Meeting of the Turkish and Russian leaders put an end to tension between the two countries. Both Erdogan and Putin are eyeing rapprochement. However, energy expert Necdet Pamir is skeptical of the promises made.
While Erdogan is feeling more isolated regionally and globally thanks to his adventurous policies dragging him to a “precious loneliness,” he made a new steep turn toward his “old friend” Putin. This most recent “U-turn” may be more than surprising and shocking for those who have a rationalist mind setup, nothing is a surprise for those who have witnessed so many U-turns by “pragmatic” Erdogan. The most recent example was his radical policy change toward Israel, which was on-hold since the Gaza Flotilla crises in 2010.
Most analysts believe that Erdogan’s U-turns toward Israel and Russia have a strong energy dimension. To some degree, they are right since energy-hungry Turkey is a significant importer of natural gas (48,4 billion cubic meters in 2015), and both countries offer different import opportunities. Gas has the biggest share (32,5%) in Turkey’s energy mix, and 99% is imported. Turkey is already 55,3% dependent on gas imports from Russia and searching for diversification, while Israel’s recent discoveries (Leviathan, Tamar, Mari, etc.) offers a very suitable diversifying option at least theoretically. For Israel as well, the best feasible option seems to be the Turkish market (especially the southern coast).
Putin and Erdogan: up against the West
During Putin–Erdogan meeting, two important energy projects, namely the TurkStream (a gas pipeline to be laid subsea within the Turkish Black Sea Exclusive Economic Zone) and the Akkuyu Nuclear Plant projects were highlighted as expected. It was not a surprise since both leaders tried to use these projects for sending a strong message to the US and EU leaders. Putin sought to show them that Russia had options against their sanctions and strengthening its relations with NATO member Turkey would be a “slap in the face” to both leaders.
Similarly, outcasted Erdogan tried to send a strong message to the US and the EU who seemed insensitive to the coup attempt threatening his life and power. Erdogan had criticized the Western leaders for not showing empathy. Comparing Putin to EU and US leaders, Erdogan said the former did not ask him about the number of people detained when he called him about the coup, unlike his Western counterparts.
Such perceptions and mindsets are the main drivers bringing these two leaders together and energy matters from the sweetener and may be the cementing elements.
TurkStream: a political project
TurkStream was “surprisingly” announced during a late 2014 visit by Putin to Turkey to replace the South Stream Project aiming to transport 63 bcm of Russian gas via a Black Sea crossing and entering the EU territory from the Bulgarian port of Varna. Putin’s proposal was a reaction to the EU sanctions against Russia for Crimea and also to the 3rd Energy Package released by the EU to restrict Gazprom monopoly within its territory.
TurkStream is rather a political project and had limited chance for realization from the first day since most of the gas had to be marketed in the EU and only one-fourth was to be consumed by Turkey. The equation today is no different compared to December 2014. If the EU and Russia do not come to a rapprochement in the near term on foreign policy and the 3rd Energy Package, the remaining 47.25 bcm gas will have no marketing and therefore construction potential.
Erdogan told that Turkey and his government would give a strategic project status to Akkuyu Nuclear Plant Agreement, and the TurkStream Project would be accelerated by all means. He also said that for both projects, there was a need for various parliamentary approvals. However, similar declarations and show business were also demonstrated for the “famous” NABUCCO Project (“the Project of the Century!”) in 2009, but it has been buried in the following years.
Akkuyu increases Turkish over-dependency
Akkuyu nuclear deal, however, has some different dimensions. Two “pragmatic” leaders are trying to maximize their $24 billion (21,5 billion euros) worth commercial benefits through this deal while paying no attention to operational safety and waste management issues at all. The IAEA has submitted a report to the Turkish Government highlighting 24 recommendations and 15 suggestions before continuing their efforts to construct the Akkuyu Nuclear Plant.
Furthermore, for Erdogan, increasing over-dependency to Russia seems to be a matter of no concern. He appears to forget about his strongly diverging interests in Syria, in Iraq and for the steps he had taken while installing the missile shield and Patriots in our territory. All these policy choices had been strongly criticized by Russians and perceived as substantial threat issues.
Temporary leap towards Russia
On the one side, you have strongly divergent interests with the Russians, and you are trying to increase your already over-dependent status to the Russians. On the other hand, Turkey is a NATO member and Erdogan’s foreign policy “choices” favoring the Muslim Brotherhood groups in the MENA region do not seem to be in parallel with those of the US.
Furthermore, while the US supports PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and defines them as “some of the most successful military power going after ISIL inside Syria,” Erdogan considers PYD a terrorist organization. US administration seems not interested with such claims as the White House spokesman Kirby explicitly said that they don’t recognize the PYD as a terrorist organization. The last straw further straining the relations came up when Kirby told reporters that the US also does not consider the Gulen movement a ‘terrorist organization,’ whose members the Turkish government had relentlessly been hunting down since the failed coup attempt last month. This lead to further tension between the allies and added to Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia.
While projects like TurkStream and Akkuyu Nuclear may be the tasty sauces for the Erdogan–Putin “dinner show”, both projects have significant obstacles in front of them. Today Erdogan “pragmatically” needs to line up with Putin and such projects are best-fit instruments. Tomorrow, he may find it more beneficial to turn back to his NATO allies.
*Necdet Pamir is an expert on energy policy and teaches at Bilkent University in Ankara.