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11.01.2023 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

Turkey’s energy strategy as a means of boosting security and shifting the balance of power

In today’s world, the security of a country consists of various components, where energy plays a crucial role. The effectiveness of a country’s energy security is determined by its resource capabilities, its scientific and technological base, its geographic location and its access to strategic communications.

Turkey does not possess all of these components in equal measure (for instance, the country does not have significant oil and gas reserves or nuclear energy technologies), but this, to a large extent, is compensated by its advantageous geographical position at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, access to the basins of the Mediterranean Sea, the Sea of Marmara, the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea, as well as to key land transit routes between the West and the East, the North and the South and back again.

To these advantages of Ankara one should add:

– the favorable geopolitical conjuncture of the energy interests of leading world companies of the West (the US and Europe) that developed after the collapse of the USSR on the way to the resources of former Soviet states (primarily oil and gas) and the formation of new transit energy communications bypassing Russia through Turkey to EU countries;

– the pragmatic policy of President Erdoğan’s administration to build mutually beneficial relations with Russia which is the owner of more than 24% of the world’s proven gas reserves and the largest supplier of natural gas to world markets, as well as one of the leaders in the world’s nuclear power industry.

Being a NATO member state since February 1952, Turkey has never received from its Western allies (such as the US, Canada, Britain or France) the technology to build nuclear power plants. It was only the established partnership with Russia that made it possible to start building Turkey’s first ever Akkuyu NPP in the Mersin province on the Mediterranean coast with Russian investments ($21 billion) and technologies. With the start of the NPP operation, Turkey, indeed, will get cheaper energy, significant advantages for the development of domestic production, competitive opportunities in the regional market, a corps of national experts in the field of nuclear plant operation, and, in the future, the conversion of the peaceful atom to a military one cannot be excluded. Having evaluated the advantages of the nuclear project in the Mersin province, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan proposed to his Russian partners another project – the construction of a second nuclear power plant in the Sinop province on the Black Sea coast. Consequently, the use of the NPP will have a positive impact in terms of boosting Turkey’s energy security.

With no significant oil and gas resources, Turkey is forced to import these raw materials (the country is almost 100% dependent on gas imports). Taking into account the performance of its economy, gas consumption in Turkey is about 45-61 billion cubic meters (Bcm) per year, and 98% of this volume is accounted for by imports of raw materials. The main gas suppliers to the Turkish market are Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Algeria, Qatar, Nigeria and the United States. Relevant negotiations are also underway with Oman.

Russia supplies gas to Turkey through two pipelines under the Black Sea, namely Blue Stream (2002) and TurkStream (2019). Until the mid-2010s, Russia was the main supplier of natural gas to Turkey (at its peak, this share was as high as 58%). In fact, in 2022, the volume of Russian gas to Turkey was over 31 billion cubic meters (16 billion from Blue Stream and 15.75 billion from TurkStream). The growth of gas consumption by the country’s industry and population, as well as the concern of the Turkish authorities about the risks of high dependence on a dominant supplier, led Ankara to adopt a policy of diversifying its imports. In particular, Turkey increased the share of Azerbaijani gas purchases and invested in the development of gas transportation infrastructure and the construction of regasification terminals on the Mediterranean coast. The latter allowed the Turks to buy significant volumes of LNG (liquefied natural gas) under long-term contracts from Algeria, Qatar and Nigeria, as well as from the United States on the spot market.

Taking into account the transit advantages of Turkish geography, Ankara began to pursue an effective policy to turn Turkey into the most important transit route for oil and gas exports from the newly formed countries of the Caspian basin (primarily Azerbaijan) to Europe. With this purpose, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline, as well as the Trans-Anatolian and Trans-Adriatic gas pipelines, were put into operation in the first quarter of the 21st century.

The energy partnership with Russia to build new gas transit utilities was no less effective. After Bulgaria’s refusal to build the South Stream pipeline, which was done under pressure from the US and Europe, having a total export volume of more than 63 billion cubic meters of gas per year, Russia and Turkey reached an agreement and implemented the TurkStream project with a volume of 31.5 billion cubic meters of gas. The project is based on two lines (one with a volume of 15.75 Bcm of gas to Turkey, the other with the same volume to South-Eastern European countries – Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary – with access to the gas hub Baumgarten in Austria). And if earlier part of the gas from Russia came to Turkey via the Trans-Balkan pipeline in transit through Ukraine, Moldova, Romania and Bulgaria, then with the commissioning of the TurkStream, the geography of Russian gas supplies has also changed.

Turkish pragmatism, combined with an energy policy independent of the US diktat and reliability, enabled Ankara to diversify its gas imports through LNG (including spot gas purchases) and reduce dependence on the Russian Federation.

Simultaneously with this diversification of gas imports, the administration of President Erdoğan, in order to boost the country’s energy security and strengthen the position of Turkey’s transit corridor from Asia to Europe, began to actively search for gas deposits in the national waters of the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. To this end, Turkey has purchased three specialized vessels for gas exploration and deep-water operations (drilling) and has concluded the relevant contracts with leading Western energy companies (BP, Chevron and Exxon Mobil).
In August 2020, President Erdoğan declared that the large deep-water (2,117 m) Sakarya Gas Field with a volume of more than 400 billion cubic meters of gas had been discovered in the western part of the Black Sea shelf (although these figures may be preliminary, and recoverable gas reserves will amount to about 280 billion cubic meters). In December 2022, the Turkish authorities announced the discovery of a gas field with a volume of 58 billion cubic meters of gas in the eastern part of the Black Sea shelf.

The start of production from the Sakarya field is expected in 2023 and by 2030 it may reach 8-10 billion cubic meters of gas per year, i.e. 16-20% of Turkey’s total gas consumption. However, the implementation of this project is hampered by complex issues related to the installation of a deep-water gas extraction device; the construction of a 200-km gas pipeline with a large diameter at great depths from the offshore field to the mainland; finding investment of about $6 billion; and the high cost of drilling at depths of more than 2,000 meters.

The corresponding deep-water search for gas reserves in the disputed areas of the shelf to the west of Cyprus in the summer of 2020 caused an aggravation in Greek-Turkish relations and controversy with France. In turn, the successful energy cooperation between Israel, Cyprus and Egypt led to the discovery of large gas fields (Aphrodite, Zor and Leviathan) in the Eastern Mediterranean shelf, which could not leave Turkey indifferent to a similar venture.

Naturally, changing the gas balance through its own supplies to the domestic market can significantly strengthen Turkey’s energy independence from external suppliers. However, this task is hardly feasible given the realities of the physical geography of the country. President Erdoğan is pursuing a very pragmatic policy within the framework of the neo-Pan-Turkism strategy in relation to the integration and formation of a common market for the Turkic countries of the post-Soviet space, most of which (with the exception of Kyrgyzstan) have considerable gas reserves. Notably, Turkmenistan has 7.2% of the world’s gas reserves, Kazakhstan (0.89%), Azerbaijan (0.83%) and Uzbekistan (0.74%) have a little less than one percent of the world’s gas reserves, and in total that makes almost 10% (9.66%) of total gas reserves. Consequently, Turkey’s policy of creating the Organization of Turkic States and forming new short corridors for connection with Azerbaijan and the Turkic republics of Central Asia is to a large extent in line with Turkey’s pragmatic interests in the energy sector (i.e. the import and transit of “Turkic gas” to Europe).

The meeting of the leaders of Turkey, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, held on December 14, 2022 in the Turkmen resort of Avaz, envisaged the signing of an agreement on the export of Turkmen gas by sea on tankers to Baku and further along the Southern Gas Corridor to Turkey and Europe. However, the leader of Turkmenistan, having shown interest in the Middle Corridor for the export of goods from China to Europe through the Caspian Sea, linked the gas issue with guarantees to ensure transit security and clearance with all interested parties to this project (which can also be interpreted as a desire to get the green light from key Caspian neighbors represented by Russia and Iran, as well as from new partners such as China and India).

Nevertheless, if Erdoğan succeeds in implementing an “energy Turan,” i.e. creating a unified Turkic gas and oil market, Turkey’s oil and gas dependence on other external suppliers (including Russia) could be significantly lessened. It seems that Turkey, being a NATO member state and a large country, is more likely to become the leader of the common Turkic market, with a population of almost 164 million people, and will consider it as an alternative to European integration.

It can be said that by expanding the energy partnership for the transit of Azerbaijani gas to Southern Europe, Turkey, with the commissioning of the TurkStream gas pipeline, to a certain extent created the conditions for Russia’s dependence on gas exports to Europe. With the onset of the Russia-Ukraine crisis and the Western barrage of sanctions against Russia, as well as after the sabotage and shutdown of Russian gas pipelines Nord Stream and Nord Stream 2 with a volume of 110 billion cubic meters of gas in the Baltic Sea basin, Russia has found itself searching for new corridors to access global gas consumption markets, where Turkey is seen as a reliable partner. That is why in October 2022, President Vladimir Putin proposed a mutually beneficial Russian-Turkish project to build a gas hub in Turkey, which was approved by President Recep Erdoğan.

The implementation of the gas hub project in Turkey, naturally, increases the role and importance of Turkey as not only a transit country, but also a participant in the sale of natural gas to world markets (including Europe). Negotiations are already underway between the Ministries of Energy of both countries on the implementation of this project. The western part of Turkey (the region of Eastern Thrace) should become the geographical location of the gas hub. It will be necessary to build new gas pipelines along the bottom of the Black Sea from Anapa for gas supplies and a gas facility for fuel concentration, as well as an increase in the volume of the gas pipeline from Yamal to Anapa by at least twofold. The hub envisages financial conditions for the transfer of the product into the ownership of the consumer.

After the sabotage and terrorist act against the Russian Nord Stream gas pipeline, Russia and its leading company Gazprom are changing their strategy for supplying and selling gas. In fact, why should Russia at its own expense build gas pipelines and various lines to bring gas directly to the countries of Europe, if their governing authorities pursue an irresponsible economic policy towards their own people, impose sanctions on Russian gas and also allow acts of sabotage on energy lines? As a rule, leading gas companies sell gas to the consumer before starting the construction of energy utilities. Turkey, in contrast to EU countries, has shown itself as a reliable partner in the issue of Russian gas transit, regardless of the Ukraine crisis. The Russian offer of a “gas hub” to Turkey is also to some extent aimed at reducing Turkish interest in Turkmenistan’s gas.

Naturally, the intensification of the Russian-Turkish partnership in the field of Russian gas exports promises Ankara new bonuses both in terms of discounts on imports (Erdoğan has already requested a 25% discount), and joint participation in determining the prices for the sale of Russian gas, depending on world market conditions. The energy policy of President Erdoğan’s administration continues the course of diversification and reduction of dependence on external suppliers.

At the same time, the implementation of the gas hub project by all parties will require time (at least 2-3 years), appropriate investments, potential involvement of large European energy companies and political stability. There are no guarantees that the West, led by the United States, will not boycott this project in terms of the EU’s subsequent refusal to buy Russian gas. To a large extent, the success of the announced project depends on the outcome of the presidential elections in Turkey in the summer of 2023 and the subsequent course of the elected leader. But in any scenario, sound economic pragmatism must prevail over short-term motivations.

Russia is forced to accept the risks of gas transit to Europe via Turkey. After Turkey’s purchases of LNG and with the commissioning of TurkStream, Moscow and Ankara have shifted the balance in gas relations and have adjusted the model from “dominant supplier-consumer” to “competitive supplier – transit country – consumer.” Turkey has reduced its gas dependence on Russia, and Russia has also reduced its dependence on transit through Ukraine. With the implementation of the “Turkish gas hub” project, the author believes, the interdependence of Turkey and Russia in gas trade according to the “competitive supplier-transit country-consumer-seller” model will become even more pronounced. This will have to be taken into account when forming foreign policy and economic relations between both countries.

Aleksandr SVARANTS, PhD in political science, professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.


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