What does Russia want with Lebanon’s gas fields?

Despite the modest signs for actual gas finds, Russia’s involvement in the Lebanese energy market spans much wider interests than natural gas – some of which directly concern Israel.

The Leviathan gas platform pictured in the Mediterranean Sea. (photo credit: ALBATROSS)
The Leviathan gas platform pictured in the Mediterranean Sea.
(photo credit: ALBATROSS)
A Russian search and rescue ship has accompanied the establishment of a new gas drilling rig off the coast of Beirut since March, an action that strengthens Russia’s economic and military involvement in the Lebanese energy market. Why does Russia insist on taking part in natural-gas exploration among Israel’s neighboring countries, despite the modest promise of relatively small gas deposits? How does this move relate to the belief among President Vladamir Putin’s advisers regarding “Jewish power”? How should Israel respond to Russia?
In early 2018, the government of Lebanon issued two licenses for natural gas exploration in its territorial water to a consortium of three international energy companies: Italian ENI (40%), French TOTAL (40%) and Russian Novatek (20%). The Lebanese tender should raise the level of awareness in Israel not only because it includes territory under dispute between Israel and Lebanon (“Block 9”), but also because of Russia’s direct involvement in the tender. Through Novatek, a gas company owned by two Russian billionaires with direct ties to Putin, the Russian government added a military dimension to the project in recent months, when a Russian Navy search-and-rescue ship began accompanying the establishment of a new drilling rig in Lebanese water, 22 km. west of Beirut.
Officially, the Russian ship allows for geophysical mapping of Lebanese territorial water for gas exploration, yet its cruise route since arriving in the area does not match this purpose. This raises the suspicion that Russia is using Lebanese gas exploration activities to introduce ships carrying monitoring equipment for maritime espionage of maritime movement, including of submarines, close to Israel and Cypriot waters. This concern is strengthened by the fact that initial findings indicate only modest gas finds in the explored area (“Block 4”).
Despite the modest signs for actual gas finds, Russia’s involvement in the Lebanese energy market spans much wider interests than natural gas – some of which directly concern Israel. Contrary to common conceptions, natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean do not pose a serious threat to Russian dominance in the European gas markets. Russia exports approximately 200 Billion Cubic Meters (BCM) of natural gas each year to Europe. Israel, on the other hand, has allocated between 350-450 BCM for export over the next 30 years – a quantity Russia exports in two years. But while Israel’s gas is not a threat to Russia’s market share, in 2011 Russia still made considerable efforts to acquire sizable stakes in Israel’s Leviathan gas field and – having failed that – began gas exploration projects in Lebanon, Cyprus and Egypt.

RUSSIAN INTEREST in the gas reserves of Israel and its neighbors is driven by both economic and military interests. Economically, Russia seeks to undercut any threat, large or small, to its markets in Europe, which make up most of its energy-related income. This is coupled with the “energy superpower” doctrine, developed by Russia in the last decade when it became clear that Russia would not be able to diversify its economy away from an over-reliance on natural resource exports. In this context, the rise of any new exporter in the global energy market, however small, undercuts Russia’s exclusivity. Additionally, Russia’s perception of the Israeli gas market may be informed by a genuine perception – held by some prominent Russian senior officials – of the power of “global Judaism” and by their view of Israel’s gas project as part of a “global Jewish agenda,” especially following the involvement of a US energy company, Nobel Energy, in Israel’s gas exploration projects.
Russia’s interests in the gas fields are also tied to its navy’s expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean. One of Russia’s geostrategic challenges is the fact that its fleet lacks free access to the Mediterranean Sea. Its current access relies on passage through the Bosphorus straights controlled by Turkey, a NATO member, who could potentially disrupt the passage of Russian ships in wartime.
Russia’s gas exploration activities in the Eastern Mediterranean provide it with a legitimate reason to send Russian naval assets on patrol and scouting missions in the economic water of regional states, as well as to deploy them to defend gas platforms. Such activities by the Russian Navy also grants it a certain degree of control in the region, and the ability to monitor the movement of other vessels – including those of the Israeli Navy.
This Russian strategy, executed in other areas in the post-Soviet region, can be termed a “crawling maritime annexation”: in the first stage, Russian naval ships merely accompany the new drilling platform in the economic waters of the state that issued the search permit. Afterward, if a threat to the security of the platform suddenly develops, the Russian Navy presence becomes permanent. Once the extraction of gas begins, and the host state becomes dependent on a Russian company for the provision of an important economic resource, it is only a short road to demanding homeporting by Russian battleships. While Israel has managed to avoid such a scenario due to Nobel Energy’s refusal to allow Russian-based multinational Gazprom a share of the Leviathan gas field, it now seems to be materializing in Lebanon.
Israel cannot prevent Russia’s involvement in the Lebanese energy market, but it must pay closer attention to its maritime domain as Russia increases its presence in the region. Israel should formulate a coherent maritime strategy concerning its economic waters, both in the Mediterranean and in the Red Sea, and complete domestic legislation regarding its economic waters (since Israel is not a party to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea). Failing that, Israel could find itself responding to the actions of other powers in the region, such as Russian ships surrounding its navy and monitoring its actions; Chinese-owned maritime infrastructure; or unilateral declarations by Turkey or by the Palestinian Authority regarding their economic waters, as has happened in recent months.
Increased Israeli involvement at sea could include various actions, such as the development of surveillance which would enable initial detection of suspicious activities in Israel’s economic waters, as well as strengthening Israeli intelligence cooperation with regional actors that have similar interests of staving off competing powers from its seas, such as the EU, NATO, Cyprus and Greece, all while maintaining coordination with the US.
The writers are Elai Rettig who is the Israel Institute Teaching Fellow at Washington University in St Louis whose research focuses on energy policy and security in Israel and in the international system, on conflicts and cooperation over energy resources in the Middle East and on the “resource curse” phenomenon; Semion Polinov is a doctoral candidate at Strauss Department of Marine Geosciences at the University of Haifa; and Shaul Chorev, head of the Maritime Policy & Strategy research center at The Wydra Institute of Shipping and Aviation Research and the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa.