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Kremlin Tests Baltic Electric Solidarity

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In recent years, pro-Kremlin media has increased its criticism of Lithuania’s efforts to disconnect from the BRELL (Belarus-Russia-Estonia-Latvia-Lithuania) electricity network managed from Moscow and instead connect (via Poland) to the continental European electricity transmission system. Network synchronization with Europe would block the transmission grids between Belarus and Russia, which cross the Baltic States. It also means that electricity produced by the Russian-Belarus Ostrovets nuclear power plant, which many experts consider unsafe, could not enter the Baltic and European electricity market. Belarus and Russia are building the Ostrovets nuclear plant with the goal of selling power to Europe by using Lithuanian (and Baltic) infrastructure.
Pro-Kremlin media in Russia, Lithuania, and Belarus have criticized severely a Lithuanian Seimas (Parliament) declaration in June 2017 that the Russian-Belarus Ostrovets nuclear plant threatens Lithuania’s national security. The Seimas declaration of April 20, 2017 barred suppliers of unsafe nuclear power from transmitting that power via Lithuania’s national electric grid. These attacks were stepped up after the government in neighboring Latvia considered whether to keep open a Latvian-Russian transmission link (Velikoretskaya) to allow Russia-Belarus nuclear power to be imported to the Baltic and European electricity markets. The Moscow-based news website wrote that “Lithuania is worried that Latvia might trip the disconnection from BRELL,” while the website reported that “[c]ontrary to Lithuania, Latvia does not go hysterical over Ostrovets NPP electricity” and that “Latvia might have an electricity transmission grid with Russia which would allow the Russian-Belarus Ostrovets [nuclear power] to flow into the Baltic (EU) electricity market.”
Pro-Kremlin media take advantage of any weak point or any contested or disputable issue relevant to the Kremlin’s target, attempting to influence public opinion and decision makers to its own advantage. In this case, pro-Kremlin media sought to confuse Baltic public opinion, its target, about the need to de-synchronize from Russian and Belarus and connect to the European grid. It also set the Lithuanian public (as well as the public of other stakeholders of synchronization with Europe) against Latvia – a divide and rule technique. There is some evidence the attacks worked in this case: During Latvian Prime Minister Māris Kučinskis’s visit to Belarus on 8 February, the media reported that the Latvian delegation and Belarus officials discussed the possible purchase by Latvia of electricity from the Ostrovets nuclear plant. Lithuanian mainstream media and wrote that “the vigorous activism of Latvian politicians regarding Belarus might impede synchronization with continental Europe.”
A final political agreement on the Baltic power grids’ synchronization with continental Europe via Poland is expected to be reached by the three Baltic States, Poland, and the European Commission before June of this year. Such an agreement would allow these states to receive part of the necessary funding to complete synchronization from the current multiannual EU budget. It remains unclear whether Latvia will insist on keeping open the Latvian-Russian transmission grid, which requires new investment for upgrades. Another question is whether the EU would agree to allocate additional funds to Latvia for upgrading the Russian-Latvian grid so that it can import electricity produced from the unsafe Belarus and Russian nuclear plants.
As Moscow prepares for the possible Baltic disconnection from BRELL, meanwhile, it is strengthening electricity networks in Russia and Belarus. It has started construction of four electrical power plants (three natural gas plants and one coal-fired plant) in the Kaliningrad district, two of which President Putin opened on 2 March. The newly constructed power plants in Kaliningrad, a region which is energy self-sufficient and actually sells power to Lithuania, could become political tools for Russia to pressure the European Commission if the Baltics disconnect from BRELL and synchronize with continental Europe – either to compensate Russia for constructing the Kaliningrad plants or to force Europe to buy “cheap” Russian electricity.