The Geopolitical Link Between the Baltic and Black Seas: Belarus and the Strategic E40 Waterway

Executive Summary

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.[1] 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.[2] Ukraine also announced an investment of 80 million hryvnia ($3.15 million) to begin dredging the Dnieper River.[3] 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.”[4] 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,[5] 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.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9]
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.[10]

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.[11] 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.[12] However, when analyzing freight transport, the 2018 figures reveal a decrease of –8.3 percent from 2017.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15]

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.[16]

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.[17] 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.[18]

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.[19] 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.[20]

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