Turkey’s E Med gas quest [NGW Magazine]
Turkey’s deployment of an exploration vessel to search for gas in Cypriot waters led to strong protests from the government in Nicosia, from the European Union (EU) and from the US. Ankara, however, insisted that it was fully entitled to explore for gas and to extract any gas it might find.
Russian observers also implied support for Turkey and noted that the Russian-made S-400 weapon system the government now owns could be used in the case of any confrontation with its neighbours. This would also suit Russia’s interests, pulling the Nato member closer to Russia. The conflict could also help Moscow in dealing with Turkey’s related gas project.
Recently, huge gas fields have been discovered near Cyprus. Cyprus or, to be exact, the government which controls the Greek part of the island, signed an agreement with US Noble Energy, Anglo-Dutch Shell, and Delek, from Israel, to develop some fields, with start-up expected by 2024-2025. This agreement led to a sharp conflict not just between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots, who have created two separate states; but more importantly with Turkey, which has laid its own claims to that gas.
Turkey’s desire to tap gas resources near Cyprus has several roots. Turkey already plays an important role as a gas hub through which gas is sent to Europe. As a matter of fact, in June 2019 Turkey opened the TransAnatolian Pipeline to bring Azerbaijani gas to Europe.
Turkey also pondered TurkStream, which is bringing Russian gas to Europe by way of Turkey. Turkey does not produce gas of its own and depends on pipeline imports, either from Russia or Iran. And the relationship between Turkey and either of these countries is hardly stable. If Turkey were to receive gas from Cypriot gas fields, it could help Ankara to achieve a level of self-sufficiency that would relieve it of dependence on other players. Besides the purely economic, there are also geopolitical implications, and here Turkey’s relationship with Cyprus should be taken into consideration.
Cyprus’ government claimed Turkey had violated its territorial integrity and had drilled for gas, or at least planned to drill, in Cyprus’ territorial waters. Ankara rejected these claims on the grounds that it is not Cyprus’ territorial waters. The point here is that Cyprus is not a de facto unified country (see box).
Israel and Egypt
If Cyprus, or actually the Greek part of the island, were able to push Turkey aside, it could not only provide itself with gas, but be a gas hub for other gas-producing nations in the region. Israel, for example, has discovered a huge gas field. This will not only make it self-sufficient but also allow considerable volumes to be exported to Europe. Israeli gas could also join Cyprus’ gas. Finally, Egypt could also join the team. In addition, when the US major ExxonMobil found gas, it became clear that Cyprus could create an LNG plant.
Thus Cyprus could emerge as a hub from which both pipeline gas and LNG could be sent to Europe. This would spoil, or at least create additional problems for Moscow’s plans to send gas to Europe through TurkStream 2. As in the case with Nord Stream 2, the southern project is aimed at bypassing Ukraine but also could be the secondary effect of heading off gas that might have otherwise come in Europe from central Asia.
Moscow revives its plans
Russia’s major concern is that Cypriot, Israeli and Egyptian gas lines could complicate its plans to send Russia’s own gas to Europe through the southern corridor. These plans have a long history. The plan was originally known as the South Stream project.
After the collapse of the South Stream project, Moscow renewed efforts, with the assumption that Turkey would play the most important role. Turkey and Russia planned to launch four strings. But the project collapsed after a Russian warplane was shot down in 2015 when the Turkish military thought it had crossed its airspace. Then after the aborted coup of 2016, the president Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a new agreement with Putin which implied the construction of two strings. The first would be for Turkey’s internal consumption, and the other for the European market, albeit neither Moscow nor apparently Ankara were sure that the second string would be of any use. At the same time, construction of TurkStream continued successfully.
By March 2019 the sea and land parts of the first string of TurkStream was finished, and the second string of TurkStream continued to be built, albeit the timescale for the second string still remains unclear by the summer of 2019.
By the winter of 2018, the prospects for the second string to deliver gas to Europe had improved, mostly owing to the positions of Serbia and Bulgaria.
One of the reasons for the possible softening of the European Commission (EC)’s position was the assumption that Bulgaria would be a gas hub, not just for Russia, but also for Azerbaijan’s gas, which would supply gas for the Southern Gas Corridor, a key part of the EC’s gas diversification strategy.
In December, Bulgaria’s Bulgartransgaz opened a construction tender for the pipeline to Serbia. Bulgaria is involved with Greece in the inter-connector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB), to connect with the SGC. Russian gas arriving in Bulgaria will lend credibility to the country’s plans to establish itself as a regional gas hub.
While the Balkan countries’ position was important, Turkey’s position was truly crucial for the success of the project, and Moscow had a legitimate fear that Ankara could make a U-turn, as had been the case in the past. So Moscow was quite pleased to foster Ankara’s increasing tensions with both Brussels and Washington DC. Turkey’s tensions with Europe could help not merely Moscow’s plans to deliver gas to Europe, but also help Moscow to achieve the important goal of driving a wedge into Nato and potentially even foment conflicts between members. Sending the S-400 system to Ankara was killing two birds with one stone: it drew Ankara into conflict with Nato and increased tension in the region, making a gas hub less likely. And needless to say war in the region would clearly create serious problems including for gas drilling.
Possibility of war over Cyprus
And the potential for this conflict indeed exists. Russian observers noted that the Western press ignored the discussions of the subject, even though a conflict over Cyprus would lead to big wars.
The representatives of Greece and the Turkish defence ministry negotiated with the apparent desire to reduce tensions. Still, apparently it was without much success. Greece promised to send its own drill-ships into the disputed waters. Cyprus threatened to arrest the crew of the Turkish drilling ship and said Turkey wanted to engage in a “second invasion.” Ankara responded that any attempt to actually arrest their ships would lead to a tough response and reiterated that only Turkey and Turkish Cypriots had the legitimate rights to the gas fields.
The conflict could erupt not just between Cyprus or, to be precise, the Greek part of the island and Turkey, but also between Greece and Turkey. The EU could also be engaged in the conflict. Brussels also threatened Ankara with tough sanctions.
Nato members also supported Greece, and the French president Emmanuel Macron also demanded an end to Turkey’s actions. The most important and potentially dangerous position was that held by the US. Indeed, following Turkey’s intention to buy S-400s and drift toward Russia, Washington sees Turkey as a potential enemy. And so a direct military confrontation between US and Turkish forces becomes a possibility.
The risk of this confrontation emerged during 2018’s Operation Olive Branch, which was aimed at dealing with Kurdish forces. Some of them were under the protection of US forces. Still, Erdogan implied that Turkey was ready to act, even if US forces prevented Turkey from dealing with the Kurds.
The possibility of direct conflict between the US and Turkish forces could be even stronger if Turkey drifted from the US and Nato even further. In March 2019, the leaders of Israel, Cyprus (the Greek part), Greece and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo officially discussed the creation of the east Mediterranean pipeline, which would send gas from Cyprus, Israel and possibly other countries, to Europe.
At the same time, it is quite likely that the possibility of a direct military confrontation between the countries involved, including the US, was also dealt with. One might also state that Egypt and Lebanon also expressed their dissatisfaction and demanded what they regarded as their part of the Cyprus gas field.
They also could be engaged in conflict and, most likely, count on US backing. Turkey, emboldened by the delivery of the S-400s, Russian indirect support and the sense that it could stand against even the US, is also preparing for an even worse case scenario.
In response to US pressure, Turkey engaged in the biggest naval military manoeuvres in its history. Sensing the possibility of conflict, Russian observers noted that Turkey’s purchase of S-400s is quite timely. Indeed, according to Russian observers, Turkey would use S-400s to protect its gas fields.
Turkish conflict over Cyprus’ gas fields reflects the new reality of a multi-polar world. Turkey has joined Russia and China as forces that challenge the US. It is drifting in search of a new backer, and Russia is a possibility. The conflict over Cyprus’ gas provides a win-win situation for Russia. The possibility of conflict between Turkey, Nato and the EU has solidified Moscow’s influence and importance for Ankara and provided additional guarantees that Ankara will not change its mind, as it has in the past, and would not create problems for TurkStream and its possible expansion into Europe. The direct conflict between Turkey and other Nato members, especially the US, would be an even greater gift for Moscow. It would not only wreck Nato, but also bury the Cyprus project for good.
A divided island
The island was divided along ethnic lines after the brief 1974 war, when Greeks’ “Black Colonels” tried to impose Greek rule, leading Turkey to intervene and a brief war with Greece – incidentally, both of countries being members of Nato. The regime in Athens collapsed but the island became divided, with the emergence of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus under a Turkish protectorate. The international community and, of course, Nicosia, the de jure capital of a united Cyprus, but the de facto capital of just the Greek part of the island, did not recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Nevertheless, it has existed for almost fifty years, has its own postage stamps and university. Ankara claims that the interests of the TRNC have not been taken into account and implied it had permission from TRNC to drill in the republic’s territorial waters. Ankara said Turkey had demarcated the continental shelf with the TRNC some time ago.