Turkish naval fleet accompanying drill ship, July 2019 in East Mediterranean.
The cold war brewing in the East Mediterranean over the vast hydrocarbon reserves in the region is already ‘multipolar’. Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, Greece, the United States and Turkey figure as the main protagonists. Then, in mid-July, the European Union grew out of its observer status and joined as active participant. Furthermore, as July ends, Russia is tiptoeing toward the theatre — not quite an actor yet but willing to be one if a role becomes available.
Last weekend, in a seemingly innocuous remark, the Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak dropped the hint that Russian oil companies can roll out exploration in offshore Mediterranean energy fields in cooperation with Turkey. As he put it, “Russian companies have successfully implemented energy projects in the Mediterranean Sea. For example, Rosneft is working at Zohr [gas field in Egypt]. If these projects benefit all the parties from the commercial point of view, Russian companies can decide on cooperation with Turkey in the East Mediterranean.”
Novak saw it as a business proposition but is certainly savvy enough to know, being an influential Kremlin politician, that the geopolitics of oil and gas, be it in the Arctic or the Black Sea or the Persian Gulf and East Mediterranean, is integral to his country’s foreign policy. What made Novak’s remark particularly significant is not only that he singled out Turkey as Russia’s potential partner in East Mediterranean, but also that he made the remark in an exclusive interview with the Turkish official news agency Anadolu, which the Russian state news agency Tass promptly featured as a news report.
Russia’s locus standii is not in doubt, being an energy superpower and Turkey’s number one energy supplier. Surely, a partnership in the East Mediterranean can only further consolidate the entente between Russia and Turkey, which only recently acquired a new template of defence cooperation following Turkey’s bold decision to press ahead with the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system despite the threat of US sanctions and notwithstanding Turkey’s NATO membership.
Interestingly, Novak’s remark comes at a time when the multi-vectored regional rivalries in the East Mediterranean pit Turkey against Cyprus (which is backed by Greece and Israel and enjoys US support.) The fierce rivalries spawned by the discovery of massive offshore hydrocarbon reserves in East Mediterranean by Israel and Cyprus are hopelessly intertwined today with Turkey’s traditionally adversarial relationships with Greece and Cyprus.
The unresolved Cyprus question lurks just below the surface, dating back to 1974 when the then military junta in Athens orchestrated a coup’ d’etat in Nicosia in a bid to unify the two countries and Turkey subsequently intervened in Cyrus militarily and occupied one-third of the island in the north inhabited by the ethnic Turkish Cypriots, which has since become a de facto Turkish protectorate.
In sum, Turkey has a very serious territorial dispute with Cyprus and will not brook the latter’s unilateral moves to appropriate the massive hydrocarbon reserves in East Mediterranean in waters Ankara regards either belonging to the Turkish Cypriots as well or as falling within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Suffice to say, a Cyprus settlement is the core issue here, but the Greek Cypriot opinion is disinterested in re-unification of the island. (The EU granted Cyprus full membership shortly after the ethnic Greek population voted against reunification, rejecting the settlement plan of then UN secretary general Kofi Annan.)
What complicates matters further is that Turkey has poor relations with Israel, which has banded together with Greece and Israel in a sort of tripartite alliance against Turkey lately (with Washington’s blessings.) The US resents Turkey’s independent foreign policies and American oil majors (ExxonMobil) are involved in prospecting / exploiting East Mediterranean’s oil and gas in the seas claimed by Cyprus.
An offshore oil platform in seas claimed by Cyrpus.
ExxonMobil announced in February that it has made the world’s third-biggest natural gas discovery in two years off the coast of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean at the Glaucus-1 well. The region is already known for some of the world’s largest such discoveries. The discovery could represent a natural gas resource of approximately 5 trillion to 8 trillion cubic feet.
Besides, the US geo-strategic objective is to market the energy supplies from East Mediterranean in Europe, which would erode Russia’s dominance as energy supplier while also enable Israel to tap a big source of income.
Turkey is pretty much isolated today in the East Mediterranean rivalries, as Ankara intensifies its own exploration for natural gas in the region. After Cyprus after began its exploration (ExxonMobil) with the US ships providing security, Ankara despatched two drill ships to the seas and Turkey’s Naval Forces Command is providing “full and continuous protection” to the drilling vessels, with the help of unmanned aerial vehicles, watercraft, assault boats and submarines.
Turkey held a big naval exercise in in the eastern Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Sea in May asserting its rights not only in Cyprus, but also in Greece. Turkey claims its continental shelf not only takes in portions of Cyprus’s EEZ, but extends westwards to Crete in Greece’s EEZ. This in effect means that Turkey seeks to share the coastal energy resources of both Cyprus and Greece.
A time-bomb is ticking. Washington has repeatedly warned Turkey. In mid-July the EU foreign ministers also came down hard on Ankara, calling it actions “illegal”, punishing it by reducing EU’s assistance to Turkey for 2020 by €145.8 million, inviting European Investment Bank to review its lending activities in Turkey (€358.8 million last year) and threatening to “continue to work on options for targeted measures” (read sanctions.)
Turkey has defiantly rejected the EU intervention, but will feel its isolation mitigated if Russia stretches a helping hand at this juncture. The point is, the storm clouds gathering in East Mediterranean would have serious geopolitical ramifications. In a developing scenario of the West versus Turkey, which is already there, Moscow will be making a profound statement if Russian oil companies join hands with Turkey.
Any such Turkish-Russian collaboration will be a game changer for regional politics — in Syria, Levant, the Black Sea, etc. It coincides with a moment when the Pentagon just caricatured Russia in a strategy report last month as a “revitalised malign actor”, which, in league with China, “frequently jointly oppose US-sponsored measures at the United Nations Security Council” and works for a multipolar world order in which the US is “weaker and less influential.”
Indeed, any Turkish-Russian cooperation in East Mediterranean will dovetail with global politics. Read a Xinhua report in the weekend titled China, Russia vow to strengthen cooperation, promote world stability.