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NATO membership alone may not be enough anymore

An interview with Wojciech Jakóbik, editor in chief of BiznesAlert.pl. Interviewer: Adam Reichardt.

March 9, 2017 - Adam Reichardt - Interviews

Wojciech Jakobik profilowe

ADAM REICHARDT: Now that Donald Trump has been in the White House for a month, how do you assess his foreign policies towards the region of Central and Eastern Europe?

WOJCIECH JAKÓBIK: There is no doubt that Trump is a wild card. We cannot be sure how his controversial speeches influence real politics. From today’s perspective, however, I believe we can say that the region of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) can be cautiously reassured. James Mattis as secretary of defence has provided reassurance to NATO and Central European allies. Yet, looking from a political science perspective, the most worrying thing is that Trump will be overwhelmed by internal policy quarrels and this would lead to an involuntary isolationism in US foreign policy. The less engagement abroad means the less assurance for the CEE region. The Chinese factor seems to be already fading. Trump relaxed his attitude towards China immediately after getting into office and it seems that economic interconnections are decreasing the risk of confrontation in the South China Sea. The most important thing for the Trump administration seems to be Middle East. On the one hand it is a possibility of co-operation with Russia, but on the other, it could be another arena of confrontation with Vladimir Putin since there are totally different interests in the region. 

What do you think US-Polish relations will look like under President Trump?

US-Polish relations in the defence sector may become more transactional and this can be seen already in the public offer made by the Polish ministry of defence. Poland is very interested in anti-missile defence and attack helicopters and the Americans want to sell as much as they can.

Of course, the reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank remains a high priority for Warsaw as well. Trump’s statements about the need for a greater share of the security burden on behalf of the European allies may cause concern. Yet, Poland already spends more than two per cent of its GDP on security, so it meets Trump’s criteria of support under Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty. But in other countries, like the Baltic states, there are not such conditions, which is very worrying. If US security policy in the region will be more transactional, that means we need to count numbers not words. Countries of the CEE need to attract American involvement as much as they can. NATO membership alone may not be enough anymore.

Rex Tillerson was somewhat of a surprising pick for Secretary of State. The previous CEO of ExxonMobil does not have any diplomatic or government experience. Of course, he has a lot of experience working with Russia. What do you make of the Tillerson pick?

Tillerson of course is known for supporting US-Russia energy co-operation. It was his ExxonMobil which left Polish shale licences to look for oil and gas in the Russian Arctic with Rosatom in 2011 and that was interpreted as an element of Obama’s reset policy. However during his Senate testimony for secretary of state, he pledged to continue the sanctions policy and stated that Russia would need to leave Crimea before the US would lift sanctions. It is also reported that Tillerson cut all ties to ExxonMobil. If he was truthful, than we should not see any increased Exxon presence in Russia nor co-operation with Rosneft. Trump’s hydrocarbon exploration liberalisation policy is one of the engines of growth in the US energy sector and presents good perspectives for ExxonMobil to work in the US and obtain new licenses there. Perhaps that was a part of the deal between Trump and Tillerson?

In the end his contacts in Russia could help foster informal talks on resolving the Ukrainian war issue. There is a risk, however, that such a deal could be done outside international structures and be more of a “big powers concert” than an international rules-based approach, which is preferred by the CEE allies. There is a risk that Ukraine and the region could become an object of Russia-US transaction and include some kind of “Finlandisation”, such as Henry Kissinger had proposed. Greater realism in US foreign policy would mean that the CEE region would have less access to the table of the big powers.

How should countries like Poland react to Trump’s statement that NATO is obsolete – which sounds more like Vladimir Putin than an American president?

Poland needs to do its homework as it did in the past. We need to increase our spending on our defence and we need to increase the efficiency of defence investment. We need to acquire as many bilateral security links with the US as possible. The best way is to ensure a constant presence of US troops on our ground and somewhere in the Mazury region. The closer to Kaliningrad the better…

How real is the threat to Poland? Some reports claim Kaliningrad is becoming the most militarised zones in Europe…

Kaliningrad militarisation is a fact. Russia has indicated that it wants to place Iskander missiles there and that would mean that most countries of NATO’s eastern flank would be covered within their range. The process serves many goals, but mainly appears to be alienating the Baltic states which are only symbolically reassured with the flank reinforcement. The Baltics could be conquered by Russia – and Moscow is openly talking about this – within days and NATO could not effectively help them. 

How independent is Poland from Russian gas? The country recently opened the terminal in Świnoujście…

With the terminal in place and access to the German gas market, Poland would survive a gas crisis so Russia cannot use this tool of extortion anymore. However, Russian plans for the OPAL and Nord Stream 2 pipelines are creating a risk of undermining the Świnoujście terminal and the perspectives of a possible Norwegian Corridor. In its gas delivery to Europe, Russia wants to switch from the Ukrainian to the German route of supplies, at least in the medium term. This would create a risk that the CEE market, including Poland, would be under increasing pressure from Russian gas. It would also undermine the market development and diversification. In the end it may be that Poland has unlimited access to gas from any route, but it is all coming from Russia. There are different contracts and suppliers, but only one Russian source since the alternatives like the LNG Terminal or the Norwegian Corridor would not be attractive due to the competitiveness of Nord Stream 1 and 2. This is also against the goals of a European common energy policy and the German approach to this problem, declaring that it is just a business issue, is discouraging. That is why Poland is continuing its efforts to have two independent gas sources (LNG and Norway) called the Northern Gate and to involve Scandinavian and American suppliers on the one hand, and the whole CEE region as clients on the other. We are seeking support from the European Commission for this initiative.

To what extent can Russia still influence politics via energy in Poland and other states in Europe?

Simply put, Russia needs money from hydrocarbons to sustain its budget. It needs to increase sales when it comes to Gazprom or Rosneft. That is why the energy extortion is not an effective tool in the wider context. However, new infrastructures like Nord Stream 2 can create a situation where Western Europe has normal business relations with Gazprom and those countries without any alternative, which were affected by the expansion of the German route, are still fragile to discriminatory pricing and market splicing. That is how Russia’s divide and conquer strategy works in the energy sector. Western Europe gets good energy prices and normal relations, while Gazprom dominates and the Kremlin increases its political influence as a result. The sad thing is that Berlin, Paris and London appear to be fine with this approach.

Wojciech Jakóbik is editor in chief of the economic portal BiznesAlert.pl and an energy analyst at the Jagiellonian Institute.

Adam Reichardt is editor in chief of New Eastern Europe.

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