Prosperity & Provocation—Poland’s New Baltic Sea Canal

Jerzy Mańkowski, a Polish economist, hotel owner and friend of many years sent me the above YouTube of Poland’s Vistula Spit Canal (Przekop Mierzei Wiślanej) in response to my recent “Kaliningrad Row” post. I met Jerzy decades ago in Lagos on my way to interview Mary Leakey at Olduvai Gorge. Jerzy was in exile in Africa at the time, his family’s property in Poland having been confiscated by the Soviets, which he later reclaimed and restored.  The lovely historic Mańkowski family home is now known far and wide as Brodnica Mansion Hotel.

Brodnica Mansion, Poznan

Poland’s Vistula Spit Canal, set to open within weeks, is an artificial waterway roughly a mile long giving Poland direct access to/from the Baltic Sea.  It is slated to be a boon to regional and international commerce.  The canal cuts across a shallow lagoon (Vistula Lagoon) and 34-mile-long narrow sand barrier (Vistula Spit), both of which Poland shares with Russian-administered Kaliningrad aka Kaliningrad Oblast.  And therein lies the rub. . .  Polish officials see the canal as insurance against a “threat from the East” and Russian officials see Vistula Canal as a potential passageway for Nato warships.  Indeed, the canal is 16 feet deep and its locks can accommodate ships up to 328 feet long and 66 feet wide. 

Until now, the only opening on the Vistula Spit for vessels to/from the Baltic Sea was on the northern Russian-controlled portion, meaning not only a substantial detour for ships but possibly further delays due to scrutiny/interference from Russian forces based there.

Russian Soldiers Patrolling Vistula Spit

Vistula Spit Canal connects Poland’s Elblag Bay with the Bay of  Gdańsk. It is scheduled to open September 17—the anniversary of the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland.

The question is:  Will Poland stick to the script and use the waterway for peaceful commercial purposes—particularly enhancing trade in Poland’s Northeast where unemployment is an issue—or will it ratchet up tensions by allowing Nato to take advantage of the canal and island that’s been built, featuring roadways, walkways, rotating bridges, and a sprinkling of buildings?

Russia’s “operational exercises” in and around Kaliningrad and the Baltic Sea in June speak to its concerns.  According to (June 20, 2022):

“Up to 60 surface warships, boats and support vessels were involved, including patrol ships and corvettes, small missile ships and missile boats, small anti-submarine ships, base and raid minesweepers as well as small landing hovercraft and fast boats, logistics support vessels” PLUS “10,000 military personnel, about 45 aircraft and helicopters, as well as up to 2,000 units of military and special equipment.”

As a prelude to Russia’s maneuvers, Nato—including three US warships—held joint exercises in the Baltic Sea at the end of May with prospective members Sweden and Finland. And with Estonia as well.

Russia was not alone in questioning Poland’s decision to construct the Vistula waterway. Parts of the surrounding area are a protected Nature 2000 site. The Curonian Spit that Kaliningrad shares with Lithuania is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Environmentalists who objected to the felling of trees on 62 acres in Poland’s Białowieża Forest (a Unesco World Heritage Site) also protested the potential fouling of Vistula Spit’s beaches and likely ramping up of heavy metal pollution in Elblag and Gdańsk waters, the stirring up of toxic bacteria in Vistula Lagoon, as well as disturbance to wildlife breeding areas in and around the South Baltic Sea. 

Vistula Spit

The area is home to the largest colony of cormorants in Europe and is the main breeding place for herring in the South Baltic Sea. Vistula Lagoon is spawning water for pikeperch, a fish crucial to maintaining that body of water’s ecological balance.

It is a fragile environment and fish in the South Baltic Sea are further threatened by the presence of  strontium-90 and caesium-137, which continues to move through the food chain following 1950s/1960s nuclear testing and 1980s fallout from Chernobyl, although scientists report that radioactivity levels have been decreasing in recent years and the South Baltic is not as impacted as the North Baltic.

Undoubtedly, the Vistula Spit Canal will bring increased prosperity to Poland and its trading partners and along with it, hopefully, peace in the region and greater respect for the delicate balance of nature. 

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