To win Eastern Europe from Russia, Washington must support the Three Seas Initiative
An expert’s point of view on a current event.
Von Chris Miller is an Assistant Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Democracy at Tuft University.
May 27, 2021, 2:08 p.m.
The hijacking of a flight from Greece to Lithuania by the Belarusian government is a reminder that peace in Europe is precarious. Less than a decade after Russian troops shot down a passenger plane over Ukraine, killing 298 people and sparking a broader Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin’s allies in Minsk have put civilian air traffic at risk again. Russia and Belarus pose a persistent threat to their neighbors. The administration of US President Joe Biden is currently developing its strategy towards US allies in Central and Eastern Europe, but must take the region more seriously. Part of the response must be to punish Belarus for the kidnapping. However, the United States can do more to support stability in Central Europe. Supporting the Three Seas Initiative would empower US allies while excluding rival powers.
The Biden government has promised to work more effectively with European allies, but has no strategy for doing so in Central Europe. So far, the main concern has been to improve relations with Germany, particularly by rejecting the sanctioning of Matthias Warnig, a former Stasi agent who runs the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The main opponents of Nord Stream 2 are countries in Central Europe that have not been calmed by the Biden government’s decision on Nord Stream 2 or the upcoming summit between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
So Washington has work to do in Central Europe. There is an easy way to help. Twelve Central European countries have come together to create the Three Seas Initiative, which aims to improve the infrastructure and connectivity of its members and extends from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Adriatic and Black Sea in the south. All Three Seas participants are members of the EU, and all but Austria are members of NATO. The Three Seas Initiative’s investment fund is already raising funds from the private sector to build infrastructure in the region.
There are obvious economic reasons for establishing transport, internet and other connections in Central Europe. According to estimates by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the region has an infrastructure deficit of several trillion dollars, which is reflected in an insufficient number of roads, airports and broadband connections. The region has far fewer transport and digital connections than Western Europe, making it more difficult to do business or commute to work. Therefore, infrastructure investments, if done right, could fuel long-term economic growth and make societies in the region more prosperous. For its part, the IMF estimates that one dollar of such spending would bring Central Europe at least 1.7 times as much wealth over the long term as better transportation and connectivity would drive new business activity.
There is also a geopolitical advantage. Wealthier societies tend to be stable, democratic and insensitive to pressure from Russia or China. This is important because Russia and China are both active in the region, trying to turn foreign investment into political levers. If the West doesn’t step in, other powers will. Russia already has a long legacy there from the Soviet era. Parts of the region are still dependent on electricity networks, gas pipelines and rail networks from Moscow. And Russia is building new projects where it can, with the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline being the most controversial example.
Confidence in Russia-dominated infrastructure makes the region rightly concerned that the Kremlin will use its control over these networks to pressure to demand geopolitical concessions. Russia is known to have tried to pressurize Ukraine in 2006 and 2008 by cutting off the flow of gas. Other countries in the region have responded timidly to the Kremlin’s geopolitical agenda, partly out of fear that they might face similar pressures.
Today, the risk is not just in Russia-backed infrastructure projects. Chinese firms have invested in several high profile infrastructure projects in the region, which has greatly enhanced Beijing’s influence over certain governments. For example, Montenegro is struggling to repay loans related to a $ 1 billion road project agreed with a Chinese company. Serbia has become China’s best friend in Europe, thanks in large part to the Chinese money pouring into the country. Beijing’s spending plans in Hungary could explain why Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban continues to veto EU statements criticizing China’s shattering democracy in Hong Kong.
Most central European countries have been smart enough not to take out Chinese loans that they cannot repay. Concerns about Russia are deeply rooted in the region and skepticism about China is growing. Lithuania recently announced that it would leave the 17 + 1 group of China and 17 Central European countries with which Beijing is giving small gifts to the leaders of the region in order to block the European Union’s statements critical of China. Unlike Western European countries, who rely on the United States to defend themselves, most of Central Europe takes ensuring their own security seriously. The NATO nations among them are more likely than others to achieve the organization’s goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense than others. The Three Seas Initiative shows that the region already understands that infrastructure is critical to security.
The United States should continue to demand that European allies scrutinize Chinese and Russian infrastructure pledges. The EU and other multilateral institutions need mechanisms to screen questionable investments and to establish strict rules for transparency, financial viability and environmental protection.
However, criticism of Russian and Chinese investments in Central Europe is not enough. There has been a lot of noise from Washington about wanting to defend itself against Moscow and Beijing’s influence in the region. But passionate speech is not politics. China and Russia offer loans and investments. Washington has rightly criticized some of these projects, but it should also offer an alternative. The region needs more bridges and broadband initiatives.
The Three Seas Initiative provides a framework in which the United States can easily become involved. The group is already active, raising public and private funds to invest in infrastructure projects. The region’s heads of state and government are already thinking strategically about Three Seas’ infrastructure plans. Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, chairman of the recent Three Seas Summit, said he could deepen ties with countries like Ukraine, which are facing ongoing pressure from the Kremlin. Since the Biden government is looking for a framework to strengthen allies while taking action against Russia and China at the same time, cooperation with the Three Seas Initiative is an obvious starting point.