Lithuanians say Moscow could use project in Belarus to induce panic; Russia calls claim ‘patently bogus’
BRUSSELS—Power politics between Russia and the rest of Europe are once again raising a question that dogged strategists throughout the Cold War: Where is the line between prudence and paranoia?
Russia, which for years has used its vast supply of natural gas as a political lever with energy-hungry Europe, is building a nuclear power plant in Moscow-friendly Belarus. Neighboring Lithuania and Poland are so determined to escape Russia’s clutch that they refused to buy electricity from the plant.
Still, the $11 billion Ostrovets nuclear-power project, 30 miles from Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, is fueling fears in the Baltic republic. Lithuanians say they don’t think Moscow would actually trigger a nuclear accident but they do worry about a panic-inducing warning of a leak—real or not.
“Even a fake message about the disaster could trigger a lot of damage to our country,” said Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė. “We treat this as a national security threat.”
Evacuating Vilnius would be massively disruptive, lower the country’s defenses, and increase its vulnerability to potential covert action by Russia. Lithuania, occupied by the Soviet Union until 1991, has briefed fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization members, arguing Moscow has demonstrated it can effectively use nontraditional military techniques to destabilize its neighbors.
Belarusian authorities didn’t respond to requests for comment, while Russian officials referred questions to Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear monopoly. A spokesman for the Moscow-based company dismissed Lithuanian warnings that the Belarus nuclear plant represents a hybrid threat as “a patently bogus claim which doesn’t stand up to basic scrutiny.”
“The project meets the highest safety standards,” the Rosatom spokesman said.
Lithuanian officials, however, are ringing alarm bells against the backdrop of Russia’s assertiveness across the globe. Washington and its European allies have accused Russia of interfering in elections, deploying social media to spread false allegations and using other unorthodox methods to sow divisions among Western democracies. Allied officials say Russia uses a range of tactics to pressure their neighbors, seeking to loosen their ties to the West.
Infrastructure projects are seen as potential weapons in other parts of the world. South Korea so fears North Korea will use its Imnam hydroelectric dam to try to flood Seoul that it spent $429 million building its own dam in defense. China’s new artificial islands in the South China Sea are seen by the U.S. and its allies as permanent aircraft carriers.
Which non-traditional threats should prompt reaction is a tough call. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, few foresaw commercial planes being used as suicide weapons.
European officials are divided over the potential threat from the Ostrovets plant. Rosatom has projects around Europe, including nuclear power plants under construction in Hungary and Finland. Accidents are bad for business, even false alarms, say energy experts.
“They’re not building a ticking time bomb,” a European official said. “But, you will never satisfy the Lithuanians, they simply don’t want the project.”
But the European Union and NATO officials see a different kind of threat from the plant. They say the project is an attempt by Moscow to maintain its neighbors’ energy dependence on Russia.
The EU is trying to help Poland and the Baltic states cut ties to Russia’s energy grid. The European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, recently pledged to advance a plan to integrate the four countries into the European energy network by May.
Conventional nuclear risks such as radioactive contamination also feed Lithuanian fears. Some 75% of its capital region’s drinkable water comes from the Neris River that runs by the Ostrovets plant and through Vilnius. One-third of the country’s 2.9 million people live within a 100-kilometer (62 mile) radius that would be heavily affected by an incident, according to Lithuania. In recent years, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands have distributed iodine tablets to residents within 100 kilometers of nuclear power plants, in line with International Atomic Energy Agency emergency guidelines.
Adding to Lithuania’s wariness is the safety record of Russian nuclear power. Memories of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster resurfaced in November when scientists tracked a cloud of radioactive isotopes that appeared to originate from Russia. Rosatom has denied responsibility for the recent radioactive cloud, which was centered around a facility run by the company.
“They simply cannot afford to behave in any kind of gross political, non-market way,” said an Ostrovets project supporter, who is familiar with the discussions. Unlike PAO Gazprom—the Russian state-run natural-gas giant that enjoys stable, high demand from Europe and has on occasion cut off supplies amid political spats—the nuclear enterprise is operating in a highly competitive global market that would severely punish any mishap, the person said.
Belarusian and Russian officials and their supporters argue that Russia’s interest in European energy is about economics, not threats. The IAEA has said Belarus has shown a strong commitment to safety standards.
Officials from the EU and its members have said the bloc can do little beyond demanding strict adherence to international agreements and regulations. Belarus has agreed to cooperate with the EU and the IAEA. The bloc will review Belarus’s stress-test, visiting Ostrovets in March and unveiling its findings in June, an EU official said.
Nonetheless, some allied officials warn against dismissing Lithuanian national-security concerns. In February, as German troops deployed to Lithuania under a NATO mandate, false reports spread that a German national had raped a Lithuanian girl. Some Western officials said the misinformation likely came from Russia, seeking to undermine support for NATO. Russian officials have said such claims are a NATO propaganda campaign to justify its military presence in the Baltic states.
In April, lawmakers in Vilnius adopted a law against importing electricity from “unsafe” power plants and in June Lithuania’s parliament declared the Belarusian nuclear plant a national-security threat.
“The plant is not economically viable,” said Ms. Grybauskaitė. “If they go ahead, it not economic goals they are pursing.” (Click to Source)