November 19, 2020

Hybrid Atoms: Rosatom’s Projects and Russia’s Geopolitical Strategy

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Rosatom State Corporation CEO Alexei Likhachev attend a meeting to discuss measures to address environmental pollution in the Siberian city of Usolye-Sibirskoye in Irkutsk region.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Rosatom State Corporation CEO Alexei Likhachev attend a meeting to discuss measures to address environmental pollution in the Siberian city of Usolye-Sibirskoye in Irkutsk region.

Nuclear energy development projects involving Russia’s state-owned corporation Rosatom come with many geopolitical strings and security risks attached. Thus, Rosatom’s nuclear power plants warrant as much attention as Gazprom’s pipelines or Huawei’s 5G infrastructure, but they often proceed beneath the radar of scrutiny by those keeping an eye on geopolitical or national security issues. On 19 November 2020, in cooperation with the Lithuanian Embassy in Tallinn, the ICDS held a webinar to cast some light on this aspect of Russia’s strategy.

In early November this year, Belarus inaugurated the Astravyets Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), a facility funded by Russia and built by Rosatom that has already experienced at least two safety incidents since its launch.

Lithuania considers the Astravyets NPP to be not only unsafe but also a geopolitical threat to its national security. It has implemented a raft of legal, economic, infrastructure and diplomatic measures to prevent electricity generated by the plant from reaching its own electricity market and power grids, and has sought to convince Latvia and Estonia join these efforts.

However, Rosatom is also pursuing other projects in or near Europe, including Hanhikivi-1 in Finland, Paks II in Hungary and Akkuyu in Turkey.

  • How do these ostensibly economic and commercial activities fit into the Kremlin’s broader geopolitical strategy and its toolbox?
  • What do the Astravyets NPP and other cases tell us about the potency of this instrument in the hybrid threats environment?
  • Are the Baltic states doing enough to insulate their electricity markets, infrastructure, strategic projects (such as synchronisation of their power grids with the rest of Europe) and political cooperation from the potentially disruptive impact of the Astravyets NPP?

A full recording of the webinar may be viewed on the ICDS YouTube channel:

Dr Hanna Smith, Head of Strategic Analysis and Responses at the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, highlighted how nuclear energy projects can become vectors for hybrid threats to national security. Given deep-seated societal and political concerns about nuclear safety, such projects are potentially useful in polarising and destabilising societies through disinformation campaigns. They can also provide cover for intelligence operations or even military build-up and entail risks of corrupting administrative and business cultures or creating financial leverage over the host countries. The latter may be a by-product rather than an initial intent of the projects run by corporations such as Rosatom and thus creates vulnerabilities for future use rather than exploiting existing ones. Nonetheless, we should monitor and evaluate the activities of corporate entities from authoritarian states—whether in nuclear energy or other sectors such as information technology—with the utmost vigilance, as those entities must abide by the national security laws put in place by the regimes pursuing broader geopolitical goals.

Yuri Tsarik, Head of Russian and Post-Soviet Studies and co-founder of the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies in Belarus, made it clear that Rosatom is—just like any other corporation in Russia regarded as being of strategic importance—a foreign-policy instrument. However, he emphasised that, in Moscow’s foreign-policy paradigm, effective geopolitics must also be profitable. Projects such as the Astravyets NPP are therefore pursued also with financial goals in mind, even though Russia’s geopolitical interests guide where and when such projects should be undertaken. The Astravyets NPP project was initiated with a view that it would turn Belarus into a major exporter of electricity to the Baltic states, which faced major deficits due to their declining domestic production capacities and limited connectivity with other regions. However, in addition to acting as a source of foreign currency income for Minsk, it also has a covert goal of reshaping the region’s energy markets in a way that would make a strategic goal of the Baltics—to leave the BRELL agreement and synchronise their grids with continental European network (CEN)—harder to achieve. Although some of Moscow’s assumptions about such an impact are no longer valid, it is still able to use the Astravyets NPP in line with “reflexive control” techniques—as an instrument to evoke fairly predictable reactions from Lithuania that lead to difficulties in relations between the three Baltic states. The current instability and potential regime change in Minsk will, in his view, not cause Belarus to abandon further plans for the expansion of the plant or to decommission it early. However, change to a more democratic (even if Russia-aligned) political system, in conjunction with successful synchronisation of the Baltic grids with Europe, may lead to a reassessment of how the Astravyets NPP is managed and what role it should play in national energy strategy.

Jaroslav Neverovič, Senior Advisor to the President and former Minister of Energy (2012–14) of Lithuania, countered that disagreements between the Baltic states should not be overplayed. Although Vilnius could have consulted Riga and Tallinn more before enacting its strict legislation banning imports of electricity from the Astravyets NPP, the three countries remain fully united in pushing ahead with the project to synchronise their power grids. Lithuania acted out of a sense of severe threat to its national security from an NPP constructed on its border, less than 40 km from its capital. Belarus and Rosatom proceeded with the construction and launch of the plant despite Lithuania’s persistent objections and international concerns about the suitability of the location, insufficient planning for accident management, poor quality of construction, lack of transparency about serious incidents during construction and the unwillingness of the authorities to fully implement recommendations based on the results of stress tests. The regime in Minsk also suppresses any public discussion or dissenting voices in Belarusian society that raise similar concerns about the safety of the plant. The incoming new Lithuanian government is determined to maintain the tough position it has already implemented in practice by stopping all electricity flows from Belarus to Lithuania from the moment the Astravyets NPP came online, but in dealing with the issue it will also need to find constructive ways to further engage the other two Baltic states as well as Poland and the European Commission. There is also a suggestion, put on the table by the Lithuanian political leadership, to expedite desynchronisation from the IPS/UPS grid by establishing isolated operation of the Baltic grids in 2023, in the run-up to synchronisation with continental Europe in 2025, thus severing their links to the Russia-controlled system earlier and keeping the Baltic markets and systems completely clear of any electricity produced at Astravyets, whether through physical or trade flows.

Reinis Āboltiņš, a researcher at the Institute of Energy Systems and Environment (IESE) at Riga Technical University in Latvia, explained that Latvia’s cautious and pragmatic position on halting electricity imports from the Astravyets NPP to the Baltic states’ markets partly reflected the fact that electricity trade flows with Belarus have been very limited compared, for instance, to intra-Baltic cross-border flows. It also sought to prevent a spillover of potential disagreements with Moscow and Minsk over electricity trade into the transport sector, parts of which—especially railways and ports—still rely heavily on the transit of goods from Russia and Belarus. However, the Latvian government’s position has been shifting in the context of the political turmoil in Belarus and opening up possibilities of a compromise with Lithuania. The government decided to demand certificates of origin from traders importing electricity from Russia and Belarus, in order to prove this does not come from the Astravyets NPP. Although this is technically difficult to implement, and further steps need to be taken to make it work, we should trust the transmission system operators (TSOs) in the Baltic states—highly competent and professional organisations—to develop effective ways of preventing the seepage of electricity from Astravyets into the Baltic markets, even if physical flows cannot yet be fully curtailed due to the Baltic still being part of the IPS/UPS synchronous area. This will not be easy, given that the system of certificates of origin will entail a degree of trust in the Russian TSO as well as very close monitoring and analysis of flows between Belarus and Russia and between Russia and the Baltics. Overall, Latvia is not diverging from the trilateral agreements aiming to synchronise the Baltic grids with continental Europe and is keen to promote domestic power generation, especially from renewable resources, which suffers from unfair competition from producers in Russia and Belarus.

Taavi Veskimägi, CEO of Elering AS, an Estonian electricity and gas system operator, emphasised that the key principle guiding Estonia’s stance is to ensure a level playing field for all producers and traders in the Baltic markets, which aligns with the need to reduce and eventually eliminate—after synchronisation with the European systems in 2025— trade in electricity with Russia and Belarus. However, he underlined that in Tallinn the problem with the Astravyets NPP is framed more in terms of the impact on markets and technical systems than as a highly political and national security issue, as in Vilnius. There is clearly a need for the Baltic states to expend more effort on aligning their threat and risk assessments, in order to preserve the high levels of trust and goodwill generated over the last decade of trilateral cooperation in strategic energy projects. This cooperation has been a major success story that led to the full implementation of BEMIP (the Baltic Energy Markets Interconnection Plan) and agreements to synchronise their power grids with Europe. It is important to note that this is a broad range of measures being enacted to limit and eventually halt trade in electricity with Russia and Belarus, which will eliminate or at least mitigate the geopolitical, market and technical risks associated with this trade. The suite of measures includes the gradual lowering of transmission capacities, introducing certificates of origin and, perhaps from next year, import tariffs (similar to those applied by Finland for cross-border flows from Russia) as agreed by the Baltic Council of Ministers. Nevertheless, Estonia is not willing to escalate the issue vis-à-vis Russia in the run-up to the 2025 synchronisation deadline for the sake of addressing the Astravyets NPP problem, as this might increase risks to the security of supply or lead to Moscow playing the (often forgotten) “Kaliningrad card” against the Baltic states’ plans.

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