One of Poland’s megaprojects is nearing completion, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made it more crucial than initially imagined. The new canal that will cut across the Vistula Spit, giving ships access to the Polish port of Elbląg without having to ask for permission to sail through Russian territorial waters, will open in September. Moscow is not pleased with the development, arguing that it will allow NATO warships to enter the Vistula Lagoon without passing by the watchful eyes of Russian military facilities at Baltiysk.
Vistula Spit Canal: a Polish connection
According to the Russians, this will make the canal a direct threat to the security of the Kaliningrad enclave and Russia as a whole. Far from being deterred by the Russian rhetoric, Poland’s Deputy Minister of Infrastructure, Marek Gróbarczyk, announced that the first ships would pass through the canal on 17 September 2022. It is unlikely that the date, also the anniversary of the invasion of eastern Poland in 1939 by the Soviet Union, was chosen at random.
The canal will make it possible for ships to sail across the Vistula Lagoon from the port of Elbląg straight to the Baltic Sea. Currently, they must sail around the spit via the Strait of Baltiysk, a part of Russia’s territorial waters and which Moscow could deny access to on a whim.
Apart from the benefit of the Port of Elbląg gaining direct access to the Baltic Sea without being dependent on Russian permissions, ships heading to and from the port will be spared the 100 km detour through Russian waters. The canal will help companies save time and fuel costs, spurring economic development in the area. At the same time, there will also be advantages for the environment in the form of less greenhouse gas emissions and less pollution.
Big ambitions, big projects
The plans for constructing the Vistula Spit Canal accelerated following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, with works starting in February 2019. The project is one of the most significant construction efforts currently underway in Poland and spans much more than just the canal through the Vistula Spit itself.
The undertaking includes a lot of dredging work in the Vistula Lagoon and the Elbląg River, doubling the waterway’s depth from 2.5 meters to 5 meters, making it possible for much larger vessels to reach the Port of Elbląg than today. Once finished, transport vessels up to 100-meters-long, 20-meters-wide, and with a draft of up to 4.5 meters will be able to moor in Elbląg. The canal itself spans 1.3 km, while the entire waterway leading to the Port of Elbląg will be nearly 23 km long.
When the canal opens in September, motorists traveling across the Vistula Spit will be served by two new swing bridges, making sure that traffic runs smoothly. The third bridge under construction at Nowakowo, close to Elbląg itself, will be completed in April next year. 2023 is also the deadline for work to wrap up on the waterway in the Elbląg River and for the new waterway to become operational along its entire stretch.
Elbląg: free, at last!
Once completed, the project will significantly expand the capacity of Poland’s easternmost port, bringing economic opportunities for all of north-eastern Poland, a region full of potential but which still needs to catch up with more prosperous areas in Western and Central Poland.
Most importantly, the canal will increase Poland’s national security, as the Port of Elbląg will finally become accessible to vessels without Russia having a final word about it. As the country is becoming increasingly unreliable on the international stage following its invasion of Ukraine, Warsaw believes that the timing for the completion of the canal could not be better. The Poles will have much to celebrate on 17 September.