After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia’s acts of aggression and its military-oriented stance on NATO’s eastern flank have inevitably become a reason for concern for a number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe, particularly those behind the former Iron Curtain under Russia’s sphere of influence. Efforts to connect European infrastructure from north to south may curb Moscow’s influence in the region, and inadvertently boost the collective security of central and east-European states.
The new security paradigm in the wake of Crimea’s annexation has determined a number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe, those that are the most susceptible to possible acts of aggression from Russia, to come up with rapid growth policies that should help strengthen defensive capabilities. One such solution was the Three Seas Initiative (3SI), aimed at interconnecting the economies of countries located between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas.
I followed the latest developments regarding this initiative at a local event organized in Poland, the main supporter of 3SI.
From Piłsudski’s “cordon sanitaire” to the Three Seas Initiative
An alliance of central and eastern European countries is not exactly a new concept. Rather, it is rooted in the geopolitical project dubbed “Intermarium”, spearheaded by Polish chief of state Józef Piłsudski in the 1920s.
Piłsudski dreamt of a “cordon sanitaire” extending from Russia to Western Europe, made up of central and eastern European countries that many continental superpowers tried to claim as their own over the centuries, thus slowing down their state-building and development efforts. Naturally, the Polish Field Marshal’s idea prompted the discontentment not just of Russia, but also of Western powers.
The Three Seas Initiative (3SI) project is the present-day, updated version of Piłsudski’s proposal a century ago, put in a broader political, economic and security context.
3SI is aimed at boosting the interconnection of no less than 12 European countries in central and eastern Europe. Although it doesn’t have a military focus, being an initiative based on political vision and economic development, an interconnected infrastructure would obviously spell more security benefits.
“At present, talks at the level of the Three Seas Initiative are rather focusing on the development of civilian infrastructure, namely road infrastructure, energy interconnection and digital infrastructure. We are currently not considering expanding the initiative to security and military cooperation. This is rather something we are discussing on the sidelines of NATO and in our consultations at government level in the field of security. Nevertheless, certain analysts and experts claim that, if we keep developing infrastructure in Central Europe, if we fulfill all these promises and plans, we will have an infrastructure that in turn will allow us to be more resilient in the field of security”, the Polish deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Polish Government’s 3SI representative, Paweł Kotovski, has told Veridica.ro.
In theory, the Three Seas Initiative was designed to support three important pillars – transport, energy and digitization – that should contribute to the development of countries located between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas: Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
3SI addresses over 112 million people living in this region spanning over 1.2 million square kilometers, with a huge potential for development that needs tapping into. The area covers a third of EU territory, although it accounts for merely 10% of the EU’s GDP. The average salary across the 12 3SI states is approximately 1,080 Euro, tantamount to half the total EU average.
The Three Seas Initiative advanced quite slowly. It was set up around 2015, and its first summit was held in Dubrovnik in 2016. Annual meetings were subsequently organized in Warsaw (2017), Bucharest (2018), Ljubljana (2019), Tallinn (2020) and Sofia (2021).
The architects of 3SI based their undertaking on the observation that the Soviet Union had built land and rail access routes linking Russia to these countries, but not among themselves, which led to a premeditated interconnection underdevelopment of the north-south corridor behind the Iron Curtain. Overall, Moscow planned to move its troops from east to west, so it never built anything that should connect the countries it occupied after WWII.
A 600-billion-Euro plan. Funding sources. The first billion
Infrastructure projects will require a huge amount of money, but also time. Therefore, strategy-planning looks a few decades ahead in order to bridge the infrastructure gaps between west-European and east-European countries. According to SpotData analytic center, 3SI spending is expected to reach 600 billion Euro by 2030, and this is just the amount meant to cover EU-wide infrastructure gaps.
Of course, the question is where will the 3SI find the necessary funds to implement its ambitious infrastructure projects? We are particularly referring to the “Via Carpathia” motorway linking Klaipėda (Lithuania) to Thessaloniki (Greece), on the north-south corridor, from the Baltic Sea to the Aegean Sea, and the “Rail2Sea” railway expected to link the ports of Gdansk (Poland) and Constanța (Romania).
“These projects are developing quite well, Via Carpathia especially. We started this, it’s already in progress. There is work on some elements of the road in progress. The same goes, if I remember correctly, for Hungary, which is almost done with its part. We are on track. There is also Slovakia, which might be one or two years late, but they are also coming. Romania, as far as I know, is also doing quite good in this regard. […] The same goes for Rail2Sea. It’s going to be very important to have this link between our ports, if we manage to combine Gdansk and Constanța, so that we can actually create a joint product for the cargo companies, so they can actually ship very easily from any place in the world to Gdansk and next on the rail to the rest of Europe and to the port in Constanța”, Paweł Kotovski told CaleaEuropeană.ro.
A number of European countries, including those that are part of the Three Seas Initiative, continue to rely on Russian gas imports and are looking for solutions to cover alternative gas supply sources. One solution could be liquefied natural gas (LNG), which the United States is already trading to European countries in order to offset Russia’s growing influence in this key sector.
As regards infrastructure, Poland has already finished building a liquefied gas terminal, and Croatia has opened a terminal of its own on Krk island earlier this year. Romania is next expected to build such a terminal, but this won’t be happening any time earlier than 2026.
Furthermore, 3SI countries are already making inter-regional efforts to import gas from Denmark (via Poland). There’s also the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) transporting gas to Europe, from Azerbaijan via Turkey. The region awaits Romania to decide how it will exploit its natural gas deposits in the Black Sea and its contribution to the BRUA pipeline.
At present, 3SI announced it has a 1-billion-Euro basis to develop its panned projects. In May, 2019, shortly after the 3SI Summit in Bucharest, Poland and Romania also created the Three Seas Initiative Fund, laying the foundation of a dedicated financial platform worth 500 million Euro. Subsequently, Estonia, Latvia, Hungary, Slovenia and Bulgaria made individual contributions, followed by Croatia and Lithuania, bringing in an additional 290 million Euro.
Beata Daszyńska-Muzyczka, the chairman of Poland’s state development Bank and the president of the 3SI Fund’s Oversight Council, told a 3SI conference held in Warsaw on September 18 that the Fund plans to raise 3 to 5 billion Euro in the first phase.
Moreover, the USA already announced it would contribute 1 billion dollars, which will inevitably create a snowball effect for other top investors, particularly from the private sector, which also includes large US companies. Germany is also on standby, and so is the European Commission.
Beata Daszyńska-Muzyczka told CaleaEuropeană.ro, shortly after the event in Warsaw, that there are presently 10 investors lining up contributions to the Fund, one of which comes from the private sector.
A thorn in Moscow’s side
The Three Seas Initiative is a project that might interfere with Moscow’s regional interests, at least in the energy field, because Russia was hoping to further expand its influence in Europe. The consolidation of energy sustainability, but also the development of economic capabilities in 3SI countries, will clearly hurt Moscow’s plans. Besides, 3SI would also deepen cohesion among these states and create common objectives.
In addition, Poland’s growing influence in the region would translate as an additional disadvantage for Russia, for reasons that have to do with the developments in Ukraine. Warsaw has been lobbying for Ukraine for years in Brussels, which goes against Russia’s plans to sabotage Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic bids. More to the point, Poland is extremely cautious about Russia’s military build-up in the region, which it regards as an imminent security risk.
“I believe there is common understanding at NATO level, and also within the European Union, that Russia is a threat and poses a serious challenge to NATO, to the stability in Europe and the security of international governments”, Poland’s deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, Paweł Kotovski, also told Veridica.ro. “We’re now witnessing large-scale military maneuvers east of our borders. Therefore, this creates the premises that lead us to believe Russia is a serious and major security threat”, added the Polish diplomat, who recently returned to the Ministry from the USA.
Under these circumstances, Russia will make concerted efforts to obstruct this project that could capitalize on the most important NATO pillars on the eastern flank – Poland and Romania, two countries where the USA has invested a lot in recent years, both economically, as well as in terms of consolidating the security of both states.
Neither Russian, nor Chinese capital will reach the area as easy as they did before, if 3SI does manage to find investors among private companies in the West, particularly in the United States, a fierce economic rival of China. Chinese plans to build a motorway in Montenegro, which subsequently accrued a huge debt for this country, is but one example showing that this kind of investment is neither viable nor advisable for small countries in southeastern Europe.
Although it is still in its early stages, 3SI has a potential to be reckoned with, one that would bring substantially more cohesion to Central and Eastern Europe, an area targeted by Chinese and Russian investments. One plan is to accelerate the development of road infrastructure, outplaying China’s efforts at implementing the “Belt and Road Initiative”, particularly in the Balkans. Similarly, Russia is economically and politically invested in the region, seeking to undermine these countries’ gas resources and infrastructure, given that Moscow is the region’s top natural gas supplier. Overall, the Three Seas Initiative is a long-term project that requires a robust budget, and yet with a huge potential for accelerating the development projects of participant countries in the future.