Briefs

Kremlin Energy Diplomacy

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In June, Lithuania’s pro-Kremlin media was dominated by criticism of Lithuania’s energy policy – which seeks to synchronize the country’s electrical grid with that of continental Europe in order to minimize dependence on Russia – and support for the unsafe Russian-Belarus Ostrovets nuclear power plant, constructed near the Lithuania-Belarus border.

On 3 June, the pro-Kremlin news website Baltnews.lt published an interview with a Russian expert arguing that the proposed exit of the Baltic states by 2025 from the Belarus-Russian-Estonia-Latvia-Lithuania (BRELL) electricity network, which is managed by Moscow, is not economically justified. The article was silent about the Lithuanian government’s view and the Kremlin’s history of using energy as a foreign policy weapon. On 17 June, Baltinews.lt also criticized the Baltic states’ plan to withdraw from BRELL and warned that, “if due to inconsistencies in the transition to the European system something happens, the residents of the Baltic States will suffer.” In making its arguments Baltnews.lt referred to Finnish, not Russian experts, but did not indicate the concrete source of its information. On 20 June, Baltnews.lt again argued that it is not economically feasible to disconnect from the BRELL system. Three days later, moreover, Baltnews.lt mocked the recently adopted National Energy Strategy of Lithuania as “the promise impossible to implement,” but didn’t explain why the plan is impractical. The propaganda did not work: On 28 June the three Baltic states plus Poland and the European Commission signed the synchronization agreement. Work on the synchronization will begin immediately.

The disconnection from the BRELL system and the synchronization with continental Europe will bar Russian-Belarus electricity suppliers from entering the EU energy market and using at the expense of the European infrastructure. This would impede the Kremlin’s ability to use its control over the system as a diplomatic weapon – for example, by offering low-price electricity in exchange for pro-Kremlin policies. Russia and Belarus also hope to use the Lithuanian electricity infrastructure (via BRELL), including new interconnections with Poland and Sweden, to distribute electricity from the Ostrovets nuclear power plant.

In parallel, Baltnews.lt published articles arguing that the controversial Ostrovets plant is safe. In doing so, however, Baltnews.lt did not mention the fact that the results of a stress test and recommendations by the Ostrovets Stress Peer Review Board, appointed by the European Commission and the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG), will be revealed only by the beginning of July. Many experts have argued that the Ostrovets plant poses not only environmental and radiological threats, but military and competitive ones as well. Moscow and Minsk need the BRELL network to export electricity produced by the Ostrovets plant when it goes online.

Why does the pro-Kremlin media so frequently and prominently cover Lithuanian energy news? Their frequent, biased coverage of energy issues suggests that Moscow is using the media’s agenda setting function to influence or form readers’ opinions. The cluster of narratives on Baltic and European electricity politics reflect a comprehensive and proactive disinformation campaign by the Kremlin to exploit the energy dependence of Lithuania and its Baltic neighbors.

Moscow also seeks to exploit differences among three Baltic states on energy policy: Estonia is an electricity exporter and is interested in higher prices; Latvia is self-sufficient in electricity production, and wants low prices; while Lithuania an electricity importer, and wants to connect to the electricity infrastructure of continental Europe. Reaching an agreement on energy is a challenge for Baltic solidarity – any cooperation requires the subordination of individual to common interests.