A quality transportation system is necessary for both economic and national security. The US Interstate Highway System — a critical component of the nation’s economic vitality — was originally envisioned by President Dwight D. Eisenhower primarily for defense related purposes. In the Baltic States, ensuring military mobility and the secure flow of goods and services remains a critical and challenging dilemma. The Baltics’ geography leaves them relatively isolated from the rest of continental Europe, as does the predominantly east-west oriented transportation infrastructure that remains a legacy of the Soviet era. For economic purposes, the north-south highway route from Warsaw to Tallinn is the only land route for European freight, consumer goods and travelers. For military purposes, this route, which runs through the critical Suwałki Gap chokepoint, is a logistical problem for NATO troop and supply transport.
The Defender Europe-20 exercises scheduled for this year, though canceled because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, demonstrate an understanding by the US that operations in the Baltic theater will be complicated by the Baltic states’ geographic and infrastructural isolation from the rest of NATO. As Lukas Milevski points out for the Baltic Bulletin, a deterrent posture in the Baltics is effectively meaningless if it cannot be reinforced with troops, supplies, and equipment in a timely manner.
Besides these hard security considerations, the Baltic states’ infrastructural isolation has economic consequences, as well. As Russia presently prefers a hybrid strategy of destabilization over conventional conflict, economic security is a critical component to confounding Russia’s efforts. Russia’s hybrid warfare arsenal includes tools from economic influence operations intended to co-opt the political and business elite, to disinformation. Increased interconnection with Europe reduces the Baltics’ economic vulnerability and ensures Russia does not have fertile ground for sowing dissension in society through disinformation. Thus, by increasing their connectedness with Europe, the Baltic states can further solidify their foundation within the West and improve societal security and resilience.
The Status Quo
Presently, the Baltic states’ rail and road infrastructures are not adequate for either economic or military needs, which diminishes the overall security of the region.
Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia’s railway networks run on a mostly east-west axis into Russia and Belarus. Most of the network is on a 1520 mm Russian rail gauge, as opposed to a narrower 1435 mm European rail gauge, and is primarily owned and operated by state-owned companies, though some private companies operate parts of the network. Some short segments of the system are electrified in and around the capitals, but these segments comprise a very small portion of the whole. Likewise, much of the system is single-track. This means that, unlike on multiple-track lines which enable more bidirectional traffic flows, trains which are going in different directions on a single-track line require more coordinated scheduling, slowing the process and increasing the amount of time each train is not moving. As such, rail transport is slow and inefficient in the Baltic states. Measures to modernize the train fleet have been varied. Estonia has successfully upgraded both its freight and passenger fleet, though it has the shortest and least developed network. Latvia has managed to modernize its old Soviet-era trains, but has not replaced them. Lithuania has also modernized its fleet, but the variety of different types of trains that Lithuania possesses makes maintenance a challenge.
It is currently impossible to take a train directly from Tallinn to Vilnius. None of the three capitals are connected to each other by rail for freight or passenger transport. To go from Riga to Vilnius by rail, one must go via Daugavpils in the southeastern region of Latvia. From Riga to Tallinn, one would have to ride a Latvian train to the Estonian border at Valga, change trains, and then head to Tallinn via Tartu. This complicates both freight and passenger transport between the capitals, and renders the railroads practically worthless for moving troops, equipment, and supplies north or south in the event of war. Under current conditions, freight trains primarily carry goods coming from the former Soviet bloc. Products arriving by rail in the Baltics typically come from places such as Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia.
The lack of a north-south rail line connecting the Baltic states and their capitals with the rest of continental Europe leads to excess strain on the highway system. Most passenger travel between the Baltic capitals themselves and on to Warsaw goes by car or bus. Ninety percent of all freight transport between Lithuania and the rest of Europe travels by road, a marked difference from the rest of Europe and unsustainable. In all three countries, the “Via Baltica” route, which runs north-south from Poland to Estonia, is the primary artery in that direction and sees the highest number of traffic accidents. Freight transport makes up approximately 30 percent of the traffic volume along that route. Much of this route consists of two-lane highway, with hard shoulders to accommodate the custom of passing in the lane of oncoming traffic. The main routes are relatively well maintained, but minor highways are often an obstacle course of potholes. Given the strategic and economic importance of the north-south road artery in the Baltic states, the status quo is unsustainable and with regard to road conditions, driving habits, and traffic volumes.
The Three Seas Initiative
In 2015, Poland and Croatia launched the Three Seas Initiative, which seeks to improve interconnectedness and resilience in Central and Eastern Europe between the Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas. The Initiative funds infrastructure projects that will connect countries along a north-south axis, correcting a historical imbalance towards east-west connections which served as a tool of Soviet subjugation and influence during the 20th century. Perhaps the most famous examples of infrastructure serving as tools of influence and subjugation are in the energy sector, where east-west pipelines fueled Europe’s dependence on Soviet gas and financed Soviet arms modernization. Indeed, Russia’s gas disputes with Ukraine show that energy supply remains a tool of dependence and influence long after the Soviet period. Transportation, energy and digital infrastructure are key priorities for the Three Seas Initiative, and the Baltic states are major beneficiaries. Projects receive funding from member states and the EU, and in February of 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US would pledge up to $1 billion towards the initiative to support US allies’ efforts to counter Russian and Chinese pressure and influence. The Trump administration has been a vocal supporter of the initiative in light of the strategic significance of Central and Eastern Europe amid a reemergent great power competition. The Rail Baltica and Via Baltica projects, which connect the Baltic states along a north-south route with the rest of Europe, are priority projects for the initiative.
Rail Baltica is a joint venture of the three Baltic states and is one of the largest investments Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have made on infrastructure since regaining independence from the Soviet Union. It is a “greenfield” (new) rail transport infrastructure project and involves laying 1435 mm European gauge track in a north-south route to integrate the Baltic states into the European rail network. The project includes five partner countries: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and indirectly, Finland. The main route will connect Helsinki, Tallinn, Pärnu, Riga, Panevėžys, Kaunas, and Warsaw, and will also include a short spur route to Vilnius. But, though all of the project’s stakeholders agree that it is critical, political infighting, mounting costs, and recent delays have beset Rail Baltica. In February, the European Commission even threatened to pull funding from the project if improvements to cooperation and progress were not made. Since then, some tangible progress has been seen. Designs have been selected for the Estonian and Latvian portions of the route, and work is scheduled to begin in Latvia on the segment from Vangaži to the Estonian border this autumn. The project is scheduled to be completed by 2026.
Improvements to the Via Baltica Highway
If Rail Baltica proves successful, it will provide an alternative to highway transport, and reduce the strain on the Baltic countries’ road systems. In the meantime, the state of the highways is not sufficient to handle traffic volumes. Much of the work towards improving the Via Baltica highway involves widening the route to four lanes in the most heavily traveled segments, and three lane 2+1 highway along the rest of the route. For example, in Lithuania, the Kaunas-Marijampolė-Suwałki route will be widened to four lanes from Kaunas to the Polish border by 2022, while the Panevėžys-Aristava-Sitkūnai road will be upgraded to 2+1 highway and is planned to be completed between 2020 and 2022. These improvements will dramatically improve traffic flow and safety, allowing faster traffic to pass without forcing oncoming traffic into the shoulder. The same applies to Latvia and Estonia, as well; plans for improvements call for widening roads to 2+1 three lane highways and four lane 2+2 highways. Other related improvements include strategic placement of rest areas, structural improvements to bridges, and elimination or improvements to intersections in cities and along bypasses.
Civil and Military Considerations
Improvements to the Via Baltica highway route and the construction of Rail Baltica will not only improve flows of goods and people between Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia themselves, but also bring the three countries closer to continental Europe. Widening the Via Baltica highway and improving intersections within cities and along city bypasses will facilitate faster and safer freight and passenger transport, while Rail Baltica diversifies options for said transport. In so doing, the Baltic countries will be more economically interconnected with the West and will be less reliant on the whims of Russia in the rail sector. For example, Russia may refuse to send spare parts for technologies of Russian/Soviet origin, and already seeks to bypass the Baltic states’ railways for export of goods west, which has resulted in major losses of cargo volume and personnel layoffs. More broadly, the Baltic states will be more resilient in the face of hybrid attacks from Russia targeting their economies. By extension, greater economic security will make Baltic society more resilient in the face of information warfare, as well.
Militarily, these improvements will expedite troop and supply movements from Poland through Estonia. Further, Rail Baltica adds one more route through the Suwałki Gap bottleneck, a strategic piece of land which forms the Polish-Lithuanian border between Kaliningrad and Belarus. This small region contains only two highways, one of which only serves to connect Augustow, Poland, and Alytus, Lithuania — the only overland route to the Baltics from the rest of NATO. In a crisis scenario, this region and its infrastructure will be critical to maintain a supply line to the Baltics. Wider roads and the existence of a north-south railway line will provide quicker and higher volume flows of troops and equipment to resupply the NATO enhanced forward presence (eFP) battalions already present in the Baltics in the event of conflict with Russia. Indeed, successive NATO summits have acknowledged that rail infrastructure is critical to ensuring rapid mobilization of large and heavy military units across Europe. This capability is the key to the eFP battalions’ credibility as a deterrent. Given the Baltic states’ geography vis-à-vis NATO and Russia, logistics is a key problem for the allies, and any improvements that will enable faster response will greatly improve the security situation in the region.
The status quo of current Baltic road and rail infrastructure is not sustainable for either economic or military security. The lack of a north-south railway line forces freight and passenger traffic onto a highway system that cannot accommodate the volume of demand, and it would be difficult to send troops and heavy equipment along that route efficiently in war-time. By undertaking road improvement projects along the critical Via Baltica route and pushing forward with Rail Baltica, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are investing in their economic and military security alike. The United States, the EU, and NATO allies should continue to support the Baltic states’ efforts to chip away at their relative isolation and integrate more fully with continental Europe.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.