 cm lower than on the same day in 2019. Among various measures to be taken by the government in response to the crisis, Polish President Andrzej Duda announced that nine large storage reservoirs will be built. This year has also seen massive flooding in western Ukraine, the biggest since the 1970s. It is yet to be seen whether the evolving impact of global climate change will make this extraordinary event a regular local occurrence.
Though locally significant, the transit potential of Polish-Belarusian-Ukrainian inland waterways looks low when compared with other European waterways. The E40 route passes through the territory of only three countries, whereas, in comparison, the Danube flows through the territory of or is the border of ten states: Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Moldova. Furthermore, as the E40 Waterway is not planned to be wide or deep enough for ocean-going container ships, the need for costly unloading and reloading onto river vessels could limit the route’s appeal to international shipping companies.
Critics have also targeted the initial feasibility study conducted on the E40. The EU’s Matti Maasikas labeled it “incomplete” and argued that it does not take into account that the waterway will largely benefit carriers, which are private companies, leaving taxpayers with the burdens of financing the project and the cost of countering the environmental damage. A 2019 paper titled “Economic Assessment of Reconstruction Plans for the Inland Waterway E40” posits that investment costs for the Ukrainian part of the Dnieper River, excluding the reconstruction of bridges, are understated by almost €100 million ($114 million), and the cost of the reconstruction of the Belarusian section is underestimated by at least €0.9 billion ($1.02 billion). Even with the total feasibility study estimate of €12,720 billion ($14.5 billion), the reconstruction and maintenance of inland waterways is costly, and investment in road and rail infrastructure is more popular and cost-effective.
The outbreak of COVID-19 has caused a global recession. According to the International Monetary Fund’s April 2020 World Economic Outlook, the projection for GDP growth in Belarus for the year is –6 percent, with a partial recovery in 2021 of 3.5 percent. The global economy is projected to contract by 3 percent in 2020, far worse than during the 2008 financial crisis, likely hampering foreign investment in the E40 Waterway. For Belarus itself, the situation is made worse by the current debt burden on the Belarusian economy, and the economic crisis brought on by the aftermath of the August election. The Belarusian ruble rate has lost around 11 percent since mid-June 2020, when signs appeared that the presidential election could result in protests. Russia’s decision to suspend its multi-billion-dollar credit support program to Belarus at the beginning of 2020 created an even larger challenge for Minsk, as it enters a peak of its public debt repayments. According to Belarus’s finance ministry, the country is due to repay around $3.4 billion of public debt, including interest, in 2020, and $3.2 billion in 2021. In September 2020, Russia offered Belarus a $1.5 billion loan that Minsk will use, at least mostly if not entirely, to pay off its previous debt to Moscow. And even though Belarus raised $1.25 billion via a new Eurobond placement on the London Stock Exchange in June 2020, it is unlikely the government will have the funds to invest in infrastructure projects such as the E40 in the near future.
The political crisis leading up to and following the August 9, 2020, presidential election in Belarus could also make sourcing funds for the E40 more difficult. The aggressive crackdown on peaceful protesters, accusations of police torture, arrests of civil society figures, expulsions of opposition members, alongside the rising number of political prisoners, has led to calls for the EU to implement sanctions. This crackdown on post-election protests has left President Lukashenka in a much more precarious position both domestically and internationally and, therefore, more susceptible to Russian pressure to withdraw from the E40 if Russia senses the planned waterway to be against its interests.
Impact on Regional Cooperation: The Waterway as a Builder of Resilience and Trade
The promotion of regional cooperation between Poland, Belarus and Ukraine is nothing new. After the fall of the Russian Empire following the First World War, Poland, Ukraine and Belarus rushed to form independent states. The interwar Polish leader Józef Piłsudski believed that an alliance of those states in a federal body could safeguard their respective sovereignties. The term Intermarium (from the Latin for “between the seas”) refers to this geopolitical concept of regional integration. The E40 would be based on cooperation rather than integration, but as a concept that encompasses a partnership of countries reaching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, the concepts share some likeness. Both sought/seek to weaken Russia’s regional influence and provide an alternative to the perceived centralized power of Western Europe. In order to assess the likelihood of constructive regional cooperation, a fundamental understanding of the current levels of cooperation is necessary.
Belarus and Poland
Prior to the political unrest in Belarus in the summer of 2020, Belarus and Poland experienced five years of gradually warming relations, and Warsaw had been playing an intermediary role between Minsk and the European Union. Belarus shares extensive historical and cultural heritage with Poland, and Russia’s frosty approach toward Belarus during this time had pushed the country closer to the EU and the West. One of Warsaw’s objectives in these relations was to prevent Belarus from finding itself in complete political and economic dependence on Russia, while Minsk was hoping to convert improved political relations with the West into financial support and increased trade.
The strengthening of Polish and Belarusian ties was seen most outright in the burgeoning trade relationship. In May 2020, the Polish ambassador to Belarus, Artur Michalski, stated that bilateral trade was now at more than $3 billion a year, up from $2.5 billion in 2018.  Poland is among the leading investors in the Belarusian economy, ranking fourth behind Russia, the United Kingdom and Cyprus. Warsaw’s willingness to engage with Belarus was also based on geopolitical reasoning. The Belarusian defense ministry declared in late August 2019 that it was holding consultations on regional and international military cooperation with Poland. This is particularly notable as Poland is NATO’s vanguard state in Central and Eastern Europe and the site of a new future US military base.
The disputed presidential election in August 2020 and the violent aftermath has undermined relations between Belarus and Poland, and dialogue between Belarus and the EU has collapsed. Indeed, Belarus’s relations with Poland are likely to be extremely strained for the foreseeable future. Poland remains the host of significant numbers of exiled members of the Belarusian opposition and funds opposition leaning media in Belarus. In June 2020 President Lukashenka accused Poland of being the “wire-pullers”, manipulating the current election campaign, adding that Belarus is “witnessing foreign interference in our election and domestic affairs.” This rhetoric escalated following the election, with Lukashenka accusing NATO of hostile activity in Poland and subsequently moving Belarusian forces to its western border. Lukashenka also accused Poland of seeking to reclaim former Polish territory from western Belarus and asserted that Polish flags were being hung in Grodno, a Belarusian city on the western border.
Belarus and Ukraine
For several years, Ukraine was the second-largest trading partner of Belarus. In 2012, trade achieved the highest level of $7.9 billion; but by 2015, economic exchange had declined to merely $3.5 billion due to a dispute involving mutual threats to introduce extra duties on each other’s goods. Eventually, both sides announced that they would abstain from any counter-sanctions. The situation is now improving and, in May 2020, the president of the Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Gennadiy Chyzhykov, said that Belarus is again one of Ukraine’s top five trading partners and is Ukraine’s second biggest in the CIS. According to Ukrainian statistics, bilateral trade in 2019 totaled $5.5 billion, with Ukrainian exports to Belarus increasing by around 19 percent and reaching $1.7 billion. Supplies of Belarusian goods to the Ukrainian market also went up and came to almost $3.7 billion.
In October 2019, the Second Forum of the Regions of Ukraine and Belarus was held in Zhytomyr with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and President Lukashenka. Zelenskyy stressed the importance of deep cooperation in relations, and the leaders signed commercial contracts worth around $500 million. Lukashenka named cooperation in infrastructure as a priority in bilateral trade and economic relations. He specifically noted that transport arteries are important in the development of economic ties between the two countries. Minsk also presented itself as neutral ground for a negotiated solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine and has resisted Russian attempts to enlist its support in the conflict. Belarus’s role as the broker of peace had boosted its international reputation.
Overall relations between Ukraine and Belarus had been improving; however, as with Poland, the recent events in Belarus have damaged mutual ties. Before the election, Belarus arrested 32 Russian mercenaries, and Ukrainian authorities were infuriated when Lukashenka released them to Russia despite Kyiv’s request that they be extradited to Ukraine to be prosecuted for aiding Russia’s proxy rebel forces in Donbas. Relations deteriorated further when Ukraine recalled its ambassador, Ihor Kyzym, from Minsk following the election; upon Kyzym’s return to Belarus, the Ukrainian diplomat had his car searched at the Belarusian border, in violation of the Vienna Convention. Relations could potentially worsen going forward: Minsk’s current neutral position on the Ukrainian-Russian conflict might become untenable if Moscow is able to exert greater pressure on an internally weakened Lukashenka following his mismanaged presidential election.
Poland and Ukraine
Poland and Ukraine’s current relations stem from a mutual understanding of the security challenges in Europe’s East. While the two countries enjoy different strategic situations—Poland is a member of the EU and NATO and Ukraine is not—they both understand Russian revisionism as a considerable threat.
Trade between Poland and Ukraine is developing rapidly. In February 2019, Poland displaced Russia as the top buyer of Ukrainian goods, according to the latest data available from Ukrstat. After Ukraine signed the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) agreement with the European Union, Ukrainian trade with the bloc expanded to $9.5 billion, an increase of 10 percent. The EU now accounts for 38 percent of Ukraine’s foreign trade. Polish investments in the country are also gradually expanding, now close to $800 million. A large number of Ukrainians—an estimated two million—have found employment in Poland.
A key issue in Polish-Ukrainian relations recently has been a historical dispute. It is centered around conflicting stances on the memorialization of the massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia, carried out in 1943–1944 by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which resulted in up to 100,000 Polish civilian casualties. Ukraine adopted laws in April 2015 that introduced the possibility of punishing those who denied the heroic nature of the Ukrainian fighters. An amendment to a bill adopted by the Polish parliament in January 2018 introduced criminal responsibility for the denial of the crimes of Ukrainian nationalists in the years 1925–1950. These events cooled Polish-Ukrainian ties; however, in August 2019, President Zelenskyy and his Polish counterpart, President Duda, agreed to reopen a dialogue to resolve the issues.
Funding the E40
The construction of the E40 will not come cheap, at $14.5 billion or more; yet there are several funding options potentially available. In Ukraine, the government is prepared to allocate 500 million hryvnia ($18.4 million) per year to construction along the route. This should be enough to complete the upgrades to the waterway within Ukraine. Potential also exists for private investment, with companies from Turkey and the Netherlands expressing interest. The Polish segment of the E40, however, will require a much larger influx of funds, including from other forms of external financing.
The EU’s Role in European Connectivity Projects
The EU has made interconnectivity and the reduction of carbon emissions two core goals, and it plans to achieve these by prioritizing environmentally friendly transport modes and filling in the missing links in Europe’s transport infrastructure. In 2013, the EU embarked on a new era in transport policy and, in accordance with the TEN-T Regulation, aims to build a high-performance EU-wide transport infrastructure network, using the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) and other EU funding programs and initiatives.
The CEF is a key EU funding instrument for supporting the development of sustainable and efficiently interconnected trans-European networks in transport, energy and digital services. The level of CEF funding has been unprecedented, with a total financial envelope of more than €30 billion ($34 billion). Since the initiative began in 2014, Poland, one of the E40 partners, has been the highest recipient of funds with €4.7 billion ($5.36 billion), far higher than the next highest countries Denmark with €2.4 billion ($2.7 billion) and France with €2.3 billion ($2.6 billion). Transport has received the greatest allocation of CEF funds—€22.8 billion ($26 billion) for 756 projects since 2014, compared with CEF Energy at €3.2 billion ($3.6 billion) and CEF Telecom at €0.3 billion ($342 million). CEF supports further project investment with European structural and investment funds, such as the Cohesion Fund as well as the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI), and loans from the European Investment Bank (EIB).
CEF funding is largely allocated to sectors with environmentally friendly transport: more than 80 percent of the foreseen investments go to non-road transport modes. However, the predominant part of the CEF grants (72 percent) has been allocated to railway actions. The EU’s 2014–2019 CEF grants for Poland notably designated €3.5 billion ($3.8 billion) for railway projects and only €147.8 million ($161.2 million) for maritime infrastructure, demonstrating an overwhelming preference for rail investment. In February 2020, when European Commissioner for Transport Adina-Ioana Vãlean spoke of the upcoming transport strategy, she stressed that she was planning to put forward measures to increase the share of more sustainable transport modes of both rail and inland waterways.
The E40 is not yet included in TEN-T, which limits the project’s ability to access EU funding. But before the waterway can be included, it must plan to comply with Class IV shipping along the entire route—that is, allowing vessels with minimum dimensions of 80 meters by 9.5 meters. The Polish section would require a new canal in order to meet this requirement, thus putting the E40 at odds with the EU’s environmental concerns. While the E40 corresponds to the strategic objectives of the EU, such as lower carbon emissions and the development of environmentally friendly transport, the E40 is not yet an investment priority. It should be noted however, that the EU’s Cohesion Fund is contributing to construction work to increase capacity at the Port of Gdańsk in Poland, thus demonstrating that some segments of the waterway can receive EU funding.
The Eastern Partnership
In January 2019, Johannes Hahn, then-Commissioner responsible for the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) and Enlargement Negotiations, wrote that in a bid to boost connectivity and economic growth in the Eastern Partnership countries, the European Commission and the World Bank co-authored an “Indicative trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) Investment Action Plan” and identified priority projects in the partner countries with an estimated investment of almost €13 billion ($14.8 billion).
Belarus has so far received €1.2 billion ($1.4 billion) in investment for transport projects, including a Lithuania-Belarus road border crossing point costing €25 million ($28.5 million), and a road at the Polatsk border with Latvia costing €146 million ($166 million). The investment has been predominantly road based (€1,090 million, or $1.2 billion), followed by rail (€112 million, or $127.7 million), with no inland waterway investment so far. In Ukraine however, the level of funding has been much higher, reaching €4.4 billion ($5 billion), and this has included funding for inland waterway infrastructure development, such as locks on the Upper Dnieper costing €63 million ($72 million), investment of €35 million ($39 million) into Kherson Port, and €220 million ($251 million) for the implementation of dredging works at the Yuzhny seaport.
In February 2018, Karmenu Vella, the former EU Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, said that the recent TEN-T Investment Action Plan for the EaP did not include the sections of the E40 Inland Waterway due to environmental and economic considerations. Vella added that the Polish component of the project, due to its character and scale, would have to be subject to an appropriate impact assessment on Natura 2000 and in conformity with the Water Framework Directive. The EU’s Water Framework Direction was adopted in 2000 to protect and improve the quality of water environments, including waterways. The project could feasibly come under this funding, both in EU member state Poland, and EaP members Belarus and Ukraine. However, EU funding appears to be largely dependent on solving the environmental questions.
The Three Seas Initiative
An alternative source of funding could be the Three Seas Initiative (3SI). The Initiative is made up of 12 EU Member States located between the Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas: Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia (the Czech Republic), Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. The core goal is to develop infrastructure for energy, transport and cyber connectivity along the north-south axis, as opposed to the predominant east-west direction of current infrastructure. The inherited infrastructure, largely built during the Cold War era, is perceived as a factor of the region’s geopolitical dependence on Russia, the main energy provider in the area, and a reinforcement of Germany’s economic dominance. Whereas the countries of Western Europe are well linked by roads and railways, the states of Central and Eastern Europe remain comparatively disconnected from one another in terms of modern infrastructure. According to EU data, road and rail travel in the region takes, on average, roughly two to four times longer than comparable travel in the rest of the bloc.
At the 2018 summit, 3SI member countries developed a list of 48 priority interconnection projects and the transport projects included the completion of north-south road and railway corridors that would connect the Baltic with the Adriatic; a railway to connect the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, via Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine; and the FAIRway Danube, a project to improve the infrastructure and navigability of the Danube River in Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary and Slovakia. It is clear that the E40 could fit within the priorities of the Three Seas Initiative. Ukraine is not a member, but President Zelenskyy showed interest in joining the 3SI during a meeting with Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid. Ukrainian cooperation is also already taking place with regard to road infrastructure development: specifically, Ukraine is a full member of the Via Carpatia, a planned transnational highway network and one of the flagship projects of the Initiative. It is even more unlikely that that Belarus will ever become a 3SI member; but if Ukraine and Poland can use Three Seas investment for their respective sections of the E40, it could increase the likelihood of investment in the Belarusian segment as well.
After United States President Donald Trump attended the 3SI Summit in Warsaw in July 2017, the project gained more attention. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s announcement of a US contribution of $1 billion dollars in February 2020 sent a message that this region has Washington’s support and that it is worth investing here. This could become a driving force for more investments by private US firms. The European Commission (EC) has been officially supporting the project since the Bucharest Summit in 2018, which both the then–European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas attended. Tension persists between Germany and many of the 3SI states predominantly over the Nord Stream Two natural gas pipeline project. Nord Stream Two is designed to deliver an additional 55 billion cubic meters of Russian gas per year directly to Germany via a Baltic Sea pipeline, which is largely opposed by the 3SI states. Yet German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier attended the June 2019 3SI summit, highlighting Berlin’s commitment to the initiative. With US and EU backing, the 3SI has high potential to succeed. The grouping’s next summit is scheduled take place in October 2020, in Tallinn.
Members of the Three Seas Initiative, with the exception of Austria, are also members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and there is the possibility that NATO could one day take advantage of the E40. The waterway would not be wide or deep enough for warships, aircraft carriers or cruisers, but small-class NATO ships could potentially use the E40 to circumvent the limitations imposed by the 1936 Montreux Convention. The nearly century-old treaty governs maritime and naval passage through the Turkish Straits (the Bosporous and the Dardanelles) to the Black Sea. Poland, as a NATO member, and Ukraine, as one of the “Enhanced Opportunity Partners” under the Partnership Interoperability Initiative, could see this as an extra benefit to the construction of the waterway. In 2019, Belarus even flirted with the idea of joint military exercises with NATO, with Belarusian Defense Minister Oleg Belokonev saying that his country could resemble Serbia in NATO relations—having both close Russia ties and a military training connection to the North Atlantic Alliance. However, for Belarus, this type of scenario would likely garner strong opposition from Russia, particularly regarding the movement of NATO ships across Belarusian territory. While at the moment this idea is purely theoretical, it is a notion worth keeping in mind and could potentially increase the likelihood of US investment.
China is a player in the economic development of the E40 region, with investments in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. The region is important to China as it constitutes a gateway to Europe for the overland Belt and Road corridors, and the E40 waterway would logically fall into China’s overall infrastructure development strategy. It is possible to find similarities with China’s region-specific 17+1 initiative and the 3SI, with many of the same local members and broadly overlapping development aims.
Despite Central and Eastern Europe fitting China’s main objectives of transportation networks for the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese investments in the region represents a small percentage compared with the other EU countries. In 2017, 71 percent of Chinese investment in Europe went to the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. And even though that number dropped to 34 percent in 2019, only 3 percent that year went to Europe’s East. China also decided not to officially include any of the EaP countries into the 17+1 format. Belarus did, however, receive observer status during the 2016 Riga summit, where Belarus’s prime minister joined the annual leaders’ conference and conducted a bilateral meeting with Chinese premier Li Keqiang.
China appears to view Poland as a key partner in Europe when it comes to expanding freight trade through railway connections and logistical hubs. For example, a rail link between Łódź, in central Poland, and the Chinese city of Chengdu was initiated in 2013. In November 2019, Poland’s Port of Gdańsk received the inaugural Euro-China Train (ECT), connecting China directly with the Baltic Sea.
Ukraine has received less Chinese investment. But in 2018, a list of joint projects included investing $2 billion in a new metro line in Kyiv and $400 million in a passenger railway connecting Kyiv with Boryspil International Airport.
For Belarus, the China Development Bank and the China ExIm Bank provided $3 billion in loans to develop the China-Belarus industrial park Great Stone. And in December 2019, the Belarusian Ministry of Finance and the executive of the Shanghai branch of the China Development Bank signed an agreement that granted Belarus a loan of $500 million. Between 2000 and 2014, Minsk received more than $7.6 billion in Chinese financial support in the form of aid and loans, but it is important to note that only $368 million of this was direct investment.
Beijing could potentially be a source of funding for the E40 Waterway as it would fit the general investment model of transport connectivity and infrastructure. Poland, under the EU-China Connectivity Platform, proposed the E40 for Chinese investment to develop the Middle and Lower Vistula. However the amount of funding in the E40 region demonstrates it may not be a high priority for Chinese investment.
The E40 waterway still has many hurdles to overcome before it can become a reality. The key issues, before the recent political crisis in Belarus, were environmental concerns and questions about funding. The financing question could become less problematic if the environmental concerns are offset, but another obstacle is the economic viability of waterways in general. The Polish segment comes with large costs, and developers will need to provide sufficient incentives to shift investment from rail to inland waterways for the project to have any success. If the next feasibility study, due in late 2020, addresses the key environmental issues within the Polish segment of the E40, that could allow the potential for EU funding for the costliest portion of the waterway.
The many different players in the region have overlapping incentives for funding and constructing the waterway. For Belarus, it would allow access to the Black and Baltic seas, reduce economic dependency on Russia through trade ties with the EU and further afield, and likely give Minsk a stronger hand in negotiations with Moscow. For Poland, it would provide access to the Black Sea and encourage further development of its regions and the Port of Gdańsk. For Ukraine, the E40 would reinforce economic resilience, develop infrastructure and further cement the country’s Western lean. For the EU, the project could help secure its eastern border and lead to greater regional cooperation with and within the EaP. The Three Seas Initiative, with the US as a partner, is seeking regional development and security, particularly on the EU-NATO’s eastern border. Chinese investment could come in the form of Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure development, adding an extra trade corridor to the region. In June 2019, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei stressed the prospect for implementing tripartite projects in the format of “China-EaP-EU countries” for the efficient interconnection of the “Great Silk Road and the EU-TEN-T transport network,” further demonstrating the potential for the E40 to find funding partners across different initiatives.
Cooperation between Belarus, Ukraine and Poland was burgeoning until very recently, and the partners could retain that solid foundation in regional relations once the political crisis in Belarus is settled. Particularly now, as the wider region seeks to recover from the COVID-19 crisis, an initiative that develops infrastructure and generates growth and jobs could be urgently needed. With these overlapping incentives, it should be possible to attract different branches of funding and support. The recent unrest in Belarus, however, has resulted in the country, at least momentarily, turning sharply eastward toward Russia, likely reducing the incentive and ability to invest in Western regional projects in the short-term; and any forthcoming EU/US sanctions will make funding the waterway more difficult. Nevertheless, the situation in Belarus is changing rapidly, and the future foreign policy outlook of the country, be that facing eastward, westward or something more neutral, has yet to be decided. The second feasibility study on the E40, expected later this year, should provide answers to some of the most crucial outstanding issues and possibly open the door to the project’s final implementation.
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