Maritime forces like Russia and China are increasingly probing sovereign European waters, overtly and covertly trying to influence the continent’s affairs for their own gain. Realizing the importance of sea dominance and the dangers of European waterways becoming a vacuum, 12 European countries nestled among the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas have forged a strategic union, the Three Seas Initiative. These 12 member states recognize that they can create a powerful regional deterrent against malign external influence by binding and strengthening their connective commercial and democratic tissues to foster greater prosperity and security throughout the Three Seas region.
Member countries will deepen their economic and political integration, but it is the planned strategic investments that will remedy infrastructure divergences between Europe’s East and West and improve the lives of the group’s member citizens. The Three Seas Initiative, by attracting investment from the United States, the European Union, and European capitals, will entrench transparent Western business practices into a region that is vulnerable to Chinese and Russian investment models. Investments from Russia and China—often with direct or indirect links to the Kremlin and the Chinese Communist Party—foster corruption that crowds out legitimate, market-based Western investment and creates dependencies on authoritarian capital.
For the Three Seas Initiative to succeed, the United States and the EU must increase their support for the initiative in the form of additional investments in capital and political will. The alternative is a patchwork of different levels of economic and democratic development in Central and Eastern Europe that creates vulnerabilities for the EU and the transatlantic alliance.
On Feb. 17, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed the Biden administration’s support for the Three Seas Initiative, telling Three Seas foreign ministers in a video address that “Bringing the private sector to the table alongside governments is a smart way to make big infrastructure projects happen.” This support is representative of the type of essential U.S. (and EU) support that will bolster investment, security, and rule of law for Three Seas nations and their partners.
Protecting Interests, Promoting Growth
The Three Seas Initiative was founded in 2015 to protect and expand energy, transportation, and digital connectivity interests and to promote economic growth and investment throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Perhaps as important as defending those foundational interests, the Three Seas Initiative also serves as a force for the region’s Euro-Atlantic integration, thus creating a stronger, more resilient, and democratic EU in the East. Our country, Bulgaria, holds the coordinating role for the initiative for the year ending in October.
Since the end of World War II, Europe has derived its strength through deep unity, manifested most prominently in NATO and the EU. While many of the Three Seas states share membership in both clubs, their democratic growth has lagged many of its western neighbors. Prior to the return of Central and Eastern Europe to a Europe whole and free, Eastern Europe was locked out of the democratic realm for some 45 years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Still today, after 31 years of democracy, there remains an authoritarian impulse in some post-Soviet states now in the EU.
By creating a bloc within a bloc that will draw on transatlantic capital and actors to build out its connective infrastructure, the Three Seas Initiative counters such authoritarian impulses by deepening the bind amongst its member states and fostering greater economic growth and regional prosperity. An intended byproduct includes the growth of these countries’ core democratic identities against foreign and domestic forces that spread distrust of democratic and Euro-Atlantic institutions.
A partnership that stretches from Estonia in the north to Bulgaria in the south and Croatia to the west, one of the reasons the Three Seas Initiative was founded was to secure energy integration. Russian President Vladimir Putin has for years been attempting to divide Three Seas nations to undermine them individually. But throughout the Three Seas bloc, its member states are erecting liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals and interconnections to join national energy networks from Lithuania to Croatia, reducing Putin’s stranglehold on European energy supplies and the political influence it creates in capitals throughout the region.
As pipelines physically connect the countries in the Three Seas Initiative, Western technology will connect the region virtually, thus cutting short China’s ambition to install its spectrum hardware that many believe doubles as spyware. By using trusted vendors from democratic nations for its 5G rollout, the digital pillar of the Three Seas nations will underpin the implementation of the other two.
Difficulties Underscore the Need
The challenges facing the Three Seas Initiative make the undertaking all the more vital and ambitious. For example, avoiding Chinese and Russian investments and attention has proven to be an early hurdle for Three Seas member state Hungary. Budapest, at the moment, welcomes Chinese telecom giant Huawei within its borders, while others in Europe are rejecting the company based on concern that its hardware could be used to spy on end users. Indeed, the case of Hungary underscores the difficulties facing the Three Seas Initiative but also amplifies its raison d’être.
Strategically located and often in need of investment to fuel growth, Central and Eastern European countries are prime targets for external manipulation. Moscow and Beijing have, and will, swoop in to offer the leaders of these countries massive, headline-producing investments structured in a way that entrenches corrosive business practices and crowds out constructive capital.
By providing funding for commercially viable, market-based investments that are rooted in transparency, the Three Seas Initiative creates a powerful alternative to the strings-attached investments offered by Russia and China. Funding for the initiative comes from its member states, the United States, and the EU and goes toward a Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund. Once funds are committed by member states, they are managed by its exclusive financial advisor, Amber Investment Group, which decides on project priorities according to feasibility and commercial viability. This market- and feasibility-based process for project selection decreases the potential for outside actors to influence project selection and increases investor trust in the Fund’s strict adherence to market principles.
This mechanism is critical to breaking the influence of external and political actors who would seek to influence the project for personal gain or even more nefarious ends for foreign actors, especially those with links to the Kremlin or the CCP. By embracing this initiative, the region is pushing back on the geostrategic designs of Russia and China by promoting transparency, prosperity and development aligned with Western standards.
To ensure the Initiative is a success, support from the United States and the EU is essential. Costless gestures from Washington like congressional resolutions and committee hearings are like gold to those in Eastern Europe seeking to fend off mutual adversaries. The same goes for members of the new Biden administration, whose participation in Three Seas’ conferences and summits is always welcome. Transatlantic convergence around the initiative will ensure the Three Seas is a victory not only for its allied states, but for the EU and the U.S. alike — much to the chagrin of Moscow and Beijing.