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NATO Must Not Forget Central Europe's Energy Needs In Countering Russian Influence, U.S. Senator Says

The Nord Stream 2 pipeline (left) and an American tanker carrying liquefied natural gas (combo photo)

The United States and NATO should invest in the energy infrastructure of former Warsaw Pact members as they seek to counter growing Russian power, a U.S. senator has said.

The Kremlin is trying to "gain and grow" its influence in Central and Eastern Europe through nonmilitary means -- such as propaganda and energy exports -- and the United States and NATO need to rethink their strategy, Senator Chris Murphy (Democrat-Connecticut) told a conference in Washington organized by the Atlantic Council on July 17.

"The United States traditionally looks at national security purely through the prism of investments in military hardware. Why not think about a major investment in energy independence for our partners in Central Europe as an extension of our national security spending?" said Murphy, who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation.

Murphy said energy security was going to be the "great question" over the next 50 to 100 years in the United States' relationship with the region and that Washington needed to build a partnership with Central and Eastern Europe to "keep the lights on."

"Instead of just giving advice to Central Europe on how they become energy independent of Russia, why not actually put money on the table?" he said.

Murphy said that was precisely what the Kremlin is doing with the Nord Stream 2 undersea pipeline, which he called a Russian "national security investment."

Nord Stream 2, which Russia hopes to complete by the end of the year, would reroute gas shipments under the Baltic Sea to Germany, depriving U.S. ally Ukraine of critical transit fees. The $11 billion pipeline would increase the Kremlin's hold over the European energy market, Murphy said.

The United States has the potential to send more energy to Russia's neighbors, but additional European infrastructure, such as ports to receive shipments of liquefied natural gas (LNG), first needs to be built.

Washington could divert money from the $6 billion European Deterrence Initiative for energy projects, Murphy said.

The initiative was launched in 2014 to boost European allies' security following the Russian annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. The funding largely goes toward covering the costs of more military exercises, rotation of troops, munitions, and equipment.

"I think it's right that we invest that kind of money in a strategic defense relationship. But I also think it's blind to the fact that many of the challenges that Russia in particular presents to Central European allies fall outside of the purely military sphere," he said.

In March, Murphy co-sponsored a bill that would allocate up to $1 billion to support U.S. public and private investment in European energy projects, including building interconnectors, storage facilities, and LNG import facilities as well as enabling the reversal of gas flows.

The senator also said NATO members' investments in energy security should count toward their annual defense spending. Alliance members are required to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, a limit that U.S. President Donald Trump has pushed countries to adhere to.

"Our measure of contributions to NATO in military hardware dollars alone is not sufficient," Murphy said.

"I do think that there needs to be a reevaluation of the kinds of projects that NATO undertakes. I would argue that we are badly mis-resourced today when it comes to the real challenges that NATO countries are facing."

European energy pipelines have historically run from Russia, one of the world's largest producers of oil and gas, westward through Eastern and Central Europe, limiting the ability of other energy producers to supply the market.

The United States and the European Union are encouraging development of new energy infrastructure throughout the region, including pipelines that run south and north from existing and planned LNG terminals on the Baltic and Adriatic seas.

However, officials from Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic told the Washington conference that there was not enough money for energy-diversification projects in the region, underscoring Murphy's push to make financing available.

"Whoever speaks about the necessity of getting rid of Russian influence has never showed up in Budapest saying I have this amount of money to invest here in your infrastructure in order to enable you to make the diversification," Peter Szijjarto, Hungary’s minister of foreign affairs and trade, told an audience that included current and former U.S. officials.

Hungary has to buy all its imported gas from Russia because it has no other alternative at the moment.

Plans to import gas from neighboring Romania are on hold because ExxonMobil and Austria’s OMV have delayed production at their offshore Black Sea project, he said.

And Croatia's LNG terminal has yet to be built.

"So, we can speak about getting rid of the Russian gas, but until there is someone to invest in [projects] it’s only blah blah," Szijjarto said.

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.