Before reveling in a new clash of civilizations in his Warsaw speech Thursday, President Donald Trump cannonballed into energy geopolitics, committing the U.S. to combatting Russian energy bullying — at the possible expense of European unity.
During a lightning visit to Poland, Trump gave public backing to a new, 12-country plan to tie together Central-Eastern Europe, framing his support as a ploy to counter the Kremlin’s penchant for using supplies of natural gas as a cudgel against its neighbors.
“America will be your strongest ally and steadfast partner in this truly historic initiative,” he proclaimed.
The so-called “Three Seas Initiative” (TSI), dreamed up last year by Poland with an assist from Croatia, aims to take advantage of the Baltic, Adriatic, and Black Seas to break Central-Eastern Europe’s isolation, especially on matters of transport and energy. Ukraine’s dismemberment at Russia’s hands helped jumpstart the plan, which parallels other U.S.-backed approaches to knit north- and southeastern Europe together into a bulwark against Moscow.
Trump likes the idea because he thinks it’s an opportunity to sell more liquified natural gas, or LNG, from America’s shale patch.
“Whenever you need energy, just give us a call,” Trump told the assembled representatives of the Central and Eastern European countries that have signed onto the TSI. “The United States will never use energy to coerce your nations,” he added, in a not-so-veiled reference to the dozens of times since 1991 that Russia has curtailed energy supplies to cow neighbors.
Last month the first U.S. cargo of LNG arrived in Poland arrived. Croatia is working to construct a similar terminal in the Adriatic soon, which could help supply southern Europe. (The Black Sea is a bit tougher, at least within the TSI: Only Ukraine, which isn’t part of the club, has a gas import terminal there.)
But America’s international gas trade is business, not politics. Any “LNG projects will happen on a commercial basis,” said Piotr Buras, head of the European Council of Foreign Relations’ Warsaw office. In many cases, it is cheaper to ship Russian gas from Siberia to nearby countries via pipeline than it is to supercool the gas and ship it halfway around the world, though LNG prices have cratered in Europe and Asia.
When Polish President Andrzej Duda expressed hope that his country and U.S. firms would sign LNG deals soon, Trump responded, “Maybe we get your price up a little bit.”
In any event, U.S. support for alternative supplies of energy in Europe is nothing new — it’s been Washington’s line for years, and U.S. natural gas in particular was seen as a lifeline for Europe (as well as Asia).
More troubling, some say, is Trump’s willingness to support the year-old TSI, which reanimates an almost century-old semi-authoritarian plan to unite the people caught between Germany and Russia under Polish leadership. Known then as the “Intermarium,” the concept was first proposed by Jozef Pilsudski, the military dictator who dominated Polish politics between Worlds Wars I and II.
What Trump’s backing might do, Buras notes, is “encourage the Polish government to politicize” the Three Seas Initiative. The plan isn’t just about breaking free from Russia’s energy orbit; it’s “also about trying to push Germany away from this part of Europe or at least to form a certain counterweight to Germany,” Buras says. And the current Polish government, lead by the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) Party, sees itself as the vanguard of any such regional counterweight.
Matthew Kott, a researcher at Uppsala University’s Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, puts the Three Seas squarely in the “wave of populist illiberalism” that Trump, along with Brexit, helped usher in last year.
“In many ways, the Three Seas Initiative is ‘Poland First.’ They’re staking out a place where they can be the big fish in a small pond,” Kott said.
Already, some of the Three Seas members are getting wary. The Czech Republic declined to attend this year’s presidential-level summit because, in the words of one Czech diplomat, the plan too closely resembled the “concept of Pilsudski.”
Russia itself is torn. On the one hand, greater energy autonomy for Central and Eastern Europe could be a problem: Gazprom, the big Russian gas firm, does three quarters of its business in Europe. That’s why pro-Russia outlets like Sputnik have been playing TSI up as an attempt to recreate the Intermarium.
But the Kremlin also has an interest in seeing the Three Seas Initiative widen the divide between Poland, its Central-East European neighbors, Germany, and the rest of the EU. Poland’s lurch away from European norms has drawn plenty of knuckle-rapping from Brussels, and it has fought Germany tooth and nail over the latest Russian-sponsored pipeline.
That’s the vortex into which Trump stepped Thursday, perhaps not fully grasping the complexity of Europe pipeline politics — or, until fairly recently, what LNG even is.
He told his Polish counterparty Thursday, “I think we can enter a contract for LNG within the next 15 minutes.” Duda just laughed.
Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
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