An expert’s point of view on a current event.
Biden Can’t Take Peace in Europe for Granted
The Belarusian government’s hijacking of a flight from Greece to Lithuania is a reminder that Europe’s peace is precarious. Less than a decade after Russian forces shot down a passenger plane over Ukraine, killing 298 people and setting off a broader Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin’s allies in Minsk have endangered civilian air travel again. Russia and Belarus pose an ongoing menace to their neighbors. U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is still developing its strategy toward U.S. allies in Central and Eastern Europe, but its needs to take the region more seriously. Part of the response must be to punish Belarus for the hijacking. But the United States can do more to support stability in Central Europe. Supporting the Three Seas Initiative would bolster U.S. allies while locking out rival powers.
The Biden administration has promised to work more effectively with European allies, but it doesn’t have a strategy for doing so in Central Europe. Its main effort so far has been to improve relations with Germany, notably by declining to sanction Matthias Warnig, a former Stasi agent who leads the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The main opponents of Nord Stream 2 are countries in Central Europe, which have not been reassured by the Biden administration’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’s an easy way to help. Twelve countries in Central Europe have banded together to create the Three Seas Initiative, which seeks to improve its members’ infrastructure and connectivity, stretching from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Adriatic and Black Seas in the south. All Three Seas participants are members of the EU, and all but Austria are members of NATO. Their Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund is already raising private sector funds to build infrastructure in the region.
There’s an obvious economic rationale for building up transportation, internet, and other links across Central Europe. The region has an infrastructure deficit of several trillion dollars, according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates, reflected in an insufficient quantity of roads, airports, and broadband connections. The region has substantially fewer transport and digital interconnections than Western Europe, making it harder to do business or commute for work. That’s why, if done right, infrastructure investment could boost long-run economic growth and make the region’s societies wealthier. For its part, the IMF estimates a dollar of such spending in Central Europe would produce at least 1.7 times as much wealth in the long run as better transportation and connectivity spur new business activity.
Moreover, there’s a geopolitical benefit too. Wealthier societies are more likely to be stable, democratic, and impervious to pressure from Russia or China. That matters because Russia and China are both active in the region, trying to turn foreign investment into political leverage. If the West doesn’t step in, other powers will. Russia already has a long legacy there, dating from the Soviet era. Even today, parts of the region continue to rely on electricity grids, gas pipelines, and railroad networks emanating from Moscow. And Russia is building new projects where it can, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline being the most controversial example.
Reliance on Russian-dominated infrastructure leaves the region rightly worried the Kremlin will use its control over these networks to impose pressure to demand geopolitical concessions. Russia famously tried to pressure 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 in part over fears they might face similar pressure.
Today, the risk is not only Russian-backed infrastructure projects. Chinese firms have invested in several high-profile infrastructure projects across the region, substantially enhancing Beijing’s leverage over certain governments. For example, Montenegro is struggling to repay loans related to a $1 billion road project agreed on with a Chinese firm. Serbia has become China’s best friend in Europe, thanks in large part to Chinese money pouring into the country. Beijing’s spending plans in Hungary may explain why Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban continues to veto EU statements criticizing China crushing democracy in Hong Kong.
Most Central European countries have been smart enough not to take Chinese loans they can’t repay. Concern over Russia is deeply ingrained in the region, and skepticism about China is growing. Lithuania recently announced it will leave the 17+1 grouping of China and 17 Central European states that Beijing uses to shower small gifts on the region’s leaders in exchange for blocking European Union statements critical of China. Moreover, unlike Western European countries that rely on the United States for their defense, most of Central Europe takes ensuring their own security seriously. The NATO countries among them are more likely than others to hit the organization’s target for spending 2 percent of GDP on defense than others. The Three Seas Initiative shows the region already understands infrastructure is crucial to security.
The United States should continue to demand European allies take a hard look at Chinese and Russian infrastructure promises. And the EU and other multilateral institutions need mechanisms for screening questionable investments and imposing strict rules about transparency, financial viability, and environmental protection.
But criticism of Russian and Chinese investment in Central Europe isn’t enough. There’s been plenty of noise from Washington about wanting to push back against Moscow’s and Beijing’s influence in the region. But impassioned speech isn’t a policy. China and Russia are offering loans and investments. Washington has been right to criticize some of these projects, but it should also offer some alternative. The region needs more bridges and broadband initiatives.
The Three Seas Initiative provides a framework the United States can easily plug into. The group is already active, raising public and private sector funds to invest in infrastructure projects. The region’s leaders are already thinking strategically about Three Seas infrastructure plans. Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, who chaired the last summit of the Three Seas countries, has noted they could deepen links to countries like Ukraine that face ongoing Kremlin pressure. As the Biden administration looks for a framework to bolster allies while pushing back against Russia and China, working with the Three Seas Initiative is an obvious place to start.