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The Baltic States' Vital Step Toward Energy Independence

The Baltic states may have declared independence a quarter-century ago, but Monday marked independence of a different kind. With the inauguration of its NordBalt electricity connector with Sweden and its LitPol Link with Poland, Lithuania has permanent energy links going westward, and several other links are planned. The Baltic states’ quest for energy independence, especially their desire to break away from the region’s Moscow-run electricity grid, isn’t sitting well with Russia.

Construction of the NordBalt energy connector, between the Lithuanian town of Klaipeda and Nybro, in southeast Sweden, began two years ago; LitPol Link construction began last year. Given Russia’s willingness to cut energy exports to countries it considers rebellious, Lithuania’s haste is understandable. Lithuania, with a population of 2.9 million, imports 72 percent of its energy, of which 48 percent is bought from Russia.

So it is that the towns of Nybro and Elk (population: 20,000 and 60,000) will help Lithuania bid farewell to the last bit of its Soviet legacy. In 2014 Lithuania imported 70 percent of its electricity needs, mainly from Russia due to a lack of alternatives. The new links add 1,200 megawatts of capacity, which means that Lithuania is able to meet some 66 percent of its electricity needs from these new non-Russian connections at peak times.

There’s no doubt that Lithuania considers the links a major breakthrough: “LitPol Link is an important initial step toward the ultimate de-synchronization of Lithuania and the Baltic states from the post-Soviet Russia–controlled electricity system,” states a Foreign Ministry document, which adds, with regards to NordBalt’s renewable energy: “No more need for Russian and Belorussian electricity, originating from producers with dubious climate and safety standards.”

Rasa Jukneviciene, a member of the Lithuanian Parliament’s committee on security and defense and a former defense minister, calls the two connectors a milestone. “They’re big step toward energy independence, but not the final step,” she says. “These power links connect us with the EU electricity market, which provides better opportunities for energy diversification. But our electricity transmission system continues to operate … within the power ring of Belarus, Russia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.”

Known as BRELL, this network is controlled by Moscow. By breaking the ring, the Baltic states would force Russia to completely rewire its grid in the region, or Kaliningrad, a Russian province geographically disconnected from the rest of the country, would be left without electricity. As a result, what seems like a simple matter of energy choice has become a power game. Planned Russian nuclear plants in Kaliningrad and Belarus are “designed to prevent the inclusion of the Baltic states into the EU electric grid and to keep them controlled by the so-called Moscow BRELL circle,” writes Lieutenant Commander Lucasz Boguszewski of the Polish Navy in a 2014 report for the US Navy War College. “This is a subtle high stakes game. On one hand, Russia benefits from selling nuclear fuel for future reactors, and on the other, Russia benefits from controlling electrical market due to its monopolist position in this area.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin made his views on Baltic energy independence efforts abundantly clear in his interview with Charlie Rose this past September: “There are plans to separate the Baltic states from the common power system of the former Soviet Union and to integrate them into the European system,” he said. “It means that a number of zones will emerge between several regions of the Russian Federation, where we will have no power transmission lines, since previously we used to have a loop transition through the Baltic countries. And it means that we will have to reform the system, spending billions of dollars, as well as our European partners who will also have to spend billions of dollars to integrate the Baltic countries into their power grid. What for?”

But the Baltic states maintain that it would be foolish to rely on Russian energy, and are speeding up their efforts of building energy links EU neighbors. Nine years ago Finland and Estonia inaugurated their Estlink 1, which was later joined by Estlink 2. NordBalt and LitPol Link are the most significant step yet, with the 453-kilometer NordBalt one of the world’s longest undersea electricity cables.

NordBalt was a major political statement by Sweden as well as an enormous construction effort. The connector cost the two countries a total of 419 million euros (of which the EU contributed 131 million). Construction was hampered as Russian military vessels repeatedly sailed into the construction zone in Lithuania’s exclusive economic zone and ordered the civilian construction crews to leave. The incidents only ended when Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius decided that quiet diplomatic protests were going nowhere and publicly denounced the incidents.

And despite Russia’s anger and the looming clash over BRELL, the Baltic states keep building westward-leading energy links. Finland and Estonia are planning a gas connector, as are Poland and Lithuania, while Estonia and Latvia are planning terminals for liquefied natural gas like the one inaugurated by Lithuania last year. “Linking Sweden with our Baltic neighbors through this cable is a positive thing, though it’s troubling that the NordBalt construction work was marred by Russian presence and provocations,” argues Hans Wallmark, deputy leader of the Swedish center-right Moderate Party’s parliamentary group. “It’s time for Europe to notice the ever-stronger connection between energy issues and security policy.”

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