The aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows how crucial it is for nations located between Russia and Germany to team up. Despite some discrepancies that are rooted in history and should not drift into oblivion as they still influence people living between the Baltic, Adriatic, and Black Seas, now the priority is their common interests.
The past thirty years have unlocked a great potential in Central European countries that have achieved so much in such a short period. Notwithstanding some flaws, the region has undergone a successful transformation, or a serious challenge after the decades-long and Soviet-imposed communist regime. Yet paradoxically, nations of Central Europe resist ideology-tainted efforts to rebuild the world, as urged by the Western left-wing milieu. The painful experience of communism must have created a climate of skepticism.
Meanwhile, the region’s economic growth could bring to mind that of Asian tigers in the second half of the 20th century. Three Seas nations have shown how much good they can do once managed on their own. Living standards have risen while their crime rate dropped, compared to other European countries. But nations of Central Europe still lag behind their Western European peers while no effort should be spared to clear a backlog.
What binds most is common security. Once Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimea and part of Donbas in 2014, some states that fell intimidated by the authoritarian imperialism of the Kremlin vowed closer cooperation. One example of this could be the Bucharest Nine group of eastern flank NATO allies. Coordinated efforts and a common stance at the NATO summit allow them to articulate their years-long fear of Russia. The U.S.-backed Three Seas Initiative was established back then to make Central European nations independent of Russian-sourced energy. What came to light was that the lack of energy link was only part of the problem as countries at the same time struggled with patchy transport and digital infrastructure. With decades-long dependence on other states, there was a delay in constructing relevant links running from north to south and between the region’s most important cities. The twelve-member Three Seas Initiative is seeking to foster energy, transport, and digital infrastructure to bring together all states. This should exploit the untapped potential and offer fresh opportunities for economic, social, and political partnerships.
Although political and economic, the Three Seas Initiative matters for security along NATO’s eastern wing. Diversified energy supplies and their unrestricted transport now matter more than ever before. Digital infrastructure can boost cyber security levels. No effective deterrence or––worse enough––defense is possible without the proper infrastructure to move troops quickly. Although much has changed, railway connections and seaports will continue to serve their purposes, as the war in Ukraine has shown.
One example of an infrastructure project to enhance connectivity is Rail Baltica, an railway infrastructure project now under construction to link Poland and the Baltic States with Finland. What Central Europe needs is Rail Carpatia, a railway link that could alter connections within Three Seas countries from Poland in the north and Bulgaria in the south, also invite others, including non-EU Western Balkan nations. Such infrastructure projects matter economically and militarily to encourage mobility along the eastern flank of NATO.
The Three Seas Initiative comprising twelve EU states should remain open to a whole range of countries. These include the United States and Germany, the former greatly involved since the inception of the forum than the latter. Another country that evinces interest in forging ties with the Three Seas Initiative is Greece. New infrastructure facilities matter for the Western Balkans. But given economic ties and efforts to counter the Russian threat, it is worth envisaging a cooperation platform between the Three Seas Initiative and Nordic countries––Finland, Sweden, and Norway.
Another country that might contribute to the Three Seas Initiative is Ukraine, a non-EU state. The Three Seas Initiative member states have granted Ukraine participating partner status to the group, which makes it possible for Kyiv to participate in their projects. When Ukraine is added to the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) and new investments are made in standard-gauge tracks, Three Seas nations could think to integrate adjacent countries, notably Ukraine. Not only would this create more efficient railway links between the Polish Baltic Sea port of Gdańsk and the Black Sea ports in Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria. Furthermore, Three Seas nations could gain rapid and convenient access to Greek ports and Turkey. How crucial Black Sea ports are was evidenced by the recent Three Seas investment in the Bulgarian port of Burgas. But to use them properly one needs efficient links, notably by rail. Inviting Ukraine into Three Seas infrastructure projects could boost the region’s economy, making them far more efficient.
We are at a different point now, though. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine goes on; no one knows whether it ends and for whom it would be victorious. What mattered was a multi-layer scheme of support that Western countries threw to Ukraine as soon as the latter was invaded by Russia. Meanwhile, some countries perceive security differently. At the Three Seas summit in Sofia last year, it was clear that the Biden administration restrained its participation, somewhat giving more space to Germany. Nonetheless, as Washington and Berlin follow distinct policies while some eastern NATO members doubt whether as to the German stance, the U.S. administration is again likely to become the number one partner of the Three Seas Initiative.
Western unity could stop the aggressive Russian policy and thus Moscow is so willing to fuel existing chasms or spark new ones. Indeed, there are differences and no one should overlook this mere fact. What resumes the rift is how Three Seas nations have reacted to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Three Seas nations cannot neglect the pressure that Brussels exerts on them in such fields as climate policy or their domestic affairs, which are competencies remaining with these countries. Just as introducing the euro as a monetary unit had distinct consequences for some member states, sometimes putting them into an uneasy financial situation, the same is now the case of the ideology-tinted climate policy. Those most concerned could be Three Seas nations, including Poland, to consolidate the dependent-development model, widespread in this region. Three Seas nations value highly sovereignty and independence thus being wary of EU-promoted federalist tendencies. This is an important area where cooperation would bring real value.
Are Three Seas nations unanimous? Of course not––it is clear for such various countries that reveal distinct pursuits and conditions. One example could be how Hungary responded to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is key to agree on strategic projects despite differences, seeking to offer solid support while remembering some members could remain hesitant about some ideas. The dynamic political landscape favors closer ties between states running along an axis from the Baltic to the Adriatic and Black Seas. Now it is just time to push such initiatives as that of the Three Seas. If Three Seas countries do not learn to achieve common goals, Central Europe will yet again depend on its strong neighbors, losing the chance for a better future.
Rafał Zgorzelski, PhD