A history of Russian oppression fueled Lithuania’s energy independence

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VILNIUS, Lithuania — The Energy Ministry in this Baltic nation is located across a small street from a former KGB prison, where, during decades of Soviet rule, Lithuanian dissenters were interrogated, tortured and killed.

A museum in part of the building tells the story of those years, showing the dank cells and bullet-riddled execution chamber that the Soviets used to crush resistance during and after World War II.

From his office overlooking the former prison, Energy Minister Dainius Kreivys says this history is the fuel that propelled Lithuania, an independent nation since the 1991 Soviet collapse, to spend years working to break free of Russian oil and gas.

“During all of our history, we had to fight for our independence, for our survival,” Kreivys said in a recent interview. “In Lithuania, we say that energy is the second pillar, next to the military, of our national security.”

That’s meant a years-long construction spree to build oil and gas import terminals, pipelines and other infrastructure to prepare the country to live without energy from the continent’s biggest supplier, Russia.

While Germany was helping build two undersea pipelines to dramatically increase its imports of Russian natural gas, Lithuania was spending its taxpayer money with the single-minded goal of breaking free. The effort paid off last month, when the nation of 2.8 million was able to halt its remaining gas purchases from Russia to protest the invasion of Ukraine. The country stopped relying on Russian oil many years ago.

Long-simmering hostility toward Moscow and its historical subjugation of Eastern Europe is the propellant that has driven the continent’s most successful energy-independence movements. Fellow Baltic states Estonia and Latvia, as well as Poland, are years ahead of other European Union nations in rejecting Russian oil and gas.

Some say they tried to warn Germany over the years as it was deepening its dependence on Moscow through the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines from Russia.

“Germany was claiming that this project is fully an economic one, [that] it has nothing to do with politics, and they could see no issue [with] the independence of Germany and the whole of Europe,” Anna Moskwa, Poland’s minister of climate and environment, said in an interview in Warsaw. “For us it was an issue, taking into account the history we had, the whole of Europe has.”

Poland’s efforts are now putting it in a position to help Germany as it races to kick its Russian habit. The two countries met in Warsaw to discuss ways Germany could make use of Poland’s oil infrastructure and reduce its dependence on Russian supply.

Lithuania has a long, bitter history of Russian occupation, starting with Catherine the Great’s forces in 1795. The nation regained its independence after World War I, but external domination returned during World War II, when Germany briefly occupied the country and enlisted Lithuanian collaborators to help slaughter most of the country’s Jewish population. Lithuania then fell to the Soviet Union, which forcibly incorporated it as a Soviet republic in 1944.

Thousands of guerrilla fighters continued resisting Soviet rule in the postwar years, a movement eventually crushed through torture, execution and mass deportations to Siberia. The KGB museum’s basement execution chamber displays the shoes and eyeglasses of some of the former partisans on the ground next to the wall with bullet holes.

Lithuania felt a different kind of pressure after it became the first Soviet republic to declare independence, in March 1990. Moscow already had a network of refineries and pipelines to transport heavily subsidised oil from Siberia to Eastern Europe. It used that network to punish the rebellious republic.

In April 1990, Moscow sharply cut oil and gas deliveries to Lithuania for more than two months, causing a spike in gasoline prices and the shuttering of many factories.

Lithuania desperately sought supplies from Norway and others, but it didn’t have the money to pay or the power to steer foreign tankers around the Soviet navy. Kreivys stated that this was a lesson in which Lithuania learned early on that it had to purchase energy from other countries if it wanted to exercise sovereignty over its own decisions.

“Russia always, always has used energy as a tool for geopolitical influence,” Kreivys said.

As a first step after its independence, it hired an American firm to build a new oil import terminal that was completed in 1999. Although it was more costly, this way of buying oil allowed Lithuania to avoid dependence on Russian pipelines.

The risk of such dependence was underscored later that same year, when Lithuania sold a stake in its Soviet-era refinery to an American bidder instead of a Russian rival, prompting Russia to impose a sporadic oil blockade on the facility through a pipeline the Soviets had named Friendship.

Energy pressure worsened after Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, and after Lithuania joined the European Union and NATO in 2004. Russia began charging Lithuania more natural gas than other European customers. After Lithuania was forced to choose a Polish buyer instead of a Russian one when the refinery went up for auction, Russia again stopped shipments.

That spurred Lithuania to accelerate its efforts to break free, drawing up plans for a new terminal to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) via Baltic Sea shipments.

When Putin warned against proceeding with the gas project, in a rare 2010 meeting with Lithuania’s then-president, Dalia Grybauskaite, he only motivated Vilnius to move faster, said Romas Svedas, who was vice minister of energy at the time.

Grybauskaite “is a very strong personality, and immediately she said, ‘No, we are going to develop alternatives,'” Svedas said in an interview.

“We’ve been forced to build an extensive LNG terminal even though our neighbor is the richest country in the world for natural gas,” he said. “It’s a paradox, but basically Putin pushed, as he is pushing the whole world, to make a choice for democratic values.”

The LNG plan met resistance in Lithuania’s Parliament, where some legislators questioned the wisdom of building such an expensive project in a small country. Kreivys, Svedas and others blamed Russian disinformation. However the obstruction was finally overcome.

Local opposition also cropped up when Lithuania tapped Chevron to explore for shale gas, which would have eventually required fracking to extract. Again, Svedas suspected Russian handiwork.

A clutch of anti-shale billboards mysteriously appeared on the main highway out of Vilnius. Local journalists discovered that some billboard companies claimed they were owned by a private buyer, although Svedas did not name them. Local or central government officials are not likely to take responsibility.

“In Lithuania, normally if you have a position, you make it public. Go to the streets and tell them no for shale or war. He said, “It’s OK. We’re democratic countries.”

Despite the odds, the LNG terminal began operating in 2014 and helped lower gas prices for Lithuania, officials say.

The country purchased some gas through pipelines from Russia which helped lower its costs to be competitive with LNG supplies.

But after Russia invaded Ukraine, Lithuania was the first European country to announce that it would immediately stop buying Russian gas. Latvia followed quickly, while Estonia stated that it would cease buying Russian gas by the end of this year. Kreivys stated that “our terminal supplies them also.”

This week, Lithuania and Poland opened a new pipeline connecting the countries and enabling them to share gas — a timely development after Russia abruptly cut gas deliveries to Poland last week.

“Together we say NO to Russian gas, NO to Russian oil, NO to financing the war,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda tweeted after the opening ceremony Thursday.

Shared electricity is the last remaining link to Russia that Lithuania is racing to cut. It still gets about 10 percent of its electricity from a network built in Soviet times and controlled by Moscow.

The transmission loop connects all three Baltic states with Belarus and western Russia, creating an interdependence that no one country can break without hurting itself and the others, said Rokas Masiulis, head of Lithuania’s electricity grid.

Still, Vilnius is scrambling to build new electricity links to Poland and the E.U. With the goal of dismantling the Soviet-era network.

“By the end of 2025, we’ll be ready to desynchronize from Russia,” Masiulis said.

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