Turkish Stream: A Bluff or Not?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 32

President Putin and President Erdogan in Ankara (Source: themoscowtimes.com)

During his visit to Ankara in December 2014, Vladimir Putin announced that South Stream—a large pipeline that would have carried Europe-bound Russian gas under the Black Sea and across Southeastern Europe—had been terminated. A major reason for South Stream’s cancellation was attributed to the exit from the project of Bulgaria, one of the key countries through which this pipeline would pass. Instead, Russia and its regional partners, including Turkey, are now discussing a new pipeline project—Turkish Stream, sometimes referred to as Turk Stream (Anadolu Agency Energy Terminal, December 2, 2014).

It is becoming increasingly evident that Russia and Turkey want to ensure that the Turkish Stream project has a solid economic foundation. During his most recent visit to Ankara, Aleksei Miller, the CEO of Russia’s Gazprom, met with Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz. In the course of their meeting, further technical details of Turkish Stream were revealed: the pipeline will have a capacity of 63 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas, 15.75 bcm of which will be marketed in Turkey and the other 47.25 bcm is to be marketed to Europe through Greece. This gas pipeline is scheduled to be incorporated into an inter-governmental agreement during the second quarter of this year, and the first transmission of gas is planned to take place in December 2016. According to Miller, this is a fairly realistic timeline (Haqqin, January 29).

The speed at which Turkish Stream is being brought to life and the way in which it appears to be taking priority in Ankara over the Azerbaijani-sponsored Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline (TANAP) project have both been received negatively by Baku-based media channels (Haqqin, January 31). TANAP is a key link in the planned Southern Gas Corridor, which aims to export non-Russian, Caspian-basin natural gas to European markets while bypassing Russian pipelines.

Firat Gazel, the editor of Anadolu Agency’s Energy Terminal, warned against dismissing Turkish Stream as unrealistic or a bluff. After all, Gazel noted, before the Blue Stream gas pipeline, which connects Russia and Turkey under the Black Sea, was built, various articles called this ambitious project just a bluff by Russia. “However,” he added, “the current project between Russia and Turkey is just as realistic as the Blue Stream project was.” According to Gazel, “The Turkish Stream project is vital for Russia, especially given that it is no longer safe [sic] to export gas via Ukraine.” He concluded, “Moscow will see this new project through as expeditiously as possible” (Author’s interview, January 14).

Gazel brushed aside arguments that the economic crisis in Russia will derail Turkish Stream: “similar doubts were also cast on the construction of the Blue Stream project. But despite the very adverse economic conditions between 1998 and 2002, Russia still managed to construct a sizeable portion of that project underneath the Black Sea. [Turkish Stream] is highly significant for Russia both politically and economically in the longer term” (Author’s interview, January 14).

Turkish Stream promises to considerably raise Turkey’s regional role as an energy transit country and major gas hub. Whereas, the exclusion of Bulgaria from Turkish Stream, South Stream’s successor, “is the result of Bulgaria not being a trustworthy partner,” Gazel argued (Author’s interview, January 14). Meanwhile, Greece’s new government, led by Alexis Tsipras’ far-left SYRIZA party, combined with Prime Minister Tsipras’ refusal to impose new economic sanctions on Russia, have already been perceived as a signal for possible closer collaboration between Russia and Greece in the energy sphere (NTV, January 29). This has also led to an expectation that Greece may reexamine its previous decision not to sell its shares of DEPA (Greek gas supply corporation), worth 900 million euros ($1.022 billion), to Russia (Reuters, June 10, 2013; Business Insider, January 28). Despite the Tsipras government’s announcement that this agreement would not be revisited, some experts have nevertheless emphasized the close, open relationship between Greece’s left’s and Moscow (Taraf, January 31).

It is also worth noting that Greece has agreed to sell 65 percent of the government’s shares in DESFA (Greek gas transmission system operator) to the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) for a total $400 million. Presently, however, the European Union is carrying out a probe into this sale to make sure that the deal does not broach any EU anti-monopoly laws (Caspian Barrel Center, January 29).

Adding to these above-cited issues, possible conflict or political tensions could emerge in the near future between Ankara and Athens due to the SYRIZA government’s nationalist, far-right coalition partner ANEL. Thus, the potential impact of a rapprochement between Greece and Russia on energy cooperation demands further inquiry. Tensions already exist in the Eastern Mediterranean region between Turkey and Greece—as was illustrated by the anti-Turkish coalition that formed in the last few years between the former Greek government, Israel, Cyprus and Egypt. Bosphorus Energy Club President Mehmet Ogutcu has argued that Russia’s punishment of Bulgaria—which changed its mind regarding hosting South Stream—will also entail providing Greece a more central role in Russia’s new regional energy mega-projects. A new axis among Russia, Turkey and Greece, therefore, may be emerging (Al Jazeera Turk, January 26). Russia received a boost in its cooperation with Germany in Central Europe thanks to the North Stream pipeline. And now, Russia may be trying to repeat this achievement through the new Turkish Stream project in Southeastern Europe.

However, in light of a number of issues that remain between Ankara and Athens, it also seems rather improbable for a single, unified energy axis to be swiftly established among Greece, Turkey and Russia. More likely, Moscow will seek to improve its cooperation individually with Ankara and Athens, or try to act as a mediator between Turkey and Greece for continuing their dialogue—and by extension, raise Russia’s own profile in the Mediterranean region.

It is also becoming increasingly evident that the energy-centered cooperation between Russia and Turkey will result in Ankara moving politically closer to Moscow. The Baku media alarmingly perceived Turkish Stream as undermining TANAP within Turkey, Azerbaijan’s close ally and a major regional transit state (Haqqin, January 29). However, from an even broader strategic vantage point, Turkey and Russia’s energy cooperation emerges as a serious challenge to the Euro-Atlantic community and its close regional partners.