To counter Russian gas, look to the Eastern Mediterranean
Mindful of energy’s critical role in security, Sir Winston Churchill noted that “safety and certainty in oil lie in variety, and variety alone.” Unfortunately, some countries, especially Germany, have failed to heed this time-tested truth and instead have pursued a policy of energy delusion. By increasing reliance on Russia, European nations increase their dependency and reduce their agency. Europe should take immediate action, recommit to their security, and aggressively support Balkan states’ energy diversification goals and the Eastern Mediterranean gas market.
Europe is not monolithic, and although Germany has chosen to increase reliance on Russia, other countries have made great strides to diversify away from their former Soviet overlord. Poland has significantly cut Russian imports and is positioning itself as a regional gas import hub. Lithuania overcame Russian disinformation campaigns to build their first LNG import facility appropriately named, “the Independence.” These diversification actions forced a degree of market competition onto Russian state-controlled Gazprom, reducing the Kremlin’s geopolitical leverage. This lesson from Northern Europe equally applies to Southern Europe.
Natural gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean offer stable and secure supplies for the region and the wider Balkans. As the inaugural Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources, I led United States engagement in the 3+1 dialogues alongside ministers from Greece, Cyprus, and Israel. We noted that energy could serve as a bridge to greater economic progress and political stability rather than a source of conflict.
Through considerable diplomatic efforts and strengthened private sector ties, we soon saw Israel’s natural gas flowing to neighboring Jordan and Egypt. Cyprus is connecting their offshore gas via pipeline to Egyptian infrastructure. In 2019, Egypt convened the first Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), which included representatives from across the region, as well as America and the EU as observers.
Through coordinated diplomacy and investments, the 3+1 and EMGF fostered new natural gas supplies for an increasingly desperate Europe.
Support for Eastern Mediterranean gas enjoys rare strong bipartisan congressional support. In 2019, Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) sponsored and got passed the Eastern Mediterranean and Energy Security Partnership Act, which sought to institutionalize the former administration’s energy diplomacy in the region. In particular, the act recognizes and encourages East Med gas “to diversify away from natural gas supplied by the Russian Federation.”
The Biden administration should build on Congress’s clear mandate, including through financing support for key energy infrastructure.
Greece has led the way and has positioned itself as an energy gateway to the Balkan states. The Soviet Union used energy infrastructure to tether its client states to Russia — and those historic dependencies have largely remained in place. As in Ukraine, Russia has sought to undermine democratic and market reforms in the Balkans that would force competition and weaken Moscow’s grip. It is fitting that the birthplace of democracy is helping to catalyze new energy partnerships based on shared values.
Many Balkan states are eager to improve their air quality and stand up for their own sovereignty as they deepen relationships with NATO and the EU. It is critical for America to forcefully support such positive changes and encourage the EU to do the same.
I was pleased to tour the IGB, a major pipeline project to import natural gas from Greece to Bulgaria. While in Skopje, I encouraged North Macedonia to advance its energy diversification strategy, including in partnership with Greece. Russia views energy diversity as a threat, which is one reason that Moscow made the wholly unreasonable demand that NATO wind back the clock of progress and return to its 1997 borders. Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004 and North Macedonia in 2019.
In 2018, I said that, “Through Nord Stream 2, Russia seeks to increase its leverage of the West while severing Ukraine from Europe.” Unfortunately, my warning seems to have been correct. Today, European natural gas prices remain at sustained record highs. Russia continues to amass troops on Ukraine’s border while deploying cyberattacks intended to undermine Kiev’s resolve. With geopolitical realities playing out on TV, Germany is finding it difficult to continue its empty assertion that Nord Stream 2 is merely a commercial project. Meanwhile, EU campaigners, including several member states, oppose Brussels’ support for natural gas and nuclear power on environmental grounds.
We must address climate change, but we also must ensure freedom.
Many Balkan countries face an unsustainable and stark choice: to rely on Russian gas or nuclear fuel or on dirty lignite coal power. New natural gas offers an environmentally superior alternative, and regional interconnections can advance EU market transparency standards.
If the EU wants to measure natural gas through a climate lens, then it should do so equitably, starting with its largest supplier: Russia has been a notorious climate polluter.
With echoes of Churchill, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently underscored that reliance on Russian gas undermines security, and called on the “diversification of supplies.” Eastern Mediterranean gas resources offer a proximate and secure source, and the nascent Balkan energy market represents an open front to counter Russia’s energy influence. The U.S. and Europe should redouble their commitment to the region, including support for natural gas connectivity and related financing.
Frank Fannon served as the inaugural Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources. He is currently managing director of Fannon Global Advisors, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, non-resident senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and visiting fellow at the Center for Technology Diplomacy at Purdue.
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.