Russia risked being left without one of President Vladimir Putin's most daring campaign promises on Thursday when it emerged that his cabinet had abandoned funding for showcase new bullet trains.
The funding for the eye-catching project was to come out of the $20 billion that Russia and its biggest companies are pouring into preparations for the 2018 World Cup.
High-speed rail links -- first tested and abandoned by the Soviets in the 1970s -- were meant to ferry a flood of foreign fans to football venues across the country and then stay in place to help the investment-deprived regions grow.
Putin said months before formally launching his campaign for a third term in September that at stake was the "development of the entire infrastructure of the European part of the country."
But the Vedomosti business daily cited several unnamed government officials as saying that spending on the trains was not included in either the funding proposals of Russian Railways (RZD) or the next federal budget.
The first upgrades to existing links had been scheduled to begin in 2013.
The reported decision comes as Russia tries to balance football outlays with more urgent construction demands for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi and the 2013 World University Games in Kazan.
The state-owned railway company said only that it had not yet been informed about the government's change of plan and was in any case looking for other funding as a precaution.
"Russian Railways has submitted its high-speed rail construction proposals to the government and has not yet received a formal response," a Russian Railways spokesman told the state RIA Novosti news agency.
Vedomosti said the government was responsible for 70 percent of the links' funding but provided no figure for the proposed cost.
Yet Russia is already spending $7.2 billion on rail and road projects for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. Analysts estimate that the cost of the World Cup project may be even higher because of the number of cities involved.
Western advisers to the Russian government urged Putin last year to focus on high-speed rail because it provided a magnet for small business development that stayed in place once the fans were gone.
"What high-speed rail does, is it has a very big impact on the sustainability and legacy of a region," Andrew Garbutt of the Los Angeles-based AECOM engineering and design firm advised at the time.
Russia currently runs fast trains between Moscow and Saint Petersburg and along a second line linking the capital to the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod.
A separate section also connects Saint Petersburg with Helsinki.
The initial World Cup bid approved by Putin saw Russia propose 13 host cities some 2,500 kilometres (1,500 miles) apart -- more than the distance between Lisbon and Frankfurt and requiring days of ground travel.
Russian Railways had initially wanted the bullet trains to reach as far as the easternmost host city of Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains and possibly also running south.
Analysts said on Thursday that the number of host cities might now have to be slashed drastically because Putin's team would otherwise fail rules requiring easy fan access to all sites.
"It is quite possible that we might have to give up on the right to stage the tournament," IFC Metropol investment bank analyst Andrei Rozhkov told the Prime financial news agency.
"Otherwise, we will simply have to cut down on the number of host cities to two or three."