December 17, 2021

Baltic States Must Remain on the Same Frequency in Energy Security

Power grids.
Power grids.

Although the word ‘electricity’ is currently associated primarily with concerns about high prices, the fact that a stable and secure electric power supply is a national security issue essential for the functioning of the whole economy and society must not be overlooked. This is especially true for the Baltic states which continue to be connected to the Russia-managed synchronous electricity system.

This article was originally published in Estonian on the op-ed portal of the Estonian Public Broadcasting

At the beginning of 2026, a new era should dawn on the electricity systems of the Baltic states, because then the last remnant of the Soviet era will be abandoned: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will disconnect from the IPS/UPS synchronous power grid managed from Moscow and join the Continental European Network (CEN). This will be one of the most significant common achievements in assembling a complex mosaic of energy security in the Baltics.

The Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian transmission system operators (TSOs)—Elering, AST and Litgrid—took several important steps in this direction in November and early December: they announced the establishment of a joint regional coordination centre in Tallinn, while Litgrid tested, in a synchronous mode of operation, the expanded LitPolLink interconnector which connects the Baltic states to Poland and the rest of Europe. Both events are important milestones in the Baltic countries’ preparations to disconnect from the IPS/UPS grid and synchronise their systems with the CEN.

National Security Reigns Supreme

While security of supply of natural gas and the successful Baltic efforts to diversify away from their total dependence on Gazprom received much attention and applause, the electricity has been somewhat in the blind spot of national security discussions in Estonia.

This partly stemmed from the reluctance of the policymakers and grid managers to securitise the issue too much with high-flying geopolitical rhetoric. This could draw unnecessary attention from those actors who are eager to stymie the (de)synchronisation project on anti-European or pro-Russian grounds. It is also related to the fact that the project has been mostly viewed by its many stakeholders as a complex legal, financial and technical challenge, difficult enough without the interference of geopolitics. But there is no way of denying that geopolitical and national security considerations play a significant role in this process and, if necessary, should override other aspects in pushing the project to its successful completion. Judging from a recent article by Arvi Hamburg, chairman of the committee on energy of the Estonian Academy of Sciences in daily Postimees, the Estonian community of energy experts is beginning to recognise that some of the key drivers and imperatives of the Baltic (de)synchronisation project lie in the national security rather than technical domain.

And quite rightly so. Stable functioning of the Baltic power grids still depends on the goodwill, institutional independence and professionalism of the Russian counterparts. For most of the Baltic re-independence period, there has been little concern that Russia would use this interdependence as a political weapon against the Baltic states. They simply could not do it without damaging their own grids and thus endangering the supply of electricity in some of the most populous and economically important parts of Russia. So, from a technical and security standpoint, desynchronisation did not appear either very urgent or even absolutely necessary. The Baltics seemed to have all the time they needed to bicker about the direction of synchronisation (to the Nordics instead of continental Europe), technical and financial aspects, or its strategic wisdom.

This has not been the case with other parts of the energy sector. Russia has been wielding the supply of energy resources such as oil and natural gas as a tool of coercion and extortion against other countries. Such episodes that stand out include Lithuania in 2006 when the Druzhba pipeline’s branch supplying oil to the Mažeikiai Oil refinery was shut down for “repairs” that continue to date; Ukraine in 2009 when gas supply via the Ukrainian gas transit system was brought to a halt, also leaving other countries in Central and Eastern Europe out in the cold; and now Germany is being pressed to certify a brand new Nord Stream 2 pipeline under the Baltic Sea. This track record is something not to be ignored when considering under what circumstances and how Russia is willing to use energy to achieve its geoeconomic and geopolitical ends.

Moscow’s Games

Since 2018–19 or so, it has also increasingly been clear that Moscow is also preparing to cut the Baltics out of the BRELL, perhaps even ahead of when the Baltic states will be ready to synchronise with the CEN. It has built the necessary lines in western parts of Russia looping out the Baltics, and has invested in making the Kaliningrad exclave more self-sufficient in energy production. One sharp wake-up call to the Baltics was in spring of 2019, when blackouts in Latvia coincided with the downtime of the undersea interconnectors from Estonia and Lithuania to Finland and Sweden, resulting in what some energy executives called a “pre-heart attack condition” of the Baltic grids.

Under normal circumstances and following certain BRELL agreements and procedures, the dispatch centre in Moscow should have activated and directed reserves necessary to restore the stability of those grids. But they just sat back and watched, presumably to test how far the Baltic grids could be stressed before they started imploding. The day was saved by Poland—a crucial partner in the Baltic synchronisation project—whose TSO, PSE, provided the necessary reserves via the LitPolLink. The crisis imbued the energy planners and national security decision-makers in the Baltics with a greater sense of vulnerability and urgency in pursuing synchronisation with the CEN.

Moscow clearly cannot be fully trusted to play by the rulebook in managing the grids, and it cannot be trusted not to use the electricity sector as another medium for its geopolitical games (that now also include cyber measures, as attested by the attack on the Ukrainian grid in 2015). If the Kremlin calls the TSO in Moscow and tells it to pull the plug on the Baltics—something completely unimaginable in countries with strong institutions independent of political authorities in their operations, but very realistic in a hierarchical authoritarian system—that call will surely be answered. The question why and under what set of circumstances the Kremlin would do that requires getting into the mindset of its key decision-makers—something that even the best of intelligence is not able to achieve. But we know fully well that the Kremlin is continuously waging a hostile and multifaceted campaign against the Baltics and the entire West. The sheer possibility of such a decision, and the technical conditions enabling it, should be sending shivers down the spines of the Baltic governments and forcing them to do everything possible to prepare the Baltic grids for synchronisation with the CEN as soon as possible.

In the current geopolitical landscape and with the project of such vital importance to Baltics security, the Baltics should be acting with the utmost unity and coherence, both domestically and regionally. History shows that only such unity delivers the best outcomes for our nations. And, at least ostensibly as judging from various official statements, having signed and sealed the deal in 2018, we are well on track to achieve the desired objectives in synchronisation by the set deadline. However, when one scratches the surface, the picture changes: enter the Astravyets nuclear power plant (NPP) in Belarus, domestic populists, and, of course, the usual Baltic differences to approaching common challenges.

Navigating Rough Waters

Astravyets NPP is a case study of how Russia uses its nuclear energy corporation, Rosatom, as a geopolitical instrument, and possibly also as an exercise in “reflexive control”—a Soviet-devised method to control the “reflexes” of their opponents by creating inputs into their decision-making that will lead them down a predictable path of responses and behaviours. The Russians, acting through their proxies in Minsk, had anticipated very well how the Lithuanians would respond to a nuclear power plant rising in a very deliberately picked location, just next door to their capital, Vilnius.

Even before the plant started operations in 2020, it was seen as a serious national security threat by Lithuania, which since then has taken steps to undermine the economic rationale of the plant—starting with the passage of laws banning electricity produced in the Astravyets plant from reaching Lithuanian consumers or even using the Lithuanian power grid to reach other customers in the Nordic-Baltic markets. Most recently, having failed to agree with Latvia and Estonia on common measures to keep this electricity out of the Baltic area, it has severely constrained electricity flows from Belarus to the Baltic grids via the Lithuanian lines, allowing only what is required for synchronous operation and cutting off the market flows. Now, the only remaining way for the Belarusian electricity into the Baltic markets lies through Russia and then Latvia or Finland and Estonia.

Needless to say, the Astravyets issue has bitterly divided the Baltics, with Vilnius trying to impose measures arising from its national legislation on Riga and Tallinn and accusing them of lack of solidarity. Latvia and, to some extent, Estonia have complained about the excessive measures that are both difficult to implement (“How can we possibly know that electricity reaching us from Russia is made in Astravyets?”) and unnecessarily provoke Russia into enacting damaging limits on electricity flows from its side. In the heated disputes, Lithuania even occasionally brandished a threat that this issue may undermine Baltic synchronisation with the CEN and may even prompt it to synchronise alone, without Latvia and Estonia. Even though such threats somewhat lack credibility, the impact of the Astravyets NPP on the sense of political unity and harmony was serious—exactly the impact that “reflexive control” would desire to produce.

Differences in approach towards managing the nexus of energy security, geopolitics and synchronisation do not end there. Lithuania is also pushing the other Baltics hard to perform tests of “island operation’ as soon as possible. One was scheduled for the early summer of 2019, but Estonia and Latvia insisted on cancelling it due to Russia performing a similar test in Kaliningrad at the same time. Lithuanian rationale is driven by the concern that, due to the geopolitical developments, such an “island operation” might be needed far earlier than we are ready for synchronisation with the CEN. This would necessitate identifying and addressing all problems as soon as possible, and advancing on a broad front across the entire spectrum of issues. The Estonians, in turn, regard it unwise to perform a grid-wide test without first testing the readiness of the different parts and, much as in a military exercise, having tested lower-level units, peak in a full-fledged force-wide final exercise. This would allow problems to be fixed in a more gradual manner (and without perhaps revealing too many of the weakness at once to our geopolitical adversaries).

For the time being, preparations for the synchronisation are briskly moving forward, but the relations between the Baltics—lately in a smoother patch—have occasionally become rather tense and even acrimonious. As if it were not enough, some populist political forces started using the recent surge in electricity prices as an opportunity to question the investments into modernising and strengthening the grid in Estonia and its interconnections with Latvia, which are absolutely necessary for the synchronisation project (and are mostly funded by the EU). They lay a misguided charge that such investments are bound to increase the cost of electricity for consumers in the future, but completely ignore the national security ramifications of not making those investments.

As Estonia (contrary to Latvia and Lithuania) does not have a special law governing and facilitating the implementation of the synchronisation project, this leaves a lot of space for the populists to target it through the local authorities, especially in the south of Estonia. Suffice to say, if one of them were to withdraw planning permissions for the new lines, progress would grind to a halt. It would not be surprising if we begin seeing some vigorous “Not in My Backyard” (NIMBY) activism, protests from “tree huggers” and other kinds of obstruction there—just as it is the case with Rail Baltica, another project of strategic importance—which will inevitably be picked upon with the assistance of malign disinformation campaigns fueled by the usual suspects, domestic and foreign.

Staying on the Same Frequency

The fact that the Baltic synchronisation project has taken off and is currently going forward at full speed, with the commitment of four nations and the EU to its success, is almost a miracle. It took more than a decade to synchronise the political will, strategic visions, legal and financial instruments, organisational measures, and technical solutions between them, before the agreement became possible. But this multidimensional synchronicity is fragile and vulnerable to Moscow’s “active measures” as well as to our own lack of a broader perspective, regional solidarity and domestic harmony.

If it fell apart in the final stretches, national and regional security repercussions would be severe, and the political as well as economic cost of this failure would far outweigh any investment we have to make towards its successful completion. The three Baltic (and Polish) governments, political parties of all stripes, energy and national security expert communities, and economic actors must understand this, and avoid turning it into a football to play with in pursuit of narrow-minded political or economic interests, ambitions and agendas. Since the 1990s, our dominant reflex in national security has always been to come together in the face of geopolitical adversity. We need to exercise this reflex again and remain on the same frequency, both figuratively and literally.


Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).

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