COMMENTARY: The diplomatic conflict between Russia and Turkey: a challenge to energy security

COMMENTARY: The diplomatic conflict between Russia and Turkey: a challenge to energy security

On November 24, 2015, the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian SU-24 bomber. The President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, warned that this incident will bear ‘‘significant consequences’’ on bilateral relations. The conflict between Russia, a major oil and gas supplier to the EU, and Turkey, an important transit country, puts European energy security at risk.

The Su-24 shoot-down

President Putin denied allegations that the incident took place in Turkish territory. However prior to the shoot down, Russia had violated Turkish airspace on four occasions during the operation in Syria. Turkey warned Russia against such actions on prior occasions, yet intrusions continued. Moreover, Russia has a history of trespassing into foreign territory in general (e.g. submarine incident in Swedish territorial waters, repeated breaches of NATO airspace, and the case of the abducted Estonian intelligence officer). The strong Turkish response has forced NATO to rally behind its ally. Yet, anti-ISIS coalition with Russia is still an attractive option, which prompted NATO to call for political restraint and calmness on both sides. This opinion was echoed by other countries, as French President Hollande stated that France is ‘’at war’’ with the so-called Islamic State. The changing geopolitical landscape makes for new regional alliances and renders the French cancellation of an order of warships to Russia somewhat more of a grey memory from the past. The situation could also have repercussions for Poland and its new government, as this country is bypassed by Russia in the North Stream project and already has strained bilateral relations with Moscow.

Consequences for European Union energy security

The Russian Federation supplies roughly a third of the entire gas consumption of the European Union, which makes up around half of its national income. This is one of the reasons the EU endeavours to increase energy security by diversifying energy sources and supplier states. There are several pipeline projects scheduled or already under construction involving the EU, non-EU Balkan states, Russia and Turkey. However, due to the recent diplomatic spat between the latter two, some energy projects might be in jeopardy. This is particularly true due to the history of earlier, similar projects being cancelled.

Blue Stream status: halted

Russo-Turkish cooperation on natural gas started to take shape in 1997 with the initiation of Blue Stream when a bilateral agreement on supply was signed between Russia’s Gazprom and Botaş, Turkey’s state-owned energy business. Over the course of 25 years, a total of 365 billion cubic meters of gas were planned to be transported to Turkey via this gas pipe. Disagreement over Azeri quota allocations halted the project, while the US warned the EU that stronger energy dependence on Russia would be imminent if the project were to be implemented. It is unlikely that Blue Stream will be successfully concluded amidst the Russian-Turkish fall out.

South Stream status: cancelled

The second project, South Stream, is the leading gas infrastructure project the EU has endeavoured on. For Russia, it was to effectively bypass Ukrainian territory by transporting gas to Bulgaria. It was cancelled by Russia in December 2014 following controversy over non-compliance with EU legislation. This cancellation has significant consequences both for the future EU and Russia, since it influences Russia’s gas transportation options towards Europe and affects bilateral relations between Russia and Ukraine.

Turkish Stream status: in planning stages

The purpose of Turkish Stream is to transport Russian gas via Turkey to South East Europe, rendering Turkey an energy transit hub. Similarly to South Stream, it avoids transit through Ukraine, however, Turkish Stream would also directly service the Turkish market, rather than acting merely in the capacity of transit conduit.

Nabucco and Tesla Pipelines status: in planning stages

The Nabucco pipeline sidelines Russian supplies by transporting Turkmen and Azeri gas via Turkey to Bulgaria, Romania, and Austria. Both Iran and Russia have criticised the Nabucco pipeline. Although Nabucco gas would be cheaper than South Stream gas, it has to pass through politically unstable territory, rendering this a security liability. Moreover, even if the EU decides to scale up its purchases of gas from Turkmenistan, bilateral relations cannot develop in-depth due to the latter’s poor human rights record. The Tesla project has applied for the PCI (Project of Common Interest) status, and, according to Mr. Šefčovič, the EU Commissioner on Energy, is more viable than Nabucco. The Tesla Pipeline is seen to be a continuation of Turkish Stream, yet might now also be under additional pressure due to faltering diplomatic ties between Russia and Turkey. The Tesla pipeline runs through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary and serves to connect Turkish Stream with the gas hub in Austria.

The link between the Syrian war and EU energy security

As the EU seeks to become a strong international player, a steady flow of energy must be secured. The present diplomatic conflict between Russia and Turkey may escalate into a full-blown crisis if more run-ins were to occur in the joint fight against the so-called Islamic State. The lack of international coordination has not only complicated the geopolitical landscape, but also jeopardised EU’s energy security.

Consequences for Poland and the European Union

It is in Polish national interest to engage in stronger energy security cooperation with other EU Members, such as the Baltic, Scandinavian, and Visegrad states, and develop energy infrastructure. Maintaining Poland’s strong dependence on coal will render diversification challenging. Yet, it needs to be faced sooner rather than later, if Poland is to prepare itself duly to prevent becoming ostracised in the European community, as coal is being phased out of production in other countries. If Turkish Stream were to be cancelled as well, this would not pose a direct threat to Poland’s energy situation, as both North Stream, and Turkish Stream (and the cancelled South Stream project) bypass Poland. A wise policy goal in the short to medium term would be to strengthen cooperation with the Scandinavian and Baltic states. Poland finds itself in a strategic geographical location, as a corridor between the continent’s north and European mainland. Poland could become a transit hub for green Nordic energy and Baltic LNG, investing in interconnectors and putting its new LNG station in Świnoujście to good use.

The EU will need to more concretely envisage its vis-à-vis the maintenance of energy security in the medium- to long term, and will need to find a way to muster national political will to increase intra-Union energy cooperation towards a single energy market. The possible cancellation of Turkish Stream could pose potential political discomfort to both Turkey and the EU. However, as Iran’s markets are reopening towards the world and the Islamic Republic has already stated its interest in renewing energy transportation towards Europe, the options for diversification away from Russian gas are far from exhausted.

Author: Kaya van der Meulen, Visiting Fellow at Casimir Pulaski Foundation

Picture: Kremlin.ru