Lithuania, Leery of Moscow, Spars With Belarus Over Nuclear Reactor

Fearing the Kremlin’s grand design, and another nuclear disaster, Vilnius has turned a power plant into a battleground.

A nuclear danger sign near the Belarusian village of Dronki. (Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images)
A nuclear danger sign near the Belarusian village of Dronki. (Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images)

VILNIUS, Lithuania — Since January, Darius Degutis, a tall and dapper diplomat in the Lithuanian foreign ministry, has barnstormed Western capitals to lobby governments and spread the word about what he describes as a looming nuclear threat straddling the European Union’s eastern frontier.

The threat in question: A nuclear power plant being built in the small town of Ostrovets in neighboring Belarus, just 12 miles from the Lithuanian border and 30 miles from Vilnius. In a region still scarred by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the reactor’s proximity and worries about safety standards and environmental impact have Lithuanian officials on edge and sounding the alarm.

But their anxiety isn’t limited to the reactor alone, but rather who is building it and why. A unit of Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy monopoly, is building the power plant thanks to a $10 billion loan from a Russian state-owned bank. It is part of a recent Rosatom push to build 19 new reactors around the world, including in Hungary, Finland, and Turkey.

Lithuanian officials fear the worst. The tiny country, with a population of just 3 million, imports most of its electricity — and is still connected to the Russian electricity grid. Vilnius worries that the plant is a plot from the Kremlin to elbow into the European Union energy market, using electricity to gain a foothold in the Nordic and Baltic markets to keep the region dependent on Moscow for energy — and thus to keep them under its thumb.

Such intentions were hinted at in a 2013 speech where Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko reportedly referred to the nuclear plant as “a fishbone in the throats of the European Union and the Baltic states” that they wouldn’t be able to remove.

From the very beginning, this was meant to intimidate us,” Degutis told Foreign Policy. “Belarus has the right to develop its nuclear energy, but there’s a lot more than that happening here.”

The standoff over the plant has become a symptom of the deep mistrust that countries on Russia’s eastern frontier have about the Kremlin’s intentions, turning commercial competition into a brutal political battleground.

“It’s another Russian geopolitical project on our borders,” Linas Linkevicius, Lithuania’s foreign minister, told FP.

Belarus touts the power plant as a step forward for its own energy security — the country currently imports 90 percent of its energy from Russia — and as a potential revenue stream that could compete in the Baltic and Nordic electricity markets. Minsk rejects Vilnius’s allegations that it has broken international rules and skirted safety barriers during construction. Lukashenko has also accused the Lithuanian government of politicizing the issue for its gain.

Lithuania, like other countries in eastern Europe, has recently weaned off some of its reliance on Russia for energy supplies; it now imports some natural gas from the United States and Norway, breaking the former total reliance on Moscow. But the country’s electricity system still lags behind and fears over Rosatom’s central role in Russia’s energy diplomacy has Vilnius viewing an ulterior motive behind the plant’s rationale and location.

Rosatom firmly denies these charges. Speaking through a spokesperson, the Russian energy company said that Lithuania’s claims are “bogus” and that Vilnius is misconstruing facts on the ground for its own political gain.

“It is a state sponsored scaremongering campaign at an unprecedented level,” a Rosatom spokesperson told FP.

Lithuania has few power plants of its own. Vilnius shut down its Soviet-era nuclear power plant that supplied 70 percent of its domestic electricity needs as part of its negotiations to join the EU in 2004 due to safety concerns. The government was supposed to replace it with a new plant, but problems with funding, political infighting, and anxiety among average Lithuanians over nuclear energy has prevented the plans from being realized.

As a result, Lithuania finds itself in its current bind, where it imports more than two-thirds of its electricity. The Baltic country’s power grid, like that of neighboring Estonia and Latvia, is still part of a Soviet-era network that snakes through Belarus and Russia proper. Though Lithuania hopes to tie into the EU’s power grid through Poland by 2025, the Ostrovets plant could come online as soon as 2019.

With that deadline approaching, Lithuania’s parliament passed a law in April against buying energy from what it termed “unsafe nuclear power plants in third countries” — implying Ostrovets — and also outlawed the transfer of energy from such plants through its territory.

“We are not going to allow electricity produced [from Ostrovets] in our markets,” said Degutis, who is tasked with the Ostrovets portfolio.

Now the race is on for Lithuania to push forward with its plans to synchronize with the European electricity grid before both of the reactors in Ostrovets come online. Degutis says that his government plans to disconnect from Belarus and will pay higher prices to produce electricity at home to meet its energy demands.

But even if Vilnius is willing to shoulder those extra costs, it doesn’t allay long-standing environmental and safety concerns with the project. Those worries were crystallized in a July 2016 incident when a nuclear reactor shell (which encloses the reactor core) was dropped while being moved. The incident wasn’t acknowledged until an opposition activist publicized it online. After some outcry, Rosatom replaced the shell with a new one at the star-crossed plant.

In Vilnius, officials say the power plant’s construction cannot be separated from a wider — and troubling — context. Tensions have been high in the region since Moscow’s military campaign in Georgia in 2008 and have risen since the war in Ukraine in 2014, giving concern that power plant could be used for leverage in other ways.

“Ostrovets can become Moscow’s tool of blackmail over Lithuania,” said Agnia Grigas, a Lithuanian energy expert at the Atlantic Council and the author of The New Geopolitics of Natural Gas. “With the Kremlin’s penchant for information and cyber warfare, the implications are endless.”

Fear of the worst-case scenario have been central to Lithuanian policymakers since the country was the first republic to declare independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. Officials say those memories of being under Moscow’s thumb are still fresh, and when it comes to energy, they are keen to block any potential Kremlin leverage.

“Energy independence has been our only option from the beginning,” Simonas Satunas, Lithuania’s deputy energy minister, told FP. “It’s the only way to ensure we will not be blackmailed [by Moscow].”

This story was updated on November 9, 2017 to include comment from Rosatom.

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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