View from Brussels: Lithuania, hero of the European Union
Image credit: European Union 2022
Lithuania is the first European country to completely rid its energy system of Russian imports, after the former-Soviet nation cut oil, gas and electricity shipments. The Baltic States’ efforts to help Ukraine are starting to put the rest of the continent to shame.
The EU has grappled with the issue of curbing Russian energy purchases in recent weeks, as leaders try to find a way to stop funding the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine that does not hammer their voters with unaffordable utility bills.
Last week, prime ministers and presidents met in Brussels to try and broker an agreement on another round of Russia sanctions, most notably an oil embargo. But it did not all go to plan.
Hungary vetoed any chance of a full ban on imports, so pipeline oil will remain available for purchase. It means that the EU will cut around 90 per cent of trade instead of the full embargo that most leaders were seeking.
This fudge took weeks to cook up and makes the prospect of a gas ban even more implausible. Big players like Germany and Italy will not take that hit and it seems inevitable that Russia will continue to make big profits from its remaining customers.
For little Lithuania, up on the Baltic Sea’s eastern shoreline, none of that political wrangling really mattered. Its government already had plans to stick two fingers up to Vladimir Putin.
Oil-independence is now secured through a Polish-owned import terminal and refinery, while gas comes in through its LNG terminal from Norway and the United States. It is also an access point for the other Baltic States.
Lithuanian energy minister Dainius Kreivys said that “this is the result of years of struggle for our energy independence”, while Ukrainian counterpart German Galushchenko called it “a great sign of dignity, and a motivating example for the rest of Europe.”
Compare and contrast that with, for example, Germany’s Russia policy, which until very recently still intended to allow a second high-capacity gas pipeline to run under the Baltic Sea. That was despite the pleas of other countries, who history has already vindicated.
Lithuania’s government has also managed to tackle the tricky issue of electricity imports and grid management, by teaming up with Estonia, Latvia and other neighbouring countries to disconnect from the Russia-Belarus grid.
Ukraine led the way weeks ago in an EU-led effort to unhook its power grid from Russia’s and balance it using import capacity from Central Europe. Poland is now working to open another – previously-shuttered – 400kV interconnector.
The Baltic States have been working to do the same for years and Russia’s invasion brought the timeline up significantly. Now, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania’s grid operators will refuse Russian grid services and use capacity from the Nordics and Poland to manage the system.
For Lithuania, it partly solves an issue that has long been a thorn in its side: a controversial Belarusian nuclear power plant near its border and just 50km from its capital city, Vilnius.
During its construction, numerous incidents made global headlines, including the reactor vessel being dropped on the ground and its casing striking a telegraph pole during transport from Russia.
Lithuania’s diplomats went on a quest to get the power plant shut down by international regulators before it could ever be fired up and, once that proved impossible, the government pledged not to buy any electricity from Belarus to limit its potential for profit.
That does not solve Lithuania’s concerns about having Russian-built nuclear reactors so near its largest city and its water sources but Putin has once again, unwittingly, helped solve a geopolitical problem for one of the Soviet Union’s former colonies.
It would be unfair to say that other EU countries should mirror exactly Lithuania’s policies, as its population is small and there is not much power-thirsty industry to upset. But governments and even everyday people could perhaps learn a thing or two regardless.
Lithuanians this week crowdfunded enough money to buy an advanced piece of military drone hardware from a Turkish weapons manufacturer, so that it could be sent to Ukraine and used to blow up tanks and ships.
So much money was raised that the arms dealer decided to gift the drone to Lithuania. The cash will instead be used to buy missiles for the weapons system and the leftovers donated to Ukraine humanitarian efforts.
It is another sign that we are living through rather unprecedented times. Lithuanians seem to be taking them in their stride quite easily.
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