Yesterday evening I attended a dinner debate sponsored by a major Russian electricity distribution company. It was entitled “Development of the energy sector of the Russian Federation: Functioning of electricity and capacity market and planned projects in the Baltic Sea Region — new possibilities for cooperation with the EU”.
But what it clearly amounts to is a bare-faced bid by the Russian energy industry (and therefore by Russia and Mr. Putin) to reassert dominance over its former East European colonies, and especially the Baltics. As it happens, I sat next to a colleague from Latvia, who was clearly alarmed by what we heard. The great fear in the Baltics (and the key reason they were up for EU and NATO membership) is that they fear Russian influence. The position is further complicated by the fact that they have substantial Russian minorities, who may be aggrieved that they have lost the privileges of Soviet days.
The Russians have even come up with a catchy acronym for their new “Area of cooperation”. BRELL. Belarus – Russia – Estonia – Latvia – Lithuania. Their goal (they say) is “to solve the problems related to the parallel operation of their energy systems, and to harmonize its decisions with the requirements of the European Union”.
It all sounds so cooperative and innocent. Yet it is a bare-faced attempt to bring the Baltics into the Russian energy system, and hence into the Russian sphere of influence. Exactly what non-Russian politicians in the Baltics most fear.
How can the Russians make such a blatant pitch for hegemony? Because the disaster of EU energy policy has created an urgent need for energy imports from somewhere — and Russia is the obvious “somewhere”. In this context, the isolated Russian enclave of Kaliningrad — on the Baltic coast between Lithuania and Poland — is a key factor, with its nuclear power station. A state-backed think tank in Poland has expressed its qualms about this plant, which it believes undermines Polish energy security.
Kaliningrad (formerly Konigsberg), by the way, has an unenviable reputation as a lawless enclave riven by organised crime, drug running and people trafficking. Not the kind of place I’d choose to trust as the supplier of a vital service.
And as an equally depressing post-script, I’ve just attended a breakfast on the impact on neighbouring countries of the German decision to close its nuclear industry. A Transmission Service Operator from the Czech Republic told us that “the grid infrastructure is ten years behind the development of renewables”, and that he expected power outages not by 2015, but any time now. Meantime German EPP MEP Christian Ehler (who is running a “Coal Forum”) admitted that the nuclear decision, which will do huge damage to Germany and its neighbours for decades, was a short-term tactical political response by Chancellor Merkel to the success of the Green Party in regional elections.
I got in some robust observations about the impossibility of operating renewables without back-up, and the impossibility of finding investment for back-up power stations that would run only intermittently. The mood of the meeting was with me, but the few who understand the problem are in despair at the difficulty of getting rational energy decisions out of the European Institutions.