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Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) meets with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Turkey November 19, 2018.(Photo by: SPUTNIK/RAMIL SITDIKOV/POOL VIA REUTERS)
Putin and Erdogan celebrate TurkStream gas pipeline as relations warm
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
11/20/2018
Israel has also been discussing an East Med pipeline linking Cyprus and Greece.
Turkey aims to be an energy center, Ankara’s energy and natural resources minister Fatih Donmez said on Monday. His comments came as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin in Istanbul to celebrate the TurkStream pipeline. The pipeline from Russia is part of Turkey’s larger ambitions to become a natural gas trading hub and position itself, along with Russia, as among the strongest countries in the region.

Putin thanked Erdogan for showing “political will and courage.” Sensing that other countries involved in natural gas might see the meeting as a message of competition, Putin claimed that, “projects of this kind and this project in particular are not aimed against the interests of anyone.” However, Turkey warned energy companies on Sunday against dealing with the Greek Cypriot government in pursuing drilling opportunities in the eastern Mediterranean, claiming it would “damage regional stability.” This illustrates that Turkish and Russia may have differing views of the natural gas sector as a strategic regional agenda.

Gazprom completed the construction of a section of the TurkStream project ahead of schedule, according to Putin’s comments. It began work on a pipeline in the spring of 2017 and laid the line across 930 km. of the Black Sea to Turkey. It is expected to stretch toward southern Europe, to enable trading with Greece, Italy, Hungary and Serbia. Turkey is already a major recipient of Russian natural gas and is also the fourth largest natural gas consumer in Europe. Ankara says that the pipelines from Russia will bring 32 billion cubic meters of gas flow annually, of which half will be used in Turkey and the rest in other areas of the region.

The TurkStream project is a symbol of growing Russian-Turkish ties. Strained by the war in Syria, where Russia backs the Syrian regime and Turkey backs the opposition rebels, Erdogan and Putin have met numerous times over the last two years to discuss Syria and larger regional cooperation. This has included Turkey seeking to deploy Russia’s S-400 air defense system, and also hammering out a ceasefire in Syria's Idlib Province, where Turkish troops are now deployed not far from Russian forces in Latakia. With both Russia and Turkey having difficult relations with the US, they see each other as natural partners on some issues.

Israel once eyed Turkey as a potential partner for a gas pipeline. But a report on Bloomberg in February noted that “Turkey offers a relatively stable economy with large energy demands, but the political strains have highlighted long-term risks to gas flow.” This was not helped by Ankara’s anger over the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem in May.

Jerusalem is looking at plans to support construction of a 2,000 km. East Med pipeline to Europe via Cyprus and Greece. According to a report in March, the pipeline could handle 9 to 12 billion cubic meters annually. In early November, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to a forum in Varna, Bulgaria. There, according to the Greek newspaper Ekathimerini, he met with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and discussed the geopolitical significance of natural gas transfer.

On November 13, the Turkish Cypriot leader President Mustafa Akinci waded into the issue, noting that a Turkish pipeline route is more logical and that a Cyprus peace deal might help the gas deals along. “So far, a number of studies by Turkish and Israeli experts have argued that a potential pipeline going through Turkey and benefiting from Turkey’s pipeline infrastructure has been highlighted as the most logical and affordable solution,” Turkey's Daily Sabah noted. With ExxonMobil planning to start drilling off Cyprus, the complex competition over pipelines, gas and national interests in the Mediterranean is growing.

The immediate ramifications of TurkStream may be as benign as Putin suggested - merely a gas pipeline that will bring gas to eastern Europe. But Turkey’s goals are clear. It wants to be not only an energy hub, but also a political hub for the region. In the early 2000s, that was expressed through its “Zero problems with our neighbors” policy, which later shifted to a more “neo-Ottoman” stance, along with a policy increasingly connected to Qatar and engagement with parties inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Hamas.

Today, Turkey is embroiled in the Syrian civil war and hosts millions of refugees. As such, its regional goals and foreign policy are more complex, but the warming of relations with Russia is clearly Ankara’s main achievement over the last two years. For Israel and other countries that Turkey has difficult relations with, such as Saudi Arabia and the United States, the gas pipelines and Turkey-Russia relations have longer-term effects on the region as Ankara increases its economic influence.
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