Staunton, May 29 – The enormous geopolitical importance of Russia’s Ust-Luga port on the Baltic which allows Russian to dominate shipping in the Baltic by attracting more volume and giving Moscow the opportunity to shift trade from one port to another to reward friends and punish enemies is so far appreciated only among specialists, Igor Shumeyko says.
The Moscow analyst for the Strategic Culture Foundation says that in terms of its economic impact, Ust-Luga is comparable with Soviet projects like the Turksib and BAM, and in terms of its geopolitical consequences, “it could be compared with Olympic construction at Sochi” (fondsk.ru/pview/2016/05/29/morskie-vorota-rossii.-ust-luga-40523.html).
Ust-Luga is Russia’s second largest port, after Novorossiisk, and first in the Baltic, surpassing the capacity of the ports there of Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, Shumeyko says. And both its size and the depth of its races mean that it can be used to overwhelm any or all of these other ports.
This port has the additional advantage, he points out, that the period when ice covers the waters leading to it is six weeks shorter than is the case with the port of St. Petersburg; and with the construction of new highways, rail lines, and intermodal transit facilities, Ust-Luga will only grow in geo-economic and geopolitical importance in the coming years, he says.
Despite the common misconception that Russia engaged in the Livonian war to gain access to the Baltic sea, Shumeyko points out, in fact, Ivan the Terrible had already seized the coastline earlier but he was unable to build any ports there. Having taken Narva in 1558, the tsar was able to begin 23 years of port trade.
The time of troubles that followed, however, cost Russia access to the Baltic, and Russia had ports there only after the victories of Peter the Great. But as late as the 19th century, some of the ports in non-Russian parts of the empire such as Tallinn were doing almost as much business as St. Petersburg.
“For the USSR of the 1930s, geography made the tasks practically the same as they were for Russia in the 1990s,” Shumeyko continues. Leningrad was hemmed in, and the Baltic ports were in independent countries. But in 1940, the USSR occupied Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and could use their ports as its own. Only in 1991 was the older geography restored.
In one sense, however, the situation of Russia in the 1990s was worse because the first secretary of the Estonian communist party convinced Leonid Brezhnev to build a port in Estonia rather than construct one in Ust-Luga as the Soviet government had planned. As a result, Estonia was ahead; and Russia even further behind.
Moreover, because of its economic difficulties after 1991, many Russian analysts urged Moscow not to spend money on Ust-Luga, something that along with an interest in supporting Kaliningrad kept the Russian port near St. Petersburg from being developed in a serious way until about a decade ago.
Since then, however, Shumeyko says, the port has grown by leaps and bounds – he provides a detailed discussion of the deepening of the harbor and its access and the provision of facilities for multiple kinds of goods and raw materials to be shipped. Now, he suggests, the port is ready to be used for Moscow’s geopolitical purposes.