‘Turkish Stream’ to deepen Moscow-Ankara ties, report claims

ISTANBUL: A new report by a Washington-based think tank has claimed that the Turkish government is growing more comfortable with Russia’s role as its primary energy supplier and that its relations with Moscow may be taking on a “deeper political dimension” at a time when Ankara is at odds with Western allies on a range of issues.

The report by the Center for American Progress, titled “Turkey’s Growing Energy Ties with Moscow,” discussed in particular Russia’s new gas pipeline project, known as the Turkish Stream, and how it will have an impact on Europe’s energy calculus and Turkey’s increasing energy dependence on Russia.

The report, authored by the think tank’s senior fellow Alan Makovsky, said the Turkish Stream project also highlights Ankara’s post-Cold War quest to become an important energy transit state, or even a hub, thanks mainly to Russian gas — a serious deviation from the earlier proposed southern energy corridor that is designed to pump non-Russian gas from the Caspian basin to Europe.

The report noted that the new Russian pipeline would represent a “striking change of strategy” and raise the prospect of greater political cooperation between Turkey and Russia. “These possibilities should arouse more concern from Turkey’s Western allies than has been evident to date,” the report warned.

During his visit to Ankara last December, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he is scrapping the South Stream due to the EU’s objection over the conflict in Ukraine and is proposing an alternative route, this time through Turkey, that will satisfy Turkey’s domestic need for gas, but also supply energy to Europe’s southern flank. Makovsky said a lack of infrastructure and efficiency, Europe’s uncertain desire and ability to break its dependence on Russian energy and financial concerns make the ambitious project difficult to realize.

He mentioned claims that Russia is pursuing Turkish Stream primarily to derail another pipeline planned to bring gas to Europe via Turkey, the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP). He stated that TANAP, a landmark gas pipeline project that will carry Azerbaijani gas to Turkey and Europe, is crucial to the EU’s plan for diversifying its energy sources with non-Russian gas, thereby reducing Russia’s leverage over the European Union.

The report described TANAP as a “strategic setback” for Russia, which fought, successfully, to kill another EU-sponsored gas project, Nabucco. It claimed that Russia may be hoping to use Turkish Stream to undermine the economic viability of TANAP by flooding the European market with Russian gas. Playing off Moscow’s eagerness to pursue the project, the report said Ankara could benefit from creating a lucrative gas price discount.

Makovsky said Turkish Stream could also enhance Turkey’s strategic importance, making Turkey a conduit to Europe for roughly one-third of Europe’s 2014 gas imports from Russia, and could bring some needed balance to the Turkish-Russian gas equation. In the short term, however, the report claimed that Turkey is unlikely to escape its dependence on Russian gas whether it wants to or not. “There are simply no viable, nearby alternative sources that can replace Turkey’s sizable imports from Russia,” Makovsky stressed.

The Caspian Sea is Turkey’s “best bet” for importing non-Russian gas, according to the report, and TANAP, which represents the first substantive piece in the EU’s vision of a Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) and is crucial to the EU’s plan for diversifying its energy sources, probably carries “more strategic benefit” for Ankara.

The report said natural gas is likely to remain Turkey’s leading energy source, and Russia is likely to remain Turkey’s leading source of gas for many years to come. It added that Turkey turned to Russia to build its first nuclear reactor — a sensitive project that further underscores Turkey’s relative comfort with its close energy relationship with Moscow.

Highlighting Turkey’s growing economic relationship with Russia, with annual trade volume exceeding $30 billion, the report said the Turkish Stream could take economic cooperation to “a new level.” Characterizing the politics of Turkish Stream as probably “more significant” than the economics, the report said Ankara’s willingness to entertain the concept suggests that it has opted for “cozier relations with Russia” than it generally acknowledges in public. The author said courting Putin in Ankara last December at a time when the West sought to isolate him was a clear signal of Turkey’s rejection of the West’s Ukraine-driven policies toward Russia.

Noting that gas dependence and robust economic relations explain much of the current dynamic in Turkish-Russian relations, Makovsky said Erdogan seems to have established a “level of comfort” in his relations with Putin that goes beyond economic pragmatism. “Many analysts have speculated that the two men are personally compatible, and some suggest Erdogan admires Putin’s personality and authoritarian style of governance,” the report added. At a minimum, it continued, Erdogan knows that Russia, unlike the West, will remain silent regarding Turkey’s democratic failings.

The report also highlighted that Turkey’s deepening ties with Russia take place in the context of a “widening gap” in Turkish-Western relations and Erdogan’s “heightened anti-Western rhetoric.” Turkey’s growing relationship with Russia, the report argued, reinforces a sense of “general Turkish drift” away from adherence to Western norms — not a break from the alliance but an “increasingly independent foreign policy” within it, and one that especially presents problems to member states profoundly concerned about Russian aggression.

The report urged Washington to oppose the Turkish Stream, which it said would reinforce Europe and Turkey’s near-term gas dependence on Russia and could be used as leverage against TANAP. If the Obama administration truly wants to dissuade Turkey from pursuing Turkish Stream, the report noted, it is critical that the White House make this issue a priority in its bilateral agenda with Turkey.

The report said the US must persuade Ankara that close collaboration with Moscow “does not serve Turkey’s long-term interests.”