On the night of November 27 in 2015, Russia stopped supplying natural gas to Ukraine, condemning the latter to a perishing cold. The shutdown made it more grueling than ever to get through the icy winter of Ukraine, though it was hardly a first-time experience for the country. In times of political dispute between the two countries, Russia has always been eager to “turn off the gas taps”, as the phrase goes. The situation has grown to be a prominent issue not only for Ukraine, but also for all countries dependent on Russian gas. Thus, energy security has become a primary concern for Europe.
Today, the largest exporters in global energy market are Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, accounting for 97 percent of total energy exports. With this alone being more than enough for concerns over supply security to escalate, the intermittent threat of pipeline shutdowns further substantiates the issue for both Ukraine and Europe. About one half of the pipelines go through Ukraine to supply gas to Europe, casting a cloud of uncertainty over the whole continent. Thus, a single option remains: Diversifying the sources of energy.
Herein, Turkey enters the picture.
Let us start straight away, setting aside the fact that Europe has been looking for alternative energy sources as it depends heavily on Russian gas at this point. Here we are, taking a look back at the 2000s. The very same years in which Turkey had found itself in some gas pipeline rivalry itself. With discussions over Baku, Tbilisi, Ceyhan, Nabucco, SEEP, TANAP, Nord Stream, South Stream and the likes running rampant, Turkey was situated at the center of every project aspiring to supply natural gas to the European continent. There was everything from plans attempting to reach Azerbaijani gas directly to provide an alternative to Russian pipelines, to countries entering into agreements with one another to cut the gas supply of rival projects, not to mention those that break certain agreements after initially signing them. And naturally, a number of projects were aspiring to bypass Turkey. However, the country has managed to tap on its geopolitical and diplomatic prowess to prevail in this period of transnational energy games.
But, how exactly?
The Russian Federation had started to describe certain projects at the time to aid its natural gas exports. One of such projects was dubbed the South Stream. The pipeline was initially planned to go through the Ukrainian and Bulgarian borders of the Black Sea, however, the project underwent a significant change when Russia announced it would have it pass through the territorial waters of a non-EU member state. Foreign press started to refer to the project as Turkish Stream, due to the country’s involvement in it. However, while the project was still at the agenda, the infamous “plane crisis” between the two countries occurred. After the situation de-escalated, the two countries signed an agreement during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first visit to the country after the incident. The project held great importance for both countries to repair their relations as well. So much so that Putin went ahead to thank Turkish President Erdoğan for showing the political will necessary for the project to come into existence during the ceremony marking the completion of the offshore section of TurkStream, emphasizing the relationship of trust between the two countries.
The Russian Federation is one of the wealthiest countries in the world in terms of energy reserves. Natural gas is a significant economic field for the country, and the second largest importer of Russian gas is Turkey, coming right after Germany. After TurkStream is put into effect, the figures are predicted to rise considerably. The offshore section of TurkStream pipelines have already reached Turkish shores from the Russian town of Anapa through the Black Sea. The pipelaying was completed by Pioneering Spirit, the world’s largest construction vessel. Turkey’s revenue is estimated to be USD 546 million from the project. The pipeline is planned to reach the country’s neighbors in the West upon the completion of the onshore section. However, it is not yet clear whether the entry into Europe will be made through Bulgaria or Greece.
What could be the reason behind Russia’s decision to commence Project TurkStream? Until now, Russian gas was being delivered to Europe by pipelines going largely through Ukraine. However, recent disputes between the two countries warranted novel solutions. By the year 2019, the TurkStream route looks much safer for Russia, which is planning to fully eliminate Ukraine in delivering natural gas to Europe. Thus, the former is looking to eliminate potential problems arising with the latter by turning to Turkey. The remaining routes of delivery into Europe is currently blocked for Russia, and this fact meant a state of economic emergency for the country. Therefore, bringing TurkStream into effect is of great importance for its interests. While Turkey is awaited to tap on its geopolitical advantages to establish itself as an important zone of transit in the natural gas trade. Project TurkStream creates great opportunities for this prospect. Furthermore, the country will get to solve its own issues on importing natural gas. The future status of European demand for the pipeline, and the legal processes that follow it, will bear significance as well. The pipeline’s access to the market will be subject to European Union rules and regulations, on which the level of demand will have considerable influence. It goes without saying that TurkStream will prove itself crucial for supplying gas to the Balkans as well in 2019, as Ukraine will be long out of the picture.