IT DOESN’T SOUND dramatic. Technicians in the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are preparing to change the frequency of their electric grids. This will involve desynchronising from a regional power system called IPS/UPS to allow synchronisation with another one, the Continental Synchronous Area. But look closer, and the switch is part of a contest that pits democratic Europe against autocratic Russia and its tinpot ally Belarus.
As a legacy of the Baltic states’ past as involuntary members of the Soviet Union, the mains frequency of their IPS/UPS power system is controlled from Moscow. This means that Russia’s regime could switch off the Baltics’ power for the better part of a dark and possibly cold week, perhaps longer, while Baltic operators scrambled to restore power with local means. The first three days alone of such a blackout would cost the Baltics €2.3bn ($2.7bn) in lost output, says Taavi Veskimagi, boss of Elering, Estonia’s grid operator. Deaths and instability could add to the toll, especially if meddling took place during a pandemic.
Russia has not explicitly threatened a Baltic blackout. The Kremlin has, however, occasionally cut off hydrocarbon exports, just to remind eastern Europeans what’s what. Russia could add grid power to its “strategic coercion” repertoire, especially if political upheaval led its leaders to seek support by manufacturing a crisis abroad, says Tomas Jermalavicius, formerly a planner at Lithuania’s defence ministry.
A big outage in Latvia on June 9th concentrated minds. Nothing indicates that the central dispatch office in Moscow was behind it. Even so, authorities there, says Mr Jermalavicius, “just sat on their hands and watched” instead of stepping in to prevent more cascading blackouts. (An emergency inflow from Poland saved the day.) At the least, then, Russia appears disinclined to help in a pinch. So the Baltic states must synchronise as quickly as possible with Europe, a “trusted area of high standards and legal norms”, says Mr Jermalavicius, now head of studies at the International Centre for Defence and Security, a think-tank in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital.
Hoping to reduce this threat to its north-eastern flank, the EU is expected to foot three-quarters of the project’s whopping cost of €1.6bn. America is also chipping in. Its departments of energy, state and defence, as well as the CIA, are providing money, kit and expertise. Pro-Kremlin propaganda urging people in the three states to oppose the grid reconfiguration has failed to gain traction. Still, the project will not be complete until 2025.
Baltic strategists have long taken comfort in an aspect of the regional power system’s design. Were the Kremlin to trigger a blackout in the Baltic states, power would also go out in areas of Belarus and western Russia due to the synchronous cross-border connections. But this restraint on the Kremlin’s options is slipping away. Russia is rapidly reconfiguring and upgrading its grid in a way that will insulate itself and Belarus if the Baltic states go dark.
A big recent development concerns Kaliningrad, a heavily militarised Russian exclave detached from the mainland and sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland. Edvinas Kerza, a former vice-minister of defence, says that Lithuanian intelligence has determined that last autumn Kaliningrad’s technicians achieved the ability to operate their grid even if power is down in the Baltic states. Mainland Russia will probably be insulated from any Baltic blackout by some time next year. That is well before the region will be ready to pair with the Continental Synchronous Area.
Until then, a quiet but high-stakes race is on. The Baltic states are upgrading their infrastructure to shorten the time that a locally managed grid reboot would take, says Zygimantas Vaiciunas, Lithuania’s energy minister. Thanks in part to EU monies that have already been allocated, recent progress in Lithuania has probably prevented any shutdown from becoming a national disaster, he says. If a kill switch were to be flipped in Moscow today, Mr Vaiciunas reckons that Lithuania could restore its grid in four days or less. That could still make for a pretty chilly episode. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Hacker alert”