The increased involvement of the Czech Republic in the Three Seas Initiative (3SI) – a format of infrastructural cooperation between 12 countries located between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black seas – was announced by the SPOLU coalition in its 2021 election program. This was interpreted by many commentators as an announcement of a shift in the Czech Republic’s attitude towards the Three Seas Initiative, perceived as distant and waiting. However, the change of the perception of this format, which was defined by the previous ruling coalition in terms of economic cooperation, has been noticed to a lesser extent.
The newly elected authorities in 2021, led by the right-wing ODS, saw in the Initiative a geopolitical significance, as well as a platform for strengthening cooperation between the US and Central and Eastern Europe.
This kind of perspective turned out to be gaining wider understanding along with the Russian attack on Ukraine on 24th February 2022 and the related constatation that the development of communication, transport, energy and digital infrastructure in the Three Seas region will determine the defense capabilities and security of the countries on the eastern flank of NATO sensu stricto, as well as other capitals of Central and Eastern Europe, including Prague. In this context, it is also worth noting the crisis of credibility in the European arena and in transatlantic relations of the crucial strategic and economic partner of the Czech Republic, namely Germany, which occurred after 24th February 2022. It was caused by the model of responding to the Russian aggression adopted in Berlin, bearing clear stamps of an appeasement policy towards Moscow, and, to some extent as a result of such an attitude, also by the growing role of NATO’s eastern flank countries and the US in guaranteeing the security of all of Europe and providing support to Ukraine.
Increase of interest of the Czech side
Considering the changing external conditions, as well as the internal premises for the change in the Czech position towards the Three Seas Initiative, a study visit to Prague on 6-10th December 2022 organized by the Three Seas Initiative Research Center at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences, provided valuable conclusions. The main goal of the visit was to capture the developments taking place in Czech foreign policy since the change of power at the end of 2021 and conditioned by the Russian aggression against Ukraine. The meetings that were held during the visit – with the representatives of the Czech leading international affairs think-tank – AMO (Cz. Asociace pro mezinárodní otázky), the Prime Minister’s chief adviser on national security – Tomáš Pojar, the management of the Chamber of Commerce of the Czech Republic, as well as the representatives of the media – allowed to see the growing interest of the Czech side in the 3SI format as a tool for diversifying energy dependence (including lifting dependence on Russian energy carriers), as well as strengthening external security.
In the first aspect, the 3SI format was recognized as a framework for the implementation of the Stork II interconnector project, connecting the gas systems of Poland and the Czech Republic, and thereby enabling the Czech Republic to use liquefied gas supplies delivered to Polish LNG terminals. At the same time, this investment would replace the only project with the participation of Prague submitted for implementation as part of the Three Seas Initiative, namely the construction of the Danube-Oder-Elbe waterway, pushed by the outgoing president Miloš Zeman.
With the election of General Petr Pavel as president at the end of January 2023, much greater coordination of foreign policy between the head of state and the government is expected, which should positively translate into the actions of the Czech authorities towards the 3SI format.
The aspect of strengthening external security through involvement in the implementation of infrastructure projects under 3SI is noticed in relation to their strategic importance, namely increasing the potential of redeploying troops and the entire supply chain on NATO’s eastern flank. From Prague’s perspective, this is beneficial as it creates an appropriate buffer zone in case of spreading the war in Ukraine to other countries in the region, while at the same time increasing the deterrence capacity of NATO’s eastern flank countries to make such a scenario highly unviable for a potential aggressor. This remains also concurrent with the policy adopted by the Czech government to support Ukraine’s defense efforts by providing transport and communication routes for the transfer of military equipment and ammunition as well as humanitarian aid to this country. It is worth emphasizing here that the Czech Republic is one of the top countries helping Ukraine, taking into account their economic potential (from the beginning of the Russian aggression until 20th November 2022, Prague provided bilateral aid and commitments worth over EUR 0.58 billion, of which the value of armaments aid amounted to as many as EUR 0.47 billion). This issue was raised many times by our Czech interlocutors, and was also emphasized during the meeting with the Polish ambassador to the Czech Republic – Mateusz Gniazdowski. A symbolic expression of the Czech involvement in helping Ukraine was the participation of Prime Minister Petr Fiala (also as a representative of the EU’s European Council) in the first visit of Western leaders to Kyiv since the beginning of the Russian aggression – together with the Prime Minister of Poland and Slovenia on 15th March 2022.
Significance of the Warsaw-Brussels dispute
The correction in the approach of the Czech authorities and business representatives to cooperation within the 3SI framework – for the time being, careful and declarative – should also be read through the prism of the state of Polish-Czech relations. The improvement of these relations since the formation of the government of Petr Fiala and the convergence of both governments in the way they reacted to the Russian aggression put a good ground for changing the attitude of the Czech authorities towards 3SI. The Three Seas Initiative is very strongly identified among the Czech political class with the activities of Warsaw, and also as a formula of cooperation between the USA and Central and Eastern Europe.
With the traditionally strong focus of Czech foreign policy on cooperation with EU institutions and a pragmatic approach to the use of EU funds, the current dispute between Warsaw and Brussels is perceived as a threat to the implementation of projects under 3SI (financed mainly from European funds).
This important reservation, and at the same time an explanation for the lack of specific actions taken by the Czech authorities (like joining the Three Seas Investment Fund, readiness to organize the 3SI summit or submitting new strategic projects), was expressed, among others, during the meeting with representatives of the AMO think-tank. Thus, it is an important clue for decision-makers in Warsaw as to the reasons for the Czech government’s continued state of hesitation to increase its involvement in the Three Seas Initiative. The consistent emphasis on the complementarity of this format with the EU’s cohesion policy goals and the end of the dispute between Warsaw and the European Commission will certainly be a catalyst for winning the Czech side as an active member of the 3SI format.
Publication co-financed from the state budget under the program of the Minister of Education and Science under the name “Science for Society” project number NdS/543014/2022/2022, co-financing amount PLN 1,500,000, total project value PLN 1,547,200 with the Research Center of the Three Seas Initiative at the ISP PAN.
 Jarosław Kaczyński, the then Deputy Prime Minister of Poland, also took part in the visit to Kyiv on 15th March 2022.