As the Russia-Ukraine crisis intensifies and western sanctions pile up against Moscow, Europe is once more grappling with its foreign gas dependency – 50 percent of which has traditionally been supplied by the Russian Federation.
While sanctions on Russian energy supplies have been considered, the potential inflationary backlash and mass shortages Europeans could face make this a dangerous gambit.
The endgame in Ukraine will likely see some seismic shifts in global energy and financial networks. One of these will take place in the Eastern Mediterranean, where in recent years, competing states have jockeyed for primacy in constructing gas pipelines to Europe.
At the moment, in the East Med contest, all eyes are on energy-poor Turkey, which has for decades tried and failed to establish itself as the energy hub connecting Asia to Europe. Recent developments, however, suggest that this situation could very well change.
Russia and Turkey
Eurasian energy giants like Russia and Iran – facing their own geopolitical standoffs with NATO, of which Turkey is a member – have their own preferential oil and gas routes mapped out, and are unlikely to place all their bets on a Turkish hub. That also appears to be the position of Ankara’s western allies, at least under the leadership of Turkey’s longtime President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Until Ukraine reared its head, the Eastern Mediterranean gas issue was the one around which alliances and policies in West Asia were rapidly shifting. In the last months, remarkable developments have taken place around Turkey’s role in this critical theater, opening the way for Ankara to assume a leadership role.
Despite the Russian-Turkish geopolitical competition across multiple regions, the two Eurasian nations have managed to cooperate across a range of areas, and significantly so in the energy sector.
For instance, despite mounting tensions between the two states along the Turkish-Syrian border and their support of opposing sides in the Syria conflict, Moscow and Ankara were able to find common ground in replacing the SouthStream pipeline with TurkStream in 2020 (which passes through Turkey before entering Bulgaria). In doing so, Russia assisted Turkey in achieving its longstanding ambition to be a transit point for gas pipelines entering Europe.
EastMed Gas Forum
At the same time, Turkey was feeling isolated from its US ally in the region, who excluded it from joining the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, or the EastMed Gas Forum (EMGF), and planned to deliver gas directly to Europe, bypassing Turkey altogether.
The EMGF, is an international organization formed by Israel, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Jordan, and Palestine and is headquartered in Cairo. Established as an international body on 16 January 2020, the forum is the region’s first declared alliance in the gas sector. It is also the first case of Israel being invited to join Arab countries organizationally, with the participation of EU member states.
The alliance also received backing by the US, which along with France, joined the Forum as a member and permanent observer respectively. In December 2020, the UAE was granted observer status at the EMGF, although its membership was vetoed by Palestine last year.
With an estimated cost of $7 billion, and scheduled to be completed by 2025, the Eastern Mediterranean Pipeline Project is expected to run for some 1,900km, starting from Israel’s Levantine Basin, transiting through Cyprus to Europe, and projected to transport at least 11 billion cubic meters of gas per year.
However, the project has been hampered, if not altogether derailed, by the withdrawal of US support earlier this year due to reservations about the project’s financial feasibility.
The US instead voiced its support for the planned EuroAfrica interconnector from Egypt to Crete and the Greek mainland, and the EuroAsia interconnector, linking Israeli, Cypriot and European electricity grids.
Turkey’s opposition to the EastMed pipeline
Washington’s withdrawal was welcomed by Turkey which had perceived the alliance as a means to bypass Turkish interests in the eastern Mediterranean and isolate the country in the vital gas sector.
At the time, Ankara had reacted strongly against what its foreign ministry termed the “axis of malice,” and claimed that the maritime demarcation agreements signed by the Republic of Cyprus (ROC) with other countries were invalid. Turkey claims that Cypriot maritime activities to the west of the island may overlap with Turkey’s continental shelf. Since Turkey does not recognize the ROC, these agreements, it contends, do not represent the Turkish Cypriot population of the island.
After the collision between a Turkish and Greek warship in the disputed zone in August 2020, Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hami Aksoy said in a statement that, no matter what, Turkey will “resolutely continue to protect both her and Turkish Cypriots’ rights in the Eastern Mediterranean stemming from international law,” adding that “no alliance of malice will manage to prevent this.”
In response to the planned pipeline – which gained official status following an intergovernmental agreement signed between Israel, Greece and the ROC – Ankara hurried to sign its own deal with Libya’s then-interim Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli. Turkey and its Qatari ally supported the GNA while the UAE, Saudi Arabia, France, and Russia backed the Tobruk-based rival forces led by Khalifa Haftar.
This agreement demarcated its own version of the continental shelf zone boundaries between the two countries within the Eastern Mediterranean. Erdogan used the Ankara-Tripoli deal to draw a hard red line for his competition: “Other international actors cannot conduct exploration activities in the areas marked in the [Turkish-Libyan] memorandum. Greek Cypriots, Egypt, Greece, and Israel cannot establish a natural gas transmission line without Turkey’s consent.”
Although the Libya-Turkey maritime deal may have served its purpose in disrupting the EastMed pipeline project, it may already be in jeopardy following recent internal political developments in Libya, where the Tobruk-based House of Representatives has sworn in new Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha, replacing incumbent and embattled Turkish-ally Abdul Hamdi Dbeibeh who has refused to hand over power, except to a government elected by the people.
Turkey as a European gas hub
Natural gas is key to shaping Turkey’s role as a decisive regional power as it sits on the crossroads between natural gas suppliers in Russia, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and West Asia on one hand, and the European Union, as a huge natural gas consumer, on the other. This strategic location has motivated Turkey’s ambition to become a natural gas hub, or at least the main transit country, and to promote its position on the geopolitical map.
Until the end of the last decade, Turkey did not export large enough gas quantities to fulfill its ambition of becoming a natural gas transit country. In 2007, Turkey began exporting natural gas to Greece through the Turkey-Greece Natural Gas Interconnector via Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz field. While the exported quantities have remained only between 1 percent and 2 percent of the imported gas, this figure is expected to change by the beginning of the new decade.
Established in 2018, Azerbaijan’s Shah Denis 2 gas field added 16 bcm (billion cubic meters) of natural gas yearly, with 6 bcm earmarked for Turkey via a direct pipeline, and 10 bcm destined for European consumers via the Trans Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) that runs through Turkish territory, connecting with the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP).
TAP started delivering Azerbaijani natural gas to European markets on December 31, 2020, and in September 2021 the company announced a transport milestone of 5 bcm.
The TurkStream pipeline
Another step for Turkey on the road to becoming a transit country was in January 2020, when Turkey announced the launch of the TurkStream project with Russia. As previously mentioned, TurkStream replaced the SouthStream project, which was originally intended to supply Russian gas to southern Europe via underwater Black Sea pipelines.
Following a military clash between Russia and Turkey on the Syrian border, the two sides agreed in 2016 to build the TurkStream pipeline, and interestingly, signed the agreement just one month before the Syrian government launched its successful campaign to liberate the city of Aleppo. The TurkStream project will consist of two parallel pipelines with a total capacity of 31.5 bcm per year (15.75 bcm each).
One of the pipelines is intended to fulfill Turkey’s domestic gas demand and also, incidentally, to replace the Trans-Balkan pipeline which runs from Ukraine to Turkey. This way, Russian gas would bypass Ukraine, which may prove critical in light of the current conflict there.
The other pipeline is intended to feed southeastern and central European markets via Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary. Russia’s majority state-owned Gazprom began gas deliveries to some markets via TurkStream in January 2020, using partially completed and existing infrastructure.
The second phase of the project TurkStream 2 (the European part) comprises new and existing infrastructure. Pipeline construction in Bulgaria and Serbia, totaling about 550 miles in length, is largely complete, while several compressor stations and a segment connecting TurkStream to Hungarian infrastructure have not yet been completed.
However, this part of the project is now under threat of US sanctions because it would deepen Europe’s reliance on Russian natural gas, and reduce Ukraine’s role as a transit state.
Will Turkey join the ‘Axis of Malice’?
Turkey’s goal now is to prevent the direct passage of large gas quantities to Europe through the Mediterranean corridor which can weaken Ankara’s position as the southern hub for European gas.
In 2013, Turkey began talks with Israel to build a pipeline from Israeli fields to Turkey, only to then watch Israel prioritize the EastMed pipeline and its alliance with Egypt, Cyprus, and Greece in the EMGC.
Following the US withdrawal from the project, Erdogan actively re-emphasized that Turkey is the only viable route for Israeli gas sales to Europe: “This cannot happen without Turkey.”
Well in advance of Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s visit to Ankara this week, Erdogan openly stated that Turkey “could use Israeli natural gas in our country, and beyond that, we could also work together to carry it to Europe,” according to Daily Sabah.
Amid the thawing of ties between Israel and Turkey, and with Herzog’s historic visit to Ankara this week, Turkey’s role as a transit point for Israeli gas has become a focal point of interest. Yesterday, Israeli sources confirmed that Erdogan did in fact propose a Israel-Turkey-Europe project during their meeting.
This development is taking place in parallel with several diplomatic shifts elsewhere in West Asia that could even trigger regional realignments. Ankara launched talks with Cairo in May, while renewed dialogue with the United Arab Emirates culminated in a reconciliation visit by Abu Dhabi’s crown prince in November. Erdogan is also expected to visit Saudi Arabia in the coming weeks.
These changes are, in part, a result of President Biden’s policy shifts in the region. Washington is trying to end rifts between its allies in order to obstruct Turkish-Russian rapprochement by sacrificing the EastMed pipeline, so to speak.
It now remains to be seen whether Ankara will join the so-called “malice alliance,” and dump its Russian TurkStream 2 project under US pressure. Equally possible is that Erdogan will seek to avoid that hard choice, try to juggle both sides, and shoot for a pre-election miracle by recasting Turkey as a global gas hub.