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Belarus nuclear plant: Moscow’s new threat to the Baltics?

Author(s):
Laurynas Keturakis

The new Astravyets nuclear power plant presents a mounting challenge for Lithuania and the Baltic Sea Region, as well as Europe and NATO. The facility, announced in 2008 and due to begin operation in late 2019, is being built a mere 50km from Vilnius - the capital of Lithuania and a major population centre. Water from the river Neris, which runs through the centre of Vilnius, is to be used in the cooling of the first two reactors to be launched (with another two planned within five years). The close proximity of Astravyets is seen as a security threat by the Lithuanian government and is the latest source of political tension between Lithuania and its eastern neighbours.

Russia’s use of energy as leverage in international politics is a familiar theme in the region. The case of Astravyets (Russian spelling Ostrovets) is no exception. Although lauded by the Belarus government as a project for energy independence, Astravyets is almost entirely funded by Rosatom – the Russian state-owned nuclear energy company - the nuclear equivalent of Gazprom. Like Gazprom, Rosatom provides Moscow with another way to gain geopolitical concessions and boost Russia’s prestige with large investments in Europe and beyond.

It came as no surprise when the Lithuanian government openly stated that it thought Astravyets was a political project. Currently, Astravyets is a valuable asset in Russia's strategic efforts to secure Belarus as part of the Russian political-economic area of influence, while also undermining the Baltic states’ efforts to integrate with Western energy infrastructure. Aside from the already familiar formula of Kremlin energy politics, Astravyets promptly features in Russia’s propaganda efforts to fracture Baltic foreign relations and divide Lithuania’s political establishment. Kremlin propaganda outlets cite the country’s opposition to Astravyets to reinforce their narratives about the Baltic states as “russophobic countries”, which allegedly oppose Belarusian “energy independence projects” out of mere spite. In Lithuania, they are trying to break the consensus among national political parties about seeking integration into Western energy networks by promoting a “pragmatic” coming-to-terms with Astravyets (and then Russia in general) and painting opposition towards it as “hopeless” and “stupid”.

The location of the Astravyets nuclear site is another element of Russia’s strategic concept and use of disinformation. In the event that tensions flared up to the extent that Russia was inclined to engage in kinetic operations, Astravyets is a key asset in both offensive and defensive capacities. It presents a major headache for the Lithuanian government whose institutions are located within the zone where evacuation would be necessary in the case of a major nuclear accident in the plant.

Area denial through (self-)sabotage

What could possibly happen at Astravyets? First, there is the possibility of a nuclear reactor meltdown, which Minsk and Moscow could take advantage of – whether by accident or design. Vilnius is downstream on the river Neris, water from which is to be used in the Astravyets cooling systems and which is likely to be immediately contaminated in this scenario. An accident would cause widespread and long-lasting devastation to the surrounding region and impede any Vilnius area protection and recovery efforts.

Therefore, Astravyets should be taken into account when scenarios involving kinetic operations in the Baltic states are considered. For example, were Russia to take any substantial military action in the Baltic states prompting a NATO counter-offensive (explored in the well-known RAND study), an act of self-sabotage in Astravyets would present a serious challenge for the Allied effort to secure the Vilnius area and protect the civil population as they would now be operating under serious risk of exposure to radioactive material. In essence, Astravyets could function for Russia as a non-conventional method of area denial. Moreover, an act of self-sabotage could involve Russia staging a “terrorist” attack or an “act of sabotage instigated by Lithuania”, pushing tensions down a rapid escalatory path.

The scenario is not as outlandish as it may seem. Recent history shows that large energy infrastructure facilities that are capable of inflicting massive damage on a nearby environment often feature in the contingency plans of policy makers and military planners. River dams in Iraq caused major headaches for the American and allied militaries, both during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent counterinsurgency campaigns (including the current campaign against the so-called Islamic State). Dams have also played an important role in the stand-off on the Korean Peninsula. The North Korean-built Imnam Dam, situated just above the demilitarized zone, poses a direct threat of flooding to Seoul. Fearing a scenario like this, South Korea built a Peace Dam with the sole purpose of containing any potential flooding. In 2009, without prior notice, Pyongyang unleashed columns of water from the Hwanggang Dam causing flash floods on the Imjin river basin which killed at least six people. Flooding followed in subsequent years as well.

Admittedly, the indiscriminate, long-lasting environmental impact of an intentional nuclear incident must give the Kremlin serious pause for thought. Moscow would need strong arguments to convince Minsk to sacrifice its north-western region to radioactive contamination or find a way to work behind its back. Lithuanian-Belarus-Russian relations, although certainly unfriendly, are far from the level of tensions in the Korean Peninsula or the insurgency in Iraq. However, if the geopolitical situation deteriorated rapidly to the point where Russia felt emboldened to directly challenge Lithuania, a NATO member, the Astravyets nuclear power plant would become an issue of great urgency.

Disruption through a nuclear hoax

Apart from its potential for non-conventional area denial in the case of conventional war in the Baltics, Astravyets also has a role in a more recognisable, hybrid or “near-conventional” conflict. Russia does not need to actually sabotage the plant to achieve a similarly powerful effect with reduced costs. A well-organized disinformation operation could conceivably trigger the evacuation of Vilnius or induce enough panic in the population to disrupt the functioning of social and political order.

Acknowledging its possible impact, the issue of a nuclear hoax has already been brought up at the highest level, with President Dalia Grybauskaitė naming it a national security threat. Darius Degutis, ambassador-at-large for issues related to the Astravyets NPP, mentioned hybrid threats as one of the key issues, saying that “understandably we’re preparing for any scenario.”1  It is clear that the Lithuanian government takes this scenario seriously.

And for good reason. Russia has already attempted to instigate a similar scenario, albeit further afield, in the United States. On September 11, 2014 a series of text messages were sent to the residents of St. Mary Parish warning them of “toxic fumes” from an explosion at the nearby chemicals plant. Further messages and fake images appeared on social media running under the hashtag #ColumbianChemicals claiming the incident was part of an ISIS terror plot. The #ColumbianChemicals story was quickly debunked as a hoax by local officials. The sophistication of doctored footage and the well-organised sending of messages indicated that it was a coordinated effort.

Later, a New York Times’ report traced the origins of these messages to the now well-known “troll-factory”, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), located in St. Petersburg, Russia. Clearly, Russia sought to play on real public anxiety about terrorism (the date coincided with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks) and the fear of chemical poisoning associated with WMD to induce a public panic. The operation failed, according to John Borthwick of betaworks, mostly because the network of bots pushing the message operated in an effective echo chamber – failing to reach a substantial number of real people.2

Should Moscow decide to employ a similar scenario using Astravyets, the operation would be much more effective due to the Kremlin’s control over information space in the area. Worth noting is that the effectiveness of the #ColumbianChemicals operation was probably limited because it took place at such a great geographical distance and Moscow had no control over the actual situation on the ground. Quite simply, local officials could reach out to the plant managers directly and confirm that no incident was taking place. Belarus’ nuclear plant presents different circumstances.

Recent attempts by Minsk and Moscow to manipulate the Astravyets information space to their advantage indicate no signs of goodwill.

In fact, instead of maintaining transparency to reassure their neighbours, the Astravyets project has created an information fog of uncertainty around the site. As ambassador Darius Degutis points out, the lack of trust building by Belarus has persisted ever since the project was announced in 2009. Minsk did not consult the Lithuanian authorities on the selection of the site despite its proximity to Vilnius, nor did they provide a report on its potential environmental impact. More importantly, the construction process has been plagued by incidents, but Rosatom and Minsk authorities have kept a veil of secrecy around them. According to Degutis, Lithuania learned about the incidents only several weeks after they took place, and from public sources. The project management first engaged in denials, then later attempted to manipulate the story to suit their narrative, reminiscent of Moscow’s responses to the Chernobyl disaster and recent incidents at the Mayak nuclear research facility.3  All the while, Belarus maintains stringent control over access to the site for international monitors. It is easy to write off this information fog as incompetence and a cover up of failure. But as other examples show, incompetence can easily be weaponized in denying hostile activities.

This untrustworthy behaviour by the people running the Astravyets projects and confirmed previous attempts to instigate panic through disinformation set up a context in which a hoax scenario on the ‘eastern front’ is conceivable. Moreover, the ground for such an operation is quite fertile. Lithuanians are understandably anxious about the plant. The memory of the Chernobyl disaster and Soviet dishonesty in handling it is still fresh: 65% of Lithuanians see Astravyets as a threat. Meanwhile Valdas Adamkus, former president of Lithuania, has called Astravyets a “nuclear bomb”.

In short, should Astravyets be completed successfully, it will be a significant strategic geopolitical victory for the Kremlin. It will not only reinforce Russia’s political and energy influence in the region, but also expand the Kremlin’s means to test and disrupt Lithuania’s and NATO’s resolve. It is unlikely that Moscow would resort to these measures in the current state of affairs. However, should tensions flare up, the costs of radical escalatory moves would likewise decrease. Therefore, NATO and the European Union should consider how Astravyets affects their strategic posture in the region and whether they can afford to concede this advantage to Moscow. 

Laurynas Keturakis is an Associate Analyst at Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis.

  • 1. Author’s interview with Ambassador Darius Degutis, July 2018
  • 2. Something the Kremlin corrected in its efforts during the 2016 US election as exemplified by social media groups that curated content from Moscow but were mostly comprised of real Americans, attempts to remotely organize protests, and other examples.
  • 3. Author’s interview with ambassador Darius Degutis, July 2018.

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