Lithuanian nuclear diplomacy gains momentum

Justinas Juozaitis,
Policy Analyst,
Centre for the Defence Analysis,
General Jonas Žemaitis Military Academy of Lithuania,

By the end of 2019, Lithuanian opposition to the construction of Ostrovets NPP in Belarus was running out of steam. The verdicts by the parties to the Espoo and Aarhus conventions repeatedly finding Belarus in non-compliance with international law did not influence Belarusian willingness to proceed with the nuclear project. Even the reputational damage taken by the act of breaking international agreements was partly fixed by the International Atomic Energy Agency that, despite reoccurring incidents during the construction of Ostrovets NPP and Minsk’s systemic attempts to keep them under wraps, did not shy away from presenting the project in a positive light.

To make matters worse, Lithuania’s most important allies were turning a blind eye on the geopolitical risks associated with the Belarusian nuclear programme. For the sake of attaining broader strategic objectives in Belarus, Washington made clear that the U.S. will not join Lithuania in its fight against Ostrovets NPP. European Union was preoccupied with yet another rapprochement with Belarus and did not recognise the geopolitical nature of Ostrovets NPP. In all fairness, Brussels repeatedly encouraged Minsk to devote more attention to nuclear safety, but Lithuania was not satisfied with intensity and the results of the EU’s efforts.

EU’s practical focus was limited to conducting the so-called ‘stress-test’ in Ostrovets NPP that only checks wherever its safety features sufficiently covers extreme events, man-made or natural. The European Commission circulated a press statement in 2018 confirming ‘the adequacy of nuclear safety features’ in Ostrovets NPP, thus helping Belarus to capture positive headlines in the Western media. Even if the Ostrovets’ stress-test’ report made ‘recommendations requiring thorough follow up and continued implementation measures’, this conclusion was poorly reflected in the news outlets and went mostly unnoticed.

The situation did not fare much better in the Lithuanian neighbourhood. Since 2017, Vilnius was struggling to persuade Latvia and Estonia to join its embargo on Belarusian electricity, whose participation was crucial for making it work. Latvia, however, was looking for its economic interests and perceived Lithuanian – Belarusian dispute as an opportunity to increase its cooperation with Belarus in the transport sector. Contrary to Lithuania‘s expectations, Latvia announced in 2019 that it would start using its electricity interconnection with Russia for trading purposes after Lithuanian import ban on Belarusian electricity will come into effect. Even Ukraine opened its electricity market for bilateral trade with Belarus in the same year, further undermining Lithuanian efforts to oppose Ostrovets NPP by blocking its export markets.

Lithuania was running out of options and time. However, the economic disruption caused by COVID-19 and Lukashenka’s use of force against Belarusian citizens following yet another falsified Presidential election triggered processes that suddenly brought Lithuanian foreign policy out of the deadlock. Dealing with shrinking electricity demand, Ukraine decided to suspend electricity imports from Belarus in 2020 and drafted multiple initiatives to ban the imports permanently or until the end of 2021. Few weeks after Presidential election in Belarus, Latvia has also reversed its position and, together with Estonia, decided to join Lithuania in not buying electricity from Belarus after Ostrovets NPP becomes operational.

Even if one maintains that Belarus will be able to circumvent the ban by ‘camouflaging’ its electricity as Russian, the forthcoming shrinkage of the Integrated Power System/ Unified Power System (IPS/UPS) will eliminate Belarus’ chances to find markets for Ostrovets NPP in the long-term. Ukraine will abandon IPS/UPS and synchronise its grid with the Continental European Network (CEN) in 2023, while the Baltic States aim to do so by 2025 at the latest. With changes in synchronous areas also come the already made political commitments to suspend any electricity trade with the countries outside CEN (Russia and Belarus), thus completing the isolation of Ostrovets NPP permanently. Due to these developments, Belarus will be able to trade its surplus electricity only with Russia, a country which does not need Belarusian electricity in the first place.

Not only Belarus has lost its export markets, but also it has run out of political favours in Brussels and Washington with yet another Belarusian – Western rapprochement de facto ended following the eruption of violence in Minsk. In here, a window of opportunity emerges for Lithuania to persuade the U.S. and European Union to ramp up its pressure on Ostrovets NPP. With the opportunity comes the risk, however, that a likely Lukashenka’s downfall will solidify Russian foothold in Belarus making the close presence of Ostrovets NPP even more threatening.


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