Imperial Power Grid: The Role of Energy in Russia’s Colonial Expansion
Mark Cinkevich and Anna Engelhardt
The politics of electricity extraction has been largely overshadowed by the explicit violence of oil and gas. Especially in the case of Russia, oil and gas has appeared to be the crux of the Putin regime’s strength. Today, with the rising demands of an energy embargo against Russia, we hope to support the legitimacy and widen scope of such demands by bringing up the question of electricity. Even though our investigation into dependence on electricity provided by Russia was developed before the escalation of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, the colonial logic it reveals is still of relevance.
Providing an insight into Russia’s colonial energy extraction, we feel the need to first explain why we approach it as a matter of colonial politics, rather than class politics. Even though both are closely connected, certain types of colonial violence cannot (and should not) be explained with the logic of capital. Extraction is a particularly useful notion to explain such a difference. Extraction of value in some cases is not mutually exclusive with colonial extraction, with both types reinforcing one another.
History knows many examples of an empire (e.g. Great Britain) extracting energy (e.g. coal) from sovereign states placed in colonial dependence (India, Nigeria). Crucially, colonial extraction does not necessarily aim at the extraction of value and can actively contradict it. In this text, we will analyze this particular case: the energy infrastructure built and maintained at a major monetary loss for the colonial power. While inefficient in economic terms, it has proved its importance for Russia’s colonial expansion.
Belarus’ “energy independence”
While Belarus’ president Alexander Lukashenko claims “there is no greater value than a sovereign and independent Belarus,” his Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) project in Ostrovets was sponsored by Russia to enmesh Belarus into Russia’s power grid. Since the announcement of the NPP project in Ostrovets in 2008, it has been a relentless generator of small and large-scale disasters. One of those happened in July 2016, when a 334-ton reactor vessel was dropped from 4 meter-height on the construction site. Alexander Lokshin, director of Rosatom, was the first to publicly comment on the accident claiming that the vessel was not damaged and no deformations were detected. The Belarusian State Association of Electric Power Industry “Belenergo” remained silent, leaving Russia to respond to growing concerns.
It may seem strange that the only public statement regarding the core of Belarus’ nuclear power plant came from Russia. However, looking into where the parts of NPP are coming from provides a clear explanation. For that, we can follow a new nuclear vessel, shipped later in 2016 to replace the first one that was “not deformed.” This new NPP core was shipped via the railway from Atommash, a nuclear engineering company located in Volgodonsk, Rostov region, Russia. During transit, this new vessel was hit against a concrete pillar at the railway station “Slavnoe” in Belarus. Numerous photographs feature the vessel in transit without a protective case. Nevertheless, the vessel was installed.
Violations like these have been growing beyond count, making future major accidents at Ostrovets Nuclear Power Plant inevitable. Summarized by the parties to the Espoo Convention, the overview lacks an important detail: the violation of the sovereignty of Belarus. The NPP, infamous as a Belarus project, is in fact one of Russia’s government. The NPP in Ostrovets follows the rules of labeling well-established in a globalized market. With practically all its parts produced and manufactured in Russia, from power reactors to uranium, the NPP is “made in” Belarus as it is assembled in Belarus. Russia plays a role as essential as uranium to the NPP, without which it is practically useless. Belarus has neither natural uranium resources nor technical capacities for the enrichment process, which makes it directly dependent on Russia for both.
In 2011, Belarus and Russia signed an intergovernmental agreement on the distribution of funds for the construction of the NPP. According to the agreement, Russia will cover 90% of all costs while Belarus will pay only the remaining 10%. Such disproportionate distribution of allocated investments is especially puzzling given that the project was conceived of as a guarantor of Belarus’ energy independence. Russia not only invests in construction of an energy infrastructure abroad, but also claims to do so without the perspective of receiving neither resources nor financial profit.
Considering that electricity-producing enterprises can be deployed almost anywhere, especially in case of NPPs, the interest of Russia in construction of a NPP outside its territory should raise concern. Nondisclosure of the reasons for such immense ‘aid’ for energy independence is amplified by the fact that Belarus does not have natural uranium resources. Russia, with its estimated 500,000 tons of uranium deposits in the South Urals, Western Siberia, and Siberia east of Lake Baikal, is guaranteed to be a key importer. Before being delivered to Belarus, the uranium for the NPP in Ostrovets will undergo the enrichment process at the Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrates Plant, which is also impossible without strategic cooperation with Russia.
Inter-imperial struggles over energy hegemony
In addition to supplying the NPP with enriched uranium and investments, Russia also has to buy energy from the enterprise while overproducing energy itself. In June 2017, The Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania promulgated law No XIII-451. Article 1 recognized the NPP in the Ostrovets District in the Republic of Belarus as unsafe and posing a threat to the national security of the Republic of Lithuania, its environment and public health. Signed by president Dalia Grybauskaitė, this law instantly blocked any potential energy cooperation between Belarus and Lithuania.
In support of Lithuania, other EU member countries, including Poland and Latvia, rejected Ostrovets-produced energy. The European Union also aims to prevent electricity flows from the newly constructed Belarus NPP to the European Union. This involves the dismantlement of the shared electricity grid of Belarus and Russia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania known as the “BRELL ring.” Energy cooperation with Ukraine has also been impossible already after the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the subsequent withdrawal of Ukraine from the Commonwealth of Independent States in 2018.
The reason Russia is much involved in the NPP project is because the enterprise operation, despite being economically and resource-wise inexpedient, allows for obtaining control over the entire energy infrastructure of Belarus unthinkable for oil and gas supply.
The commissioning of the NPP in 2020 adds about 18 billion kilowatt-hours (KWh) per year to the 36-38 billion KWh that Belarus produces and consumes annually. Such a gigantic addition means Belarus is producing 150% of the country’s consumption needs – a situation far from being unpredictable because it was already in 2010 when “The Public Environmental Expert Commission” concluded that the construction of a nuclear power plant in Belarus is unacceptable for environmental, technical, and economic reasons. However, Alexander Lukashenko insisted on implementing the project hoping for the growth of energy consumption rates. The economic stagnation, financial crisis, political crisis, and social unrest of the upcoming years negatively impacted the energy sector dynamic. As a result, over the last 12 years there was no growth of energy consumption. Therefore, the recent commissioning of the NPP has led to massive overproduction.
The crux of the project is exposed when looking at how the overproduction is being managed by the Belarus’ government. Belarus not only appears dependent on Russia both as a provider of uranium resources and as a consumer of the overproduced energy, it also initiated a program entitled “Set of measures to integrate the Belarusian NPP into the unified energy system of Belarus.” Doing so, the government decided to conserve the existing infrastructure by installing “peak-reserve” capacities. It means that the existing high-capacity power units are being shut down and decommissioned while power units of reduced capacity, called “peak-reserves”, are installed.
The program includes the creation of parasitic infrastructure around the NPP with the sole focus on supporting its functioning. At the same time, Belarus’ government deploys a series of measures to reduce the productivity rates of already existing heat and power plants (CHP) and natural gas-fired thermal power stations (GRES). However, because of the frequent NPP shutdowns and the current impossibility of providing an uninterrupted electricity supply, the existing energy enterprises will remain in operation to compensate for possible energy shortages. In particular, the two largest energy-producing stations in Belarus are undergoing such reconstruction. It will lead to an irreversible decrease in the existing GRES and CHP capacities, job losses, etc. And it will require additional financial investments.
The NPP in Belarus can hardly be further detached from the definition of a sustainable and a profitable enterprise. It was eight years into the project when the government promulgated a decree № 169, dated March 1, 2016 and edited in 2018, entitled “Intersectoral package of measures to increase electricity consumption until 2026.” According to the decree, Belarus’ government is to make additional financial investments of 3 billion dollars which is 3 times the amount of Belarus’ investments into the NPP in Ostrovets itself to create electricity-consuming infrastructures across the country. Belarus is to undergo a massive electrification with the biggest enterprises of the Ministry of Industry, Ministry of Transport and Communications, Ministry of Architecture and Construction, Ministry of Housing and Communal Services, regional executive committees, Minsk city executive committee to undergo re-equipment.
Crawling electricity grid
Despite immense financial investments, this set of measures is not going to solve the overproduction problem. These measures would allow for covering only 11.4% of the surplus energy produced in Ostrovets and only by the year 2026, while the overproduction is happening already now.
The NPP in Ostrovets cannot exist as an isolated object. As such, the fact of its operation turns Belarus into a space outside the Russian territory which is – at the level of infrastructure – integrated into it. The NPP threatens the sovereignty of Belarus which is no longer supported by borders but is being dismantled from within. It entails such consequences as the separation of Belarus from its own infrastructure and violation of territorial integrity. With each day passing, the resistance to the integration into Russia’s power grid is becoming more difficult because a simple shutdown of the NPP in Ostrovets would paralyze the entire energy infrastructure in Belarus, its largest manufacturing enterprises, and cities. Thus, one could say that a point of no return has been reached with the launch of the NPP in Ostrovets.
This crawling electricity grid now reaches further. With Russia’s shelling of Ukraine cutting the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant off the grid, the Putin regime found a convenient solution to the development that, as a worker revealed, “violates [a] key safety pillar.” In order to avoid the stoppage of the cooling systems in spent nuclear fuel storage, the workers of the Chernobyl NPP were forced to connect to a Belarus electricity supply line. The reach of this “electricity contact” enables one to imagine how strongly Russia’s colonial expansion depends on its ever-growing power grid – a material infrastructure that ultimately represents the weak links of such an expansion: Not only those to be colonized by Russia are made dependent on it, but also Russia’s colonialism itself. Such material vulnerability of Moscow’s ambitions allows both Belarus partisans on the ground and international solidarity movements to cut its sprawling cables and pipes.