WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan group of lawmakers has asked the Biden administration to move ahead with a U.S. pledge made under the previous administration to invest $300 million in energy infrastructure projects in Central and Eastern Europe as Congress seeks to counter Russian and Chinese influence in the region.
The Trump administration in 2020 agreed to contribute up to $1 billion to the Three Seas Initiative Infrastructure Fund through the U.S. Development Finance Corporation (DFC), which in December approved an initial investment of $300 million. However, amid a bumpy presidential transition, the money has yet to be transferred.
The fund was set up by 12 nations in Central and Eastern Europe, which lie between the Baltic, Adriatic, and Black seas and are members of the European Union, to address historical infrastructure gaps that have left the region heavily dependent on Russia for energy imports. Congress last year passed a resolution announcing its support for the fund.
The group of nations is seeking to expand energy infrastructure running north and south to counter the predominance of infrastructure built during Soviet times to run from Russia westward through Central and Eastern Europe. Each of the 12 nations is expected to contribute to the fund.
"The current infrastructure deficit leaves the region overly dependent on Russia and China for energy and economic needs. Unfortunately, these malign actors seek to sow discord in the transatlantic alliance through hybrid warfare operations, compromised telecommunications hardware, and the export of authoritarian ideals," the representatives said in a February 11 joint letter to the president.
"Our support for the Three Seas Initiative will help provide a solid footing for our allies and partners to achieve these goals," they said.
Moscow has been accused by Western governments of using its dominant energy position as a "weapon" to maintain influence in the former communist nations of Central and Eastern Europe.
Russia twice cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine in 2006 and 2009 in the dead of winter amid a disagreement over prices, exposing Kyiv’s total dependence on its eastern neighbor for imports. The shutoffs shook the nations of Europe and forced them to accelerate their energy diversification.
Ukraine has ended direct imports of natural gas from Russia, purchasing energy from its western neighbors. Several Eastern European countries, especially in the Balkans, are still heavily dependent on Russia for natural gas and oil imports.
In their letter to Biden, the U.S. lawmakers highlighted the importance of using the fund to expand energy infrastructure connections to Ukraine.
Global natural gas production has surged in recent years, led by the United States, opening an opportunity for Central and Eastern Europe to diversify imports away from Russia. However, a lack of infrastructure, including liquefied natural gas terminals, pipelines, and interconnectors have hampered the speed of progress.
The Three Seas Initiative Infrastructure Fund seeks to address those problems. The 12 nations have contributed nearly $1.5 billion to date, with the majority coming from Poland, Daniel Kochis, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, said in a January 5 commentary.
Kochis said the fund would be more effective in solving the infrastructure gap in Europe if it were permitted to invest in non-EU countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, and those in the Western Balkans.
While Russia’s influence in those countries has always been strong, China has been making important inroads in recent years, especially in the Western Balkans.
"Chinese investments have often focused on those nations that aren't fully ensconced within the transatlantic community. Broadening the scope of the Three Seas Initiative will help to steel vulnerable nations against undue influence from China," Kochis said.