To Counter Russian Gas, Look to the Eastern Mediterranean

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Aware of the critical role of energy in security, Sir Winston Churchill noted that “security and certainty in oil lies in variety, and variety alone”. Unfortunately, some countries, especially Germany, have ignored this proven truth and instead pursued a policy of energy illusion. By relying more and more on Russia, European nations increase their dependence and reduce their agency. Europe should take immediate action, recommit to their security and strongly support the Balkan states’ energy diversification goals and the Eastern Mediterranean gas market.

Europe is not monolithic, and although Germany has chosen to rely more heavily on Russia, other countries have made great strides in diversifying away from their former Soviet overlord. Poland has significantly reduced Russian imports and is positioning itself as a regional gas import hub. Lithuania defeated Russia disinformation campaigns build their first LNG import facility rightly named “Independence”. These diversification actions have forced a degree of market competition from Russian state-controlled Gazprom, reducing the geopolitical influence of the Kremlin. This lesson from Northern Europe also applies to Southern Europe.

Natural gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean provide a stable and secure supply for the region and the wider Balkans. As the first Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources, I led U.S. engagement in the 3+1 dialogs alongside Greek, Cypriot and Israeli ministers. We noted that energy can serve as a bridge to greater economic progress and political stability rather than a source of conflict.

Through extensive diplomatic efforts and strengthened ties with the private sector, we soon saw natural gas from Israel flow to neighboring Jordan and Egypt. Cyprus connects its offshore gas via a 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 investment, the 3+1s and the EMGF have fostered new natural gas supplies for an increasingly desperate Europe.

Support for Eastern Mediterranean gas enjoys rare strong bipartisan support in Congress. In 2019, Sens. Robert MendezRobert (Bob) MenendezWhy is the debate over SALT deductions important? (DN.J.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Facebook – Anticipating an invasion of Ukraine ‘any day,’ Republicans back Pence’s rebuke of Trump over 2020 election cancellation Rubio says ‘economics of Putin should be crippled and badly injured” if Russia invades Ukraine MORE (R-FL) sponsored and obtained pass the Eastern Mediterranean Partnership and Energy Security Act, which sought to institutionalize the former administration’s energy diplomacy in the region. In particular, the law recognizes and encourages Eastern Mediterranean gas “to diversify away from natural gas supplied by the Russian Federation”.

The Biden administration should build on the clear mandate from Congress, including through financial support for key energy infrastructure.

Greece has led the way and positioned itself as an energy gateway to the Balkan states. The Soviet Union used the energy infrastructure to tether its client states to Russia – and those historical dependencies 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 normal that the cradle of democracy helps to catalyze new energy partnerships based on shared values.

Many Balkan states are keen to improve their air quality and defend their own sovereignty as they deepen their relationship with NATO and the EU. It is essential that America strongly supports these positive changes and encourages the EU to do the same.

I had the pleasure of visiting the IGBa major gas pipeline project to import natural gas from Greece to Bulgaria. In Skopje, I encouraged North Macedonia to advance its energy diversification strategy, including in partnership with Greece. Russia sees energy diversity as a threat, and this is one of the reasons why Moscow demanded, quite unreasonably, that NATO goes back in time to 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 influence over the West while separating Ukraine from Europe”. Unfortunately, my warning seems to have been correct. Today, natural gas prices in Europe remain at sustained record highs. Russia continues to muster troops on the Ukrainian border while deploying cyberattacks aimed at undermining Kiev’s resolve. With the geopolitical realities playing out on television, Germany finds it hard to continue its empty assertion that Nord Stream 2 is just a commercial project. During this time, EU activistsincluding several member statesoppose Brussels’ support for natural gas and nuclear energy for environmental reasons.

We have to fight climate change, but we also have to secure freedom.

Many Balkan countries face an unsustainable and difficult choice: to rely on Russian gas or nuclear fuel or on dirty lignite coal. New natural gas offers an environmentally superior alternative, and regional interconnectors can advance EU market transparency standards.

If the EU wants to measure natural gas through a climate lens, it must do so fairly, starting with its largest supplier: Russia has been a notorious climate polluter.

With echoes of Churchill, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently stressed that dependence on Russian gas compromises security and called for “diversification of supplies”. Eastern Mediterranean gas resources offer a close and secure source, and the nascent Balkan energy market represents an open front to counter Russian energy influence. The United States and Europe should redouble their engagement in the region, including supporting natural gas connectivity and related financing.

Frank Fannon served as the first Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources. He is currently the general manager of Fannon Global AdvisorsNonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, Nonresident Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and Visiting Scholar at the Center for Technology Diplomacy at Purdue.

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