By Kate Clark
Vladimir Putin is excited to pass gas… through Turkey, that is.
Last Monday, we received news that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached an agreement to revive the once-dead Turkish Stream pipeline, which would carry natural gas from Russia, under the Black Sea, to Turkey and on to Western Europe.
The plan for the Turkish Stream pipeline originated in December 2014, when President Putin announced that a pipeline through the Black Sea would be diverted toward western Turkey, where several of pipeline’s strings would continue to the Greek border, and subsequently, the European Union. This announcement came in the wake of the sudden cancellation of the South Stream pipeline, which would have been used to carry gas from Russia across the Black Sea to Bulgaria. Many of Russia’s main pipelines used to transport natural gas westward cut directly through Ukraine – the route taken by approximately 66% of Russian gas exported to the EU. This creates uncertainty and risk for both the EU and Russia. EU countries rely heavily on Russia for energy, making it difficult to take hard stances against Russian aggression in Ukraine and beyond. On the other hand, Russia’s gas company, Gazprom, relies heavily on Ukrainian pipelines to transport their gas to Europe, a major source of national income, and wishes to reroute gas away from volatile, unfriendly Ukraine. Enter the Turkish Stream: a pipeline originally slated to carry 63 billion cubic meters of gas annually, specifically 16 billion to Turkey, and 47 billion to the Turkish/Greek border.
The Turkish Stream has a rocky road to implementation. On October 6, 2015, Russia’s Gazprom announced a reduction in the capacity of the Turkish Stream pipeline to roughly half of the original number, at 32 billion cubic meters of gas annually. Additionally, in December 2015, Russia suspended the construction of the pipeline due to conflict with Turkey after a Russian fighter jet was shot down by the Turkish military for allegedly violating Turkey’s airspace along its Syrian border in November 2015. The Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov officially attributed the suspension to Turkey buying oil illegally from the Islamic State. Although rumors began in August of the pipeline plan’s resurrection, Monday’s meeting marks the first official step towards implementing the plan and constructing the pipeline.
So why is Monday’s meeting important? The Turkish Stream could have significant implications on energy security, international politics, and trade. First, the pipeline does not travel through Ukraine, giving Russia the ability to fully cut off supplies to Ukraine easily while still providing oil to other Western markets. In a world where energy is money and energy insecurity presents a huge vulnerability to national defense, Russia would wield almost sovereign power over a large portion of Ukraine’s energy. Russia has cut off access to natural gas before as a political move in both 2009 and 2015, plunging Eastern Europe into energy chaos. Additionally, Russian control of natural gas has presented challenges to the EU, as the organization has sought to negotiate fair pricing for natural gas with Russia while expressing disdain for Russian aggression in Ukraine. Finally, Turkey and Russia have a somewhat complicated history. Beyond the suspension of the plans and construction for the pipeline in late 2015, the two countries have been fighting on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, with Russia supporting the current, and controversial, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey supporting the rebels.
Most recently, Turkey and Russia share a common thread: conflict with the United States. It is an understatement to say that U.S.-Russia relations have not been the best. Just last week, President Putin withdrew from an arms control agreement with the US to dispose of over thirty tons of plutonium, which is used in nuclear weapons. Shortly after, the US halted talks with Russia over the conflict in Syria due to the Kremlin’s participation in a bombing campaign against the city of Aleppo during a mutually negotiated ceasefire. On October 7, Secretary of State John Kerry called for a war crimes investigation against Russia of this bombing campaign. And these are only the recent developments; without diving into the U.S. reaction to Russian actions in Ukraine, or Russian attempts to capitalize on weaknesses in NATO.
On the other side, the U.S. has heavily criticized President Erdogan’s actions after Turkey’s failed coup in July 2016, which included a severe and largely indiscriminate crackdown against government opposition. Washington’s refusal to extradite the Turkish-born religious scholar Fethullah Gülen, whose intellectual movement and network of supporters Erdogan blames for the coup attempt, has also soured relations. Another major flashpoint is that the U.S. has disagreed with Turkish leadership over the treatment of the Kurds in Syria. The U.S. sees the Syrian Kurds as a strong ground force to fight ISIS, whereas the Turkish administration considers the fighters to be terrorists. American relations with various Kurdish forces are complex, and in March of this year, a faction of the Syrian Kurdish militia the YPG defected from the US to Russia, seeking more support for their goal of creating a Kurdish state.
With the potential to impact the natural gas access of not only Ukraine but also the majority of Europe, the Turkish Stream could bring a new era of energy insecurity to many US allies. As we head into an election season where one candidate holds a particularly strong reverence for Vladimir Putin, we think critically about how Russian-controlled energy access and supply could decrease the reliability of European access to energy and increase international conflict, undermining national security and diplomatic relations.