Russia thwarting Turkey's every move

May 18, 2016, 12:30 PM EDT
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
(Source: AMISOM Public Information/flickr)

Turkey is having a rough time. Apart from domestic political turmoil, renewed fighting with Kurdish secessionists, antagonism with Russia, and the very real possibility that the refugee deal with the E.U. will fall apart, now its future energy prospects are in limbo. After Turkish forces shot down a Russian jet on the Syrian border last November, furious Moscow became Ankara’s enemy. Russia turned the economic screws hard by imposing sanctions and canceling visa-free tourism. Looking to diversify its energy imports, Turkey has been in talks with Israel over buying natural gas, to start in 2020. But on Tuesday Israeli media reported that Israel and Russia are about to agree upon a modus operandi in the Eastern Mediterranean about weapons and natural gas deals.

Throughout the diplomatic turmoil, Russia has remained Turkey's largest gas supplier with a market share of over 60%. But Russian energy giant Gazprom’s natural gas exports to Turkey during the first quarter of 2016 were down to 6.4 billion cubic meters, an 18% decline compared to the same period last year. This overreliance on Russian gas is dangerous, because as the case of Ukraine shows, Moscow is willing to restrict or cut off the supply of natural gas to pursue geopolitical aims.

No official details of the Israel-Russia accord have been released yet, but the gist is most likely to be that Israel will not sell natural gas to Turkey and, in return, Russia won't supply S-300 anti-aircraft missiles and other advanced weapon systems to Iran and Israel’s other regional enemies. Turkey, it seems, will be left in the lurch, thwarted again by Russia.

Meanwhile, Turkey is doubling down on its main existing gas pipeline – or rather, lifeline – the  Shah Deniz, which it shares with Azerbaijan and Georgia (unsurprisingly, two countries that Russia dislikes). Commissioned in 2006, it has the annual capacity to transport 25 billion cubic meters of gas. Plans are underway to connect the Shah Deniz with Europe as part of the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline, which is expected to be built before 2019.

On Tuesday Greece began construction on a section of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline that will transport gas from the Shah Deniz via Greece and Albania to Italy. Gazprom’s proposed Poseidon gas pipeline would be a direct rival linking Greece and Italy, although it would have to transit Bulgaria rather than Turkey to get to Greece in the first place. But Bulgaria’s government has always proven incapable of agreeing to such an arrangement, and in any case Greece has shelved the Poseidon pipeline for now. Even with Vladimir Putin’s upcoming visit to Greece, no breakthrough is expected.

That said, it would clearly be in Moscow’s best interests if something were to go wrong with the Shah Deniz, harming Turkey and its lackeys. Likely fearing this, on Sunday, Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan agreed to jointly ensure security at oil and gas pipelines. If any “accident” does occur, look north for the likely culprit.