E40: the Waterway That Could Change Eastern Europe’s Destiny Forever

Works are in progress in the easternmost periphery of the Old Continent to bring to life an ambitious project known as E40. The E40 is a waterway whose aim is to link the Baltic sea with the Black Sea by going through the countries in between the Russian sphere and Western Europe. It would be a modern-day water-woven Iron Curtain. The geopolitical consequences of the E40 are as high as the environmental risks and its eventual construction is set to profoundly shape international relations in Eastern Europe.

What is the E40?

The E40 project has been rumored since the early 2000s but was officially unveiled only in 2013. Specifically, it aims at constructing a 2,000 kilometres-long inland shipping route from Gdansk, Poland to Kherson, Ukraine, linking the Baltic sea and the Black sea via the Dnieper, Pripyat, Bug and Vistula rivers by going through Polesia, Europe’s Amazon. Scarce information is available about the project since little has been said until today, but the establishment of the 3SI, Ukraine’s continuing closeness with the West and the ongoing Belarus-Russia arm wrestling are reviving the debate.

Once completed, the E40 is estimated to permit the transit of 5 to 7 tons of goods annually, an incredible boost to the multilateral trade among the Baltic states, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. Tens of thousands of jobs are expected to be created due to the necessity of a kilometres-long buildup of docks, storage facilities, distribution and sorting centers.

Key Urban Locations Boost Polish and Ukrainian Power

Furthermore, the rivers selected for the water corridor pass by, or in the vicinity of, vital business sites such as Kiev, Warsaw and Gdansk. In short, it is the perfect complement to the Polish dreams of regional hegemony and to the EU-US plans to reduce Russian exposition in the Eastern European nations as much as possible.

Warsaw has shown an increasingly willingness to link the E40 to the 3SI, which would mean access to EU funds, whereas Minsk stopped opposing any regional cooperation projects not contemplating the Russian participation and very recently has shown some interest in the E40 and in other multilateral initiatives with the 3SI members. Aleksandr Lukashenko’s endorsement is the game-changer that could allow the E40 to take form since no serious North-South corridor is thinkable without Minsk.

Where Does Belarus Stand?

Russian diplomacy seemed to have succeed in convincing Lukashenko to boycott the project so that to limit its geopolitical impact and economic potential, but in the recent months the Belarusian president changed his mind, proving again to the Kremlin that he is an unreliable partner and his double play seems now destined to give in to pressures from the Western flirting diplomacy. In the case Belarus ever decides to formalize its participation, its path to diversification and de-Russification would record an incredible boost in favor of the growing amalgamation with the Poland-centered new regional order.

Last September, Lukashenko said that the participation in the E40 is very important since it may allow Minsk to have access to the Black Sea. The same month, the then-Ukrainian minister of infrastructure, Vladislav Krikli, announced a €354,000 initial allocation to dredge 64.5 kilometres of the Pripyat river. Later that year, in December, officials from Minsk and Kyiv have signed a comprehensive agreement about the E40, as a completion to previous deals for the building of a port on the Dnepr and the joint effort to dredge the Dnieper and Pripyat rivers.

In the meantime, Poland is actively searching for investors. Polish officials aspire to attract at least €20 billion in investments and are even lobbying to the Chinese, trying to convince them of the opportunity to link the E40 to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

What’s Motivating the E40 Project?

E40 is the official name given by the European Union to a waterway designed to increase the inter-dependence among the flyover-states-turned-big players of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. It is one of the many monumental infrastructure projects which are being set up in recent years as part of the East-focused developmental agenda sponsored by the EU-US axis. One of its main purposes geopolitically is to widen the distance between Eastern Europe and Russia.

Until today, such distance was mainly political. The once Soviet-ruled and historically Russian-influenced countries have been gradually incorporated in the EU and in the NATO and then wisely converted in strongholds of Atlanticism. Russia could do nothing to prevent this Zbigniew Brzezinski-written scenario from taking place due to a series of circumstances and external factors, and now is more encircled than ever before. The likely entry into the EU and NATO in the next future of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia ⁠— against the background of the E40 ⁠— is going to complete the encirclement.

The once-poor and underdeveloped Poland plays a key-role in this essentially anti-Russian power design by taking the lead in any considerable initiative endowed with the potential of shaping the regional dynamics, from the Visegrad alliance to the Baltic Fund, from the Intermarium-inspired Three Seas Initiative (3SI) to the dream of building a Warsaw-centered energy market covering even the Baltic states and Ukraine. It’s only by having a 360 degree view of the current historical context that it’s possible to understand the true meaning and importance of the E40.

Why the E40 is So Important

The geopolitical potential of the E40 is as high as the economic one. The waterway is designed to inter-connect deeply this post-communist region inhabited by some 90 millions people and whose anti-Russian standing is vital for the Western plans of containment and regional hegemony. Poland’s effort to link the E40 to the 3SI might justify the right to receive EU funds as well as the possibility to use the waterway for security reasons and not only for trade.

The overall outcome would be the official consecration of a new union within the European Union, acting as a modern-day cordon sanitaire capable of crystallizing the West-East divide and of making the post-communist players more amalgamated and cohesive. Russia’s influence over the region would record a tremendous hit from which it would be barely possible to recover in the case of Belarus’ effective participation.

Russia’s Cards to Stop the Project: the Environment and Donbass

The project is as ambitious as it is controversial since the environmental impact could be truly horrific in terms of loss of bio-diversity, destruction of wilderness, and the likely spread until the Baltic Sea of the contaminated waters nearby Chernobyl. The strengthening of this already-used used waterway will imply the construction of dams and locks, the interruption of meanderings, against the background of dredging and extension works to strengthen the river’s flow.

Several civic associations have been established so far to protest against the E40 for environmental reasons: BirdLife, BUEE and Bahna in Belarus, NECU and USPB in Ukraine, and OTOP in Poland. These associations are lobbying to their respective governments, exposing them the risks and the alleged anti-economic cost-benefit ratio emerged from their feasibility studies.

Welcome to Polesia

Polesia — also known as “Europe’s Amazon” — is set to be the most impacted area by the E40 and the repercussions of its artificial alteration are only partly predictable. The eighteen-million-hectares unspoiled region hosts several UNESCO-recognized protected reserves and more than 70 natural areas where dozens of thousands of animal species live and are now at risk of extinction, because some of them are endemic — namely they are based only in Polesia.

Russia is endangered by Belarus’ change of mind but Moscow has two cards to play and both of them are to be played in Ukraine: the environmental impact and the Donbass. In fact, the waterway pass by the Chernobyl exclusion zone — at its closest is only 2.5 kilometres from the nuclear reactor — and as various environmental organizations have pointed out there’s the concrete risk of making the contamination spread and threatening millions of people and animals. Russia’s approach is strengthened by these indisputable elements and it may use the already-existing environmental organizations to increase the bottom-up pressure against the E40.

The E40 is also vulnerable because of the Dnieper’s vicinity to the Donbass, where conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists is still ongoing. Acts of sabotage are relatively easy-to-make via Donetsk- or Lugansk-based fighters, a large-scale Ukraine-Russia war might still break out in the next future — the E40’s inherent geopolitical significance, the Western pressures over Belarus, the NATO question and other factors will influence the Kremlin’s behavior — and they could prove extremely useful to discouraging potential investors from committing to the project’s funding.

It is not possible to predict the future, but one thing is clear as day: the E40 is a modern-day water-woven Iron Curtain, an infrastructure whose eventual construction would profoundly shape international relations in Eastern Europe, and Russia will do anything to stop and/or to hinder its contruction. Even a war. Ukraine and Belarus are warned.