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A nation must think before it acts.
Nuclear energy technology is increasingly relied upon by Russian President Vladimir Putin as his instrument of choice in economic statecraft. Aside from pursuing advanced nuclear technologies such as the MBIR sodium-cooled fast reactor (the world’s most powerful research reactor), the Russian Federation and its state-owned organizations are capitalizing on the pursuit of nuclear technologies by states that exhibit potential for energy dependence. As such, Russia is becoming an indispensable partner in nuclear energy for these countries and Russia’s Belarusian and Turkish energy partners should be of particular strategic concern.
Western observers often associate Russian nuclear energy with the 1987 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. However, unlike much of the OECD where nuclear energy development has declined in recent years, Russia continues civil nuclear development for economic power abroad. Rosatom, the state-owned nuclear energy corporation, maintains a presence in Russian embassies and focuses operations in countries that are exclusively aligned with neither the United States nor Russia such as Hungary, Bangladesh, and India. Since Rosatom typically finances construction, supplies experienced personnel, and trains future employees, these projects imply years’ worth of energy dependence upon Russian expertise and nuclear technology.
Despite having suffered from roughly seventy-five percent of the radioactive fallout of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, Belarus is an eager nuclear energy client of Russia. A Belarusian plant is currently under construction by Russia’s Atomstroyexport (a subsidiary of Rosatom), features two Russian VVER-1200 reactors, one scheduled for commissioning in December 2019 and the other in 2020, and will supply roughly twenty-five percent of Belarus’ electricity needs according to an estimation by Rosatom. The question of managing the nuclear waste produced by the facilities remains unanswered with two options currently under consideration: transporting the irradiated fuel rods to Russia for processing and storage or building a nuclear waste deep burial site in Belarus. The latter is attractive as it eliminates transportation risks; however, building a site in Belarus capable of safely housing spent nuclear fuel rods in cooling ponds for the necessary ten years will be time-consuming, expensive, and require further training and outside expertise than has currently been supplied. Consequently, Belarus is likely to forgo the elaborate construction planning and opt for the simpler alternative of handing off the spent nuclear rods to Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is also enhancing economic relations with Turkey. Construction of the country’s first nuclear power plant, to be housed at Akkuyu, has been underway since April 2018. Rosatom is the major consortium partner for Akkuyu and is responsible for the construction, operation, and ownership of the plant, which is expected to become fully functional by 2023. Rosatom is supplying the VVER-1200 to Turkey, the same design given to Belarus. Tenex, Rosatom’s overseas trading company, has already prepared a contract for long-term management of Akkuyu’s spent nuclear fuel. Furthermore, in preparation for the long-term operations of the facility, Turkey is sending twenty-five students to Russia’s St. Petersburg Polytechnic University and Rosatom for training and employment at Akkuyu upon completion of the program. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claims the plant will meet ten percent of Turkey’s energy needs when the four reactors are operational, and he has already announced hopes for the construction of additional nuclear power plants, which would most likely rely on Russian partnership.
Although Rosatom has declared its intentions as helping to “address the global challenges of the nuclear industry and increase the energy security of the Russian Federation,” Russia’s nuclear energy endeavors in Belarus and Turkey will concurrently affect and potentially compete with Western foreign policy directed toward these two countries. The United States and Russia are already competing in Turkey’s defense market, and Russia’s increasing attractiveness is deteriorating the American-Turkish relationship. After the United States warned Turkey against “significant transactions” made with the Russian military, Russia and the United States have been vying for Ankara’s favor for the purchase of missile defense systems. While the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system and the American MIM-104 Patriot missile system are considered rival options by these two sellers, Turkey claims “no connection, no correlation, and no conditions” exist between the transactions, with a final resolution still in the balance. Furthermore, the TurkStream pipeline worth more than $12 million is currently under construction to deliver Russian gas to Turkey — an enterprise that further solidifies relations and increases economic dependence by Turkey on Russian commodities. With Turkey increasingly dependent upon Russia’s defense and energy market, the addition of a nuclear power plant with a long-term contract for construction, training, and maintenance by a single provider may render expendable the United States’ efforts to enhance relations with Turkey.
Belarusian relations with the West and Russia are less controversial regarding defense and security and instead represent diplomatic discrepancies. Belarus has just announced the removal of a cap on the number of American diplomats allowed in the country, thus symbolizing “the beginning of a thaw,” according to a U.S. official, along with a potential increase in the authoritarian-style government’s interest in collaborating with the United States. However, Belarus remains considerably dependent upon Russian natural gas and is reportedly one of Russia’s “most reliable partners in the post-Soviet space.” The construction of a Russian-sponsored nuclear energy plant, which will generate a surplus sellable by Belarus to all three Baltic States, and a potential long-term arrangement between Russia and Belarus for the disposal of nuclear waste from the site would further confirm this claim. However, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko exhibits a new guardedness in Moscow’s current approach toward his country, voicing accusations of Russia attempting to incorporate Belarus by creating dependence for oil and natural gas. Russia’s intervention in Crimea and the Donbas territories in Ukraine demonstrate to Belarus the potential repercussions of aggrandizement. Lukashenko has nevertheless failed to abandon the Russo-Belarusian relationship and is deftly balancing his country between East and West with his recent traditional holiday giftof pork salo and potatoes to Vladimir Putin.
Ultimately, the West and the United States would do well to capitalize on any opportunity for energy cooperation with longstanding and new strategic partners. Both Turkey and Belarus’ interests in diplomatic cooperation in their respective economic pursuits represent such an opportunity. If missed, limited alternative options exist other than relying upon Russia as a single supplier, thus deepening the preventable gap between East and West.
Anna J. Davidson researches foreign policy, defense, and security alliances with a regional concentration on Russia and the former Soviet Union. She is currently part of the Russian and East European Studies Programme at Oxford University.
Follow Anna on Twitter @Davidson_AnnaJ and LinkedIn