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Submitted by redakcja2 on Wed, 01/20/2021 - 00:18
Hitting the Gas: Would the US CE Policy Shift to the Balkans?

In early January 2021, two announcement related to Central and Eastern European energy security hit the news. Both of them, first LNG gas delivery to the Croatian LNG port and the TurkStream/Balkan Stream becoming operational, are signaling an ever continuous battle between the US and the Russian Federation. The goal? Limiting or solidifying the presence of "pipeline politics" in the CEE region.

The main goal for Russian energy politics in the last decade was the creation of a ring of pipelines that reaches EU member states by cutting Ukraine out. The northern prong supporting this policy were the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, supplemented by the TurkSteam pipeline that aimed to bypass the Ukrainian pipeline system from the south.

The US under President Trump's term made significant steps to counter this. Both the US Congress, both the US administration was active in developing policy solutions that aimed at curbing the presence and effects of Russian natural gas monopoly in CEE. Believing firmly that the Russian side is using the natural resource as a political weapon, from 2017 onwards the US stepped up and started exporting LNG to Europe. The main beneficiary of this policy was Poland, who -- with the help of the Świnoujście LNG terminal and of GAZ-System's plans to develop the Polish natural gas pipeline system -- became not only more dependent from Russian gas, but slowly transferred itself into a regional gas hub that is able to transfer gas to Ukraine.

At the other side of the Carpathians, prolonged infrastructure-development (namely: interconnectors) and political-legislative struggles hindered curbing the Russian presence. In Croatia, environmental groups pushed back the completion of the LNG terminal near the island Krk; in Romania, a legislative tug-of-war caused business uncertainty around the future of the Neptun natural gas field in the Black Sea.

The main targets for Washington's actions were the pipelines Nord Stream 2 [NS2] and the TurkStream, and -- connected to it -- economic sanctions targeting business entities taking part in the project. In early 2021, TurkStream has been completed, but a main entry point at Krk, Croatia (one of the three key for Washington, the other two located at Świnoujście and at Alexandroupoli, Greece) has also come online. This happened on the eve of a new, Democrat-led US administration's taking the steering wheel in Washington.

Prospects for Poland and Hungary regarding the developments (a new Biden administration starting its work, and the two energy projects) are likely to be different from each other's. Using the Krk terminal's capacity, Budapest has made yet again significant steps to lessen the country's natural gas dependence on Russia. (Contrary to the popular belief that the Hungarian government is playing an energy security game that only the Russians like, Hungarian authorities were the only ones in Central Europe who blocked Gazprom's plans of buying transmission capacities to enable NS2-transmitted gas flow to CE countries.)

Poland's situation is a bit different. With the planned extension of Świnoujście and the gas corridor leading to Ukraine from there, mid-term US (and Polish) goals are on their way to being completed. Building on the Trump administration's success, the Biden administration is likely to shift its focus to the Balkans, a region in which the 2016-2020 US era was not successful, and where -- angering Washington -- Russian and Chinese influence is present. The first flares to this policy have already been lit: former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright urged for an intensified US presence in the Balkans (…).

Should this happen, the main question is whether the US can be successful in a region where it acted hastily in the past 20 years, leaving problems behind. The second question, closely following the first, is how this policy would affect both Poland and Hungary -- when US foreign policy focuses on a region, it usually loses attention on other.


Zsombor Zeöld

Foreign policy analyst Zsombor Zeöld holds an MA in Central and Eastern European Studies from the Jagiellonian University. As a former CEPA–HIF Andrássy Fellow in Washington D.C., his main research topic is the Three Seas Initiative. Currently he's the Program Director of the Budapest Fellowship Program.