Friday, December 8, 2023

Boosting EU-Ukraine rail links is crucial for a common & prosperous future

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Facing heavy losses on the frontlines, a weakened and desperate Russia has cynically ramped up strikes on civilian power infrastructure in Kyiv and other urban areas far from the battlefield. Over a thousand settlements across Ukraine remain in the dark, with 30% of Ukraine’s energy facilities decimated in attacks that Amnesty International has condemned as war crimes

Vladimir Putin has significantly escalated the war in recent weeks, with a series of retaliatory strikes since the Crimean Bridge explosion on October 19, the declaration of martial law in the four illegally annexed regions and the appointment of a notorious war criminal, General Sergei Surovikin, as Moscow’s top commander.

What’s more, amid renewed bellicose speeches from Belarus’ dictator Alexander Lukashenko, concerns about a Belarusian offensive are mounting. 

In the difficult period ahead, the Western coalition must remain united and committed. Beyond crucial military supplies, the EU can protect Ukraine’s future by boosting rail links, which will help bolster NATO’s eastern frontier, accelerate reconstruction and drive Ukraine’s long-term economic recovery as a rightful member of the European family. 

Connecting a fragmented Europe

Putin’s Black Sea blockade brought weak EU-Ukraine railway links into sharp relief, exposing insufficient alternative export routes. The European Commission has thus decided to revise its Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) policy to bolster connectivity with Ukraine and Moldova, with a Polish development set to play a central role.

Capitalizing on its strategic position, Poland is pouring billions into the Solidarity Transport Hub (STH) megaproject. In addition to being the CEE region’s largest airport, STH will deliver roughly 2,000 km of new, largely high-speed railway lines linking Warsaw to Poland’s regions and cross-border hubs. Recognizing its strategic importance, the Commission had already incorporated STH into the new TEN-T network last year, with this development now receiving fresh impetus as an interconnector between Ukraine and Western Europe. 

To fulfill this responsibility, STH has recommended combining the Commission’s proposed extension of the Baltic-Black-Aegean Sea line running through Ukraine and eastern Romania towards the Black Sea with a new high-speed STH line linking Lublin and Lviv. As Macrin Horała, the Polish Minister responsible for the project, highlighted at a recent TEN-T press conference in Brussels, this combination would create the shortest Baltic-Black Sea land connection, giving Ukraine a new export corridor to circumvent naval blockades.

Shoring up eastern defences 

While fundamentally civilian assets, STH lines will have a vital defence function, in line with the EU’s strategic aim of enhancing military mobility along the TEN-T transport network towards NATO’s Eastern Flank. With high-speed rail links, NATO will be able to rapidly deploy reinforcements to defend its territory and send a clear message of deterrence to Putin, whose antagonism of NATO has backfired spectacularly. 

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO has ramped up its presence along the Alliance’s eastern border, building on the 2017 deployment of four battalion-size battlegroups in Poland and the Baltic nations. Existing forces in the region have been reinforced by four additional battlegroups in Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria, creating a robust northeast-to-southeast defensive line, while leaders at the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid agreed to transform these battlegroups from battalion to brigade size should the Russian threat escalate sufficiently. 

Beyond the movement of troops and much-needed military equipment, NATO will also be able to mobilise enhanced rail infrastructure to accelerate its other key functions, namely coordinating the delivery of humanitarian aid from member countries, as well as the export of Ukrainian grain. What’s more, the Alliance has guaranteed its support of Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction and will be able to use enhanced rail networks to provide the necessary supplies.


Shared economic future

In addition to accelerating Ukraine’s reconstruction and humanitarian relief efforts, cross-continental rail networks will lay the foundation for its long-term development. The task ahead is monumental, with the Ukrainian economy projected to shrink by 35% in 2022 and the World Bank estimating the minimum cost of reconstruction at an eye-watering $349 billion, but the initial roadmap out of this crisis is encouraging.

Unveiled at an international conference in July, Ukraine’s National Recovery Plan highlights the country’s opportunity to go beyond reconstructing war-torn areas and “leap-frog” socioeconomic growth in Ukraine, whose development has long trailed its East European neighbors. This will mean aligning with the EU’s green and digital transitions to accelerate sustainable, inclusive economic growth, with high-speed rail connections between Ukraine and the rest of Eastern Europe – and by extension, the rest of the EU – set to play a key role. 

As the OECD has established, high-performing transport infrastructure supports long-term economic growth by increasing labour market efficiency and productivity and facilitating cross-border trade, while boosting attractivity for foreign investment to develop high-productivity local industries and support SME growth. What’s more, the economic integration made possible by new rail links would spread the benefits of Ukraine’s development to the wider region, creating export opportunities for EU industries and cementing a common future.

With his back against the wall, a rattled Putin is becoming increasingly ruthless. Western allies must respond with continued military support to Ukraine while implementing the structural measures needed to ensure its post-war prosperity. Developing strong, rapid EU-Ukraine rail links will be vital to this endeavor, ensuring the latter’s security while fueling its reconstruction and economic renewal as an integral part of an even more interconnected Europe.

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CEO, co-founder and editor-in-chief of NE Global. Mr. Waller is a veteran journalist, analyst and political advisor, having spent 25 years covering the former Soviet Union, Europe and the Middle East.


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