Putin, Erdogan deepen energy ties as Middle East tensions mount

Russian and Turkish leaders inaugurate TurkStream pipeline; Erdogan warns US of ‘nightmare of conflict’ in Middle East.

Turkstream Putin Erdogan
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a 2018 ceremony in Istanbul to mark the completion of the sea part of the TurkStream gas pipeline [File: Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via Reuters]

Ankara, Turkey – The leaders of Turkey and Russia on Wednesday formally launched a Black Sea gas pipeline that will funnel Russian natural gas via Turkey to Europe, further cementing ties between the two nations against a backdrop of heightened tensions between the United States and Iran.

President Vladimir Putin joined Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul for the inauguration of Turkish Stream or TurkStream – an undersea pipeline stretching 930km (578 miles) from Anapa on the Russian Black Sea coast to Kiyikoy west of Istanbul.

The pipeline will carry Russian gas for Turkish domestic consumption, while a second leg slated for construction will carry Russian gas to southeast Europe through Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary.

TurkStream enables Russia to bypass Ukraine to sell gas to Europe, while bolstering Turkey as a major energy transport hub. The project also marks another area of mutual cooperation between Moscow and Ankara, which have also deepened military cooperation after Turkey took delivery of a Russian-made S-400 missile defence system last year. 

‘A nightmare of conflict’

Putin arrived in Istanbul from Syria, a country that was high on the list of topics for discussion between the two leaders before the ceremony.

Hours after the Russian president’s plane touched down, Iran launched retaliatory missile strikes against Iraqi bases housing US troops, a reprisal for last week’s assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in a US air strike near Baghdad.

As well as the crisis sparked by Soleimani’s killing, Putin and Erdogan were due to discuss an offensive by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria’s Idlib.

Turkey backs some of the opposition groups targeted in the assault and is concerned it could send a flood of refugees towards its border. Russian and Iranian support for Assad have seen him regain control of most of Syria.

Also on the agenda was Turkey’s deployment of troops to Libya, where they are supporting the internationally recognised government in Tripoli. Moscow backs the eastern-based forces that have besieged the capital since April.

Speaking after a two-hour, one-on-one meeting, Erdogan and Putin praised their countries’ cooperation while acknowledging escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran.

“The tensions that have been continuing between our ally the United States and our neighbour Iran have finally reached an undesirable level that none of us wish to see,” Erdogan said.

“As Turkey, we don’t want to see the Gulf region turning into a stage for proxy wars. We don’t want to see Iraq, Syria or Lebanon turning into a landscape of conflict and tensions.”

Erdogan warned that Iraq’s “very fragile stability” was at risk, adding: “Nobody has the right to abuse their own interests and rights by turning Iraq into a pit of fire and leading this entire region into a nightmare of conflict.”

Despite regional disagreements between Moscow and Ankara, the two have moved closer in recent years, joining with Iran in 2017 to launch the Astana peace process in Syria.

Following Turkey’s October military action in northern Syria, Russian and Turkish troops also established joint patrols along the Turkey-Syria border. And Ankara’s purchase of S-400 missile defences has been a source of friction between Washington and Turkey, which is an ally of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

TurkStream Map
TurkStream is an undersea pipeline that stretches 930km (578 miles) from Anapa on the Russian Black Sea coast to Kiyikoy west of Istanbul [Al Jazeera]

Pipeline politics

The TurkStream project between Russian energy giant Gazprom and Turkey’s Botas will see one pipeline deliver 15.75 billion cubic metres of gas annually to Turkey and the second leg, when completed, deliver that much again to southern Europe.

The pipeline is yet another conduit for Russia to lessen its need to transit gas destined for the European market through a pipeline network in Ukraine that has been subject to interruptions amid disputes between Moscow and Kiev.

Construction is also nearly completed on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will send Russian gas across the Baltic Sea to Germany.

Last month, US President Donald Trump signed into law a defence bill that includes sanctions imposed by the US Senate on both TurkStream and Nord Stream 2 as part of measures aimed at deterring “Russian aggression”.

Although TurkStream – as well as the recently opened Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline from Azerbaijan – improves Turkey’s energy supply and, according to Vice President Fuat Oktay, has secured the country’s place as a major energy corridor, it has raised concerns that Turkey is becoming too reliant on Russian gas.

Necdet Pamir, head of energy policy at the Turkish Chamber of Petroleum Engineers, said that while TurkStream would ensure a steady supply of gas for Turkey it had left the country “tied by our necks to Russia”.

“The more you lean towards Russia and against the United States, the more you become vulnerable to Russia,” he told the Cumhuriyet newspaper. “You have difficulty using your bargaining power for natural gas.”

Turkey’s ability to negotiate the price of gas from Russia was hampered by foreign policy issues between the two countries, he added.

The launch of TurkStream came after months of tension in the eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and Cyprus, Greece and others over energy exploration.

In November, Erdogan and Fayez al-Sarraj, prime minister of the Government of National Accord of Libya, signed an agreement on maritime boundaries in the east Mediterranean that threatens to block a proposed Cypriot-Greek-Israeli pipeline to Europe.

Although repeating his warning that Turkey could not be legitimately excluded from hydrocarbon exploration in the eastern Mediterranean, Erdogan offered Turkey’s neighbours the chance for cooperation.

“Let’s not convert the cradle of civilisation throughout the ages, that’s to say the Mediterranean basin, into a land of tension,” he said. “Instead, let’s turn it into an area of cooperation and solidarity.”

The inauguration ceremony, which was also attended by Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, saw tight security around Istanbul’s Halic Congress Centre, with 7,200 police on duty for the event.

Source: Al Jazeera