Could Russia Have Had a Role in Recent PKK Attacks on Turkish Pipelines?
On August 25, an explosion occurred on the South Caucasus Pipeline (also known as the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipeline), which transports natural gas from Azerbaijan, through Georgia, and into Turkey (Anadolu Agency, August 25). According to the Turkish press, the militant organization the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) was behind this explosion, which occurred along the section of the pipeline near Sarıkamış, a Turkish town around 30 miles southwest of Kars.
Since the resumption of clashes between the PKK and the Turkish army, in July 2015, this has been the third such attack on Turkey’s gas pipeline infrastructure. Namely, the Turkish-Iranian gas pipeline came under similar violent sabotage within the city limits of Ağrı, on July 28 (A Haber, July 28). The second explosion took place on August 4, again in Sarıkamış, damaging the South Caucasus Pipeline (Yeni Shafak August 24). Besides these assaults on gas pipelines, PKK militants set off an explosion, on the morning of July 29, to sabotage the Kirkuk-Yumurtalık oil pipeline (owned by Turkey’s BOTAŞ Petroleum Pipeline Corporation), near the town of Silopi (Şırnak province, close to the Iraqi and Syrian borders) (Gazete24saat.com, July 29).
This rapid series of terrorist attacks on gas and oil pipelines in Turkey raises some interesting questions. On the one hand, the PKK organization has been blamed for and/or admitted its involvement in all these acts of sabotage (Finans Gündem, August 24). But it bears noting that the PKK had not carried out similar activities in the past. Moreover, the timing of this recent string of attacks on pipelines coincided with growing tensions in Turkish-Russian relations. In particular, since the June 7 parliamentary elections, the failure of the former ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to form a new governing coalition has also created problems in the realization of the Moscow-proposed Turkish Stream gas pipeline project. Indeed, Turkey and Russia have yet to sign an agreement on Turkish Stream, though negotiations are expected to resume after November—following Turkey’s snap parliamentary elections, planned for November 1, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, during the upcoming G20 Summit, on November 14.
According to some observers, Moscow and Ankara have not yet signed an agreement on Turkish Stream due to Russia’s failure to offer a 10.25 percent reduction in the price of Russian gas sold to Turkey. Since reaching an agreement on gas prices transmitted via the West Stream pipeline (which transits Ukraine and then passes south to Thrace), Turkey wishes for the pricing details of the Turkish Stream agreement to be negotiated separately. Russia, however, favors discussions of the 10.25 percent gas price reduction desired by Turkey to be paired with talks on the Turkish Stream project. Turkey’s aim, in this case, is to bring different terms to the negotiating table concerning the new pipeline, and hopes to avoid the inclusion of the “take or pay” gas purchase clauses of the previous agreements into this new pipeline project. Energy expert, Gurkan Kumbaroğlu, in an interview with the Global Bakış magazine, said, “However, the Turkish side has already reached an agreement with Russia within the scope of the Turkish Stream Project regarding two of the four total pipelines crossing underneath the Black Sea. Together, the four planned pipelines will have a total export capacity of 63 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas. The capacity of the permitted two pipelines is 15.75 bcm. The aim is to utilize the gas from these lines mainly on the Turkish domestic market” (Global Bakış, July 28). Kumbaroğlu has further noted, “A conference is planned to bring together the energy ministers of Russia, Azerbaijan and Turkey with Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller, prior to the G20 Summit to be held on November 14 in Antalya.” He indicated it will be a “win-win-win” project for Turkey, Russia and the European Union, thus enabling all sides to overcome previous obstacles in the negotiations (Sabah, August 1).
The relative timing of the stalled Russian-Turkish energy negotiations and the ensuing PKK attacks on Turkey’s oil and gas pipelines is curious. One explanation offered for the PKK’s decision to blow up the Kirkuk-Yumurtalık oil pipeline (which delivers oil from Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey) has been an ongoing dispute between this militant group and President Masoud Barzani, leader of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (Al-Jazeera, August 2). But even if that is the case, it does not explain the PKK’s multiple attacks on the South Caucasus gas pipeline—a key segment of the Southern Gas Corridor project that aims to deliver Azerbaijani gas to Europe, and is a direct competitor to Russia’s proposed Turkish Stream. As such, the main international player opposed to the completion of the Southern Gas Corridor is Moscow; but could Russia actually have had a hand in the recent PKK attacks on Turkish pipelines?
According to Dr. Sedat Laçiner, a former president of International Strategic Research Organization (USAK) and a former rector of Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University, “Since [the Kurdistan Worker’s Party] was founded, there has been a close relationship between the PKK and Russia. They had collaborated on various issues, including arms transfers, both during the period it had bases in Syria and after.” Moreover, he added, “Russia, Iran and [President Bashar] al-Assad’s Syria perceive the PKK as one of the main instruments for impeding Turkey in the region” (Bugün Newspaper November 2, 2013). It should be noted that a large, if not major, proportion of the PKK’s weapons and explosives are supplied by Russia (Today’s Zaman, June 24, 2010; Wikileaks.org, February 19, 2013; UPI, October 4, 2010). Further evidence suggesting that the PKK may have been used as a tool of Russian pressure on Turkey stems from the fact that, in early August, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called the Turkish government’s military operations against the PKK illegitimate (Infocenter.media, August 6). Whereas, Moscow did not similarly criticize the PKK for fighting against Turkey.
Indeed, it is entirely possible for the PKK to serve Russian interests without any direct orders coming from Moscow. And for as long as Moscow’s regional interests seem to align with the consequences of the PKK’s actions, the fate of the Southern Gas Corridor and energy security in Anatolia and the South Caucasus could continue to come under threat.
This article by Orhan Gafarli was originally published in The Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 170