Eastern Europe trying a ride – will America press the pedal?

Eastern and Central Europe is self-sufficient neither energetically, nor economically. Attempts are being made towards greater independence from Russian energy resources and increased regional cooperation. The Three Seas Summit, attended by President Trump last week was as a stepping stone in this direction.

The 2017 Three Seas Summit was the second round of an initiative launched in 2016 to increase energy cooperation among Eastern and Central European states. Countries in the region are wholly dependent for their survival on energy imports. In particular, imports from Russia account for more than half of gas consumption in the area. In 2016, Poland’s consumption of Russian gas was the largest, reaching 11.07 billion cubic meters. Because most Central and Eastern European governments view Russia as a threat, energy dependence on that same country appears to be a strategic vulnerability.

The Three Seas Summit focuses on developing the necessary regional partnerships and infrastructure to diversify energy sources. Progress has been made as Poland began to operate its own liquefied natural gas terminal in 2016, with a first shipment from the United States in June 2017. A sister project is under construction on the Croatian island of Krk. Efforts to decrease energy dependence on Russia are actively supported by European institutions. The European Commission, for example, will work with the Baltic states to link their electricity grids to the EU through Poland by 2025.

One of the main challenges that participants of the Three Seas Summit face is economic. Additionally, a lack of infrastructural capacity could severely impede on the ambitions to transform the two Liquified Natural Gas Terminals into regional energy hubs. A key reason why Donald Trump was invited to attend the 2017 Summit in Warsaw is because the United States could be a major partner to diversify the region’s energy sources. The US may find a vested interest in this project as a card played against Russia, for whom Eastern Europe represents a major energy market.

In addition, the US is the main security partner of Eastern and Central Europe, through NATO. During President Trump’s visit to Poland, he jointly signed a memorandum with Poland’s Defence Minister confirming the sales of a Patriot missile defence system to the host country. Poland’s leadership was anxious for the US to reaffirm its commitment to European security, in particular within the NATO framework. The Baltic states also rely on American military support, as does the current Ukrainian government.

Deeper foreign policy coordination in Central and Eastern Europe is on the agenda of certain Polish circles, inspired by Piłsudski’s idea of an ‘Intermarium’ region that, according to the Polish leader, would stabilise the European balance of power. Piłsudski argued that the ‘Intermarium’ would be a counter-weight to both German dominance and Russian expansionism. Leading Ukrainian nationalist organisations such as Freedom, the Convention of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Right Sector adopted an agenda in March which includes the creation of a Baltic-Black Sea Union. In geographic terms, these projects overlap. In political terms, they are unlikely to be feasible: in each case, the project’s architect aspires to dominate the integrated region. Both Poland and Ukraine, the largest states in the region, could not simultaneously take the lead. One issue is who drives, another is who gets in the car. Smaller neighbours are particularly reluctant to embrace any political project that bears an open relationship with Piłsudski’s ‘Intermarium’ because of the spectre of Polish imperialism. In addition, paucity in energy and economic resources provide a wobbly base for integration.

It is clear that from the Eastern and Central European point of view, the US is broadly considered as an a valuable ally. Switching perspectives, let us consider what concrete interests, if any, the Trump administration may have to support the region.

Central and Eastern Europe, in relative terms, is far from being prosperous. In terms of individual consumer products therefore, it is not a viable time investment for the US to develop links with the region. On national level consumption however, the picture changes. Aspirations to turn away from Russia consolidate this region as a market for American weapons and energy resources. Weapons sales to NATO countries are likely to increase as members strive to meet their defence spending commitment of 2 percent of GDP. Revenue from weapon sales will be one means to finance President Trump’s promise of a national Wirtschaftswunder.

From a geopolitical standpoint, the development of a closer bound Eastern European ‘cordon sanitaire’ also appears to be in America’s interests, at least for two reasons.

First, on the European continent, it may serve to entrench the current rift between Germany and Russia. Although much of the current German political elite is reluctant to move closer to Russia at the moment, a foreseeable deepening of the EU crisis may push German investors closer to Russian markets, thirsting for technological input in exchange for raw materials. A German-Russia economic block would be an additional challenge to America, faced on its other flank by South East Asia. The crystallisation of an anti-Russian buffer in Eastern Europe would impede plans to deepen German-Russian economic cooperation.

Poland and the Baltic states are already vocal today in warning against the threat of a Russian attack. Further security cooperation between these states would tighten a hostile belt along the Russian border, which would in turn increase the perception of threat from the Russian perspective and likely produce further signs of hostility on Russia’s behalf. Germany, a NATO member and the willing centre of a shaky EU will side with its weaker Eastern neighbours against Russia in such a scenario, as it does with sanctions today.

Second, a ‘cordon sanitaire’ hostile to Russia would not only impede a productive relation with Germany, but would also be a stumbling block to the ‘Greater Eurasia’ and ‘One Belt One Road’ projects. One of the principal ambitions of ‘One Belt One Road’ is to develop continental transit routes to comparatively wealthy Western European markets. The continental route, although dependent on Eurasian political stability, will diminish Chinese dependence on maritime trade routes, over which the Americans have military dominance. Increased political tensions between Eastern Europe and Russia will come at the detriment of collaboration on freight transit and infrastructural development essential for the new continental Silk Road.

There is a geostrategic rationale for America to support increased cooperation in Eastern and Central Europe on energy, security and possibly other realms of policy. The region may lack self-sufficient and be politically weak, but with the support of an external hegemon, it may well play a crucial role in the coming decade.

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