The Three Seas Initiative: Freeing East-Central Europe One Pipeline at a Time

Established by the Presidents of Poland and Croatia in 2015 as a strategy of ensuring the security of East-Central Europe by facilitating cooperation between the countries of the region, the Three Seas Initiative has grown in scope and potential as it has proven it can address the common challenges which face the nations located within the axis of the Baltic, Black and Adriatic Seas. United by common issues stemming from shared historical experiences, including the still-fresh memory of subordination to the Soviet Union, many East-Central European governments see the Initiatives’ value.  Envisioning pooled investment in cross-border pipelines, alternate energy sources, essential infrastructure, and economic development within the region, the supporters of Three Seas desire to increase the prosperity of East-Central Europe in addition to mitigating the influence of Moscow. Since the first 3SI summit in Dubrovnik in 2016, the project has been bolstered by extensive support from within the region, with 9 out of 12 EU member states pledging $1.2 billion to the Three Seas Investment Fund as of 2021. The 3SI has also received extensive aid from the EU and the United States, which see the project as an essential contributor to European stability and integration.

The 3SI has never been more relevant than now as Europe faces an energy crisis in which it finds itself short of natural gas supplies and unprepared to counter the monopoly of Russia’s state-owned gas provider Gazprom, granting the Kremlin political leverage in its dealings with the EU. Lack of political will and foresight on the part of EU member states and the US Biden Administrations’ decision to waive sanctions on those involved in completing the Russo-German Nord Stream 2 pipeline has only compounded European dependency on Moscow. 

While the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline threatens to destabilize the entire transatlantic order, its consequences are particularly felt by the nations of East-Central Europe, with Ukraine and Poland openly criticizing western acquiescence to Putin’s bold posturing. For the East-Central European region, the completion of Nord Stream 2 confirms Russia’s dominant position as an energy provider and represents the resurgence of Kremlin power and a direct threat to the political sovereignty of lands between the Baltic and Black Seas. Particularly vulnerable is Ukraine, a country that has recently been on the receiving end of Kremlin aggression and does not have membership in either NATO or the EU. The Kremlin has a freer hand in its dealings with its neighbor, no longer solely dependent on its Ukrainian pipelines to ship gas to Europe.

In the face of Moscow’s use of energy as a geopolitical weapon and its reassertion in East-Central Europe, the Three Seas Initiative provides the most effective regional deterrence to the Kremlin’s power politics. By enhancing inter-state cooperation between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic seas, the 3SI aims to reverse the effects of Soviet imperialism in the region by decreasing its dependency on pipelines and transportation routes set on an east-west axis, an orientation which reflects the former dominance of the Kremlin in East-Central Europe. By investing in pipelines and trade routes running along a north-south axis, the project aims to ensure energy security and facilitate economic integration and prosperity within the region. 

The member states encompassed by the 3SI have begun to take the necessary steps needed to realize these goals. Poland has been extensively cooperating with its Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian partners in the Gas Interconnection Poland-Lithuania project, which will connect Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn to the broader European gas network. Of particular importance in blunting the repercussions of Nord Stream 2 is the ambitious Baltic Pipe, which will open a new gas supply corridor between the Norwegian sector of the North Sea and Poland. In October, the Polish fuel giant PKN Orlen announced that it would be building a 641 million oil-processing facility in Mazeikai, Lithuania, an investment only made possible by the increasingly warm relationship between the two countries. Last month also saw Poland’s PGNiG sign a deal in which it will partner with the American-Ukrainian ERU Group to transport natural gas to Moldova in the small country’s first gas supply from a non-Russian source. Other promising projects include the Trans-European Transport Network, which would connect the Baltic with the Adriatic and Western Balkans via railway corridors; the FAIRway Danube project, which seeks to upgrade infrastructure and navigation conditions for water traffic along the Danube River; and the 3SI Marketplace, which aims to stimulate trade and investment in the region by linking small and medium-sized businesses to investment capital.

The looming energy crisis has led to some setbacks, with some East-Central European governments prioritizing immediate energy demands over the long-term interests of the 3SI. Hungary, Croatia, and several other countries along the Danube and in the Balkans have been criticized for agreeing to receive Russian gas through the Balkan Stream, which will transport natural gas into south-eastern Europe from the Russo-Turkish Turk Stream, which funnels gas under the Black Sea. Ukraine, which is understandably threatened by the Russian-Hungarian contract, declared that the agreement facilitates the Kremlin’s “use of gas as a weapon.” 

Nevertheless, while the shipment of Russian gas to the Balkans and Danube region compromises the interests of the 3SI, it does not mean that south-eastern Europe is not actively diversifying its gas supply routes. Croatia is actively investing in its floating liquefied gas (LNG) terminal near the Adriatic Island of Krk and hopes to become the primary energy provider in the region. The ambitious BRUA pipeline, which is set to reach its second phase, will supply Romanian Black Sea gas to the Danube region. Sustained investment towards these projects, as well as the forging of stronger ties between East-Central Europe’s northern and southern halves, promises to dramatically reduce the region’s dependency on Russian gas.

The 3SI and its associated projects do not take place in a vacuum and are assuming greater prominence in international geopolitics. If the current resurgence of Russia and the ominous energy crisis highlights the importance of collaboration between the nations situated between the three seas, it is also a reminder to the western member states of the EU and the United States to take the security interests of East-Central Europe seriously. The 12 East-Central European EU member states that participate in the 3SI form the eastern flank of the European Union and play a critical role in its territorial defense. By asserting their independence and casting away the residue of imperial subjugation, the nations of East-Central Europe have the potential to stabilize the balance of power in Europe. With East-Central European countries having the fastest growing per capita GDP averages in the EU, the gap between the former Eastern bloc Soviet satellites and Western Europe is becoming narrower, and the region is increasingly attractive to foreign businesses and investors. By actively supporting the projects of the 3SI and demonstrating solidarity with its East-Central European members through concrete action, the EU will strengthen the cohesion of the European project as a whole. 

The 3SI is also an ideal opportunity for the United States to help its EU and NATO allies by demonstrating that it can be trusted to support East-Central Europe in its drive for self-sufficiency and independence. Regional statesmen understand the vital role that the United States can play in helping the 3SI. According to Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau, US cooperation in the 3SI can strengthen its close relations with Europe and “become an area of successful transatlantic cooperation that will be beneficial to all of us.” Moreover, the project is designed to counter the resurgence of Russia and China in the international sphere and aims to contest their economic hold over the European continent. By investing in the nations of East-Central Europe, the United States is safeguarding its partners from renewed Kremlin domination and ensures the stability of the transatlantic alliance as a whole. The 3SI has already received considerable help from the United States, especially the former Trump Administration. The Biden Administration must continue the practice of supporting its East-Central European partners not only in words but also in concrete action by supporting the region’s energy diversification and opposing the certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

For the nations between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas, the 3SI is about more than economic growth, infrastructural development, and energy independence. Its vital importance is that it represents the joint effort of the region’s peoples to emancipate their countries from the traumatic legacy of centuries of imperial rule, deprivation of sovereignty, and decades of stagnation under Moscow’s orbit. The nations of East-Central Europe are diverse in their traditions, languages, and origins. Still, they are linked by common historical experiences that have bestowed upon them a shared historical destiny. By drawing upon their unique traditions and shared experiences, the region’s nations can realize their potential as a distinct community that can assert its autonomy independently from foreign power brokers. By investing in the 3SI now, the leaders of East-Central Europe are finally taking the reigns of their history, ensuring the freedom and prosperity of future generations to come.

by PAC Intern Eliseo Nesci

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