Now, with Moscow’s backing, Ankara will move to achieve an energy exploration deal within Cyprus and it will be poised to defy Tel Aviv’s claims to its share of the spoils. Since Israel is America’s ally and it threatens Russian energy interests in Cyprus, Turkey figures that the Russian Federation’s assistance will be forthcoming. All this enhances Ankara’s prestige at home and abroad.
By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz l December 17, 2014
Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov at Limassol, Cyprus President Vladimir Putin’s state visit to Turkey on December 1, 2014
Moscow’s Vladimir Putin has resolved to send his energy to the European Union via Turkey. Ankara’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has accepted for his own geopolitical reasons and for the benefit of the neo-Ottomanist project, an attempt to re-create Turkic political, social, economic, and cultural dominion in its former imperial space, notwithstanding some Western observers who have judged that the Islamic democracy has thus been merely assigned the inconsequential role of a transit area.
The Russian President’s motives appear clear. Exasperated with the European Union’s sanctions and regulations, he has cancelled the South Stream project, a gas pipeline designed to circumvent Ukraine and to enter the EU from Russia under the Black Sea via Bulgaria and Hungary. Instead, he has resolved to resort to the Blue Stream system, which was built across the Black Sea in 2002 from Beregovaya Compressor Station to Durusu Terminal. Or, is Putin just bluffing? Is the Blue Stream alternative a deception operation so, come winter, the EU would beg him to supply energy immediately via the fastest way? In either case, the Russian leader can always resurrect the South Stream project at a more opportune time. And by successfully involving Turkey in his operations he has scored another coup against President Barack Obama. America’s erstwhile staunch ally Ankara has been indirectly assisting Moscow against Washington’s attempt to pressure the Kremlin as punishment for Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, and that despite the Turkish support for Kiyiv in general, and the Crimean Tatars in particular. In the long run, Moscow seeks to reap tangible regional rewards by somewhat detaching Turkey from its traditional NATO alliance system.
Yet, what does Turkey get out of it? There are several mutually reinforcing benefits. First, Erdoğan has once again asserted his independence vis-à-vis hapless U.S. diplomacy. That enhances enormously his standing in the Third World, among the Muslims in particular. Same applies to his flaunting the EU’s wishes. The message is clear – in yet another instance, Turkey is not a part of the West. If the U.S. and its allies would like Turkish cooperation, they must strain themselves, knowing that, ultimately, neither cajoling nor threat nor bribery may work, as was the case in our attempts to secure access through Turkey to invade Iraq in 2003. The Turks are their own masters; they do what serves their interests best; and they value the utility of their ties to the West with decreasing respect.
Second, the Turkish president has demonstrated to the Saudis, the Iranians, and even the Azeris that his nation can now draw from an alternative energy supplier, and a powerful one at that – Russia. The Turks are not at the mercy of the Middle Eastern energy potentates. Third, the neo-Ottomanist leader signals that he has secured a tacit understanding, if not agreement, of Putin for Turkey’s consistent policy to change the regime in Syria, a policy Russia, in fact, opposes but not for the price of being able to transit energy. There may be no such understanding at all as Moscow is committed to shore up Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad until the bitter end, with an eye towards maintaining its warm water naval base in the Mediterranean at Turtus. Although, Moscow, in a strategic move, shifted its Mediterranean naval operations to the Greek Cypriot port of Limassol, the perception remains, nonetheless, that the Kremlin is willing to put up with Ankara despite its efforts actively to effect a regime change in Damascus.
Fourth, thus, Turkey has proven to its regional rivals, Egypt in particular, that Moscow’s pragmatism in dealing with any regime, an Islamist democracy included, is practically boundless. At least that is how neo-Ottomanist propaganda will portray the on-going rapprochement with the Kremlin. The latter simply continues to emphasize that, despite its preferences for secular, military nationalist regimes, it is willing to do business with any government which does not mind serving Moscow’s purpose, while, it would be nice, undermining America’s strategy (or, rather, confused meandering) in the region.
Fifth, by doing a favor for Moscow, Ankara has acquired some leverage vis-à-vis Greece at the regional level. This should help resolve a variety of irritants, including shipping, trade, and cultural issues. Now, Erdoğan assumes that Putin will moderate Athen’s pretentions and claims toward Turkey. Sixth, which is also connected to the Greek move, by cozying up to the Russians the Turks strengthen their hand in Cyprus. This impacts the internal Cypriot Greek and Cypriot Turkish chronic conflict, allowing for some local détente. It also pertains to the fairly recent discovery of energy sources on the continental shelf extending to Cyprus from the coasts of Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. By international law the largely Greek-populated Republic of Cyprus, which is part of the EU with strong links to Greece and a sizable wealthy post-Soviet Russian expatriate community, administers all territories and territorial waters of the sovereign island. However, the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is only recognized by Turkey, has demanded a fair share, with Ankara’s full backing, in any hydrocarbon deposits that may reside in the continental shelf. Now Turkey expects Russia to moderate the Greek objections. It should make no difference for Russian energy interests to deal with the Turks, too. If they work together on the Blue Stream project, they should be able to cooperate neatly on the continental shelf exploration program.
On the other hand, Turkey and its Cypriot clients are none too eager to recognize the rights of others to the same, including Israel. Now, with Moscow’s backing, Ankara will move to achieve an energy exploration deal within Cyprus and it will be poised to defy Tel Aviv’s claims to its share of the spoils. Since Israel is America’s ally and it threatens Russian energy interests in Cyprus, Turkey figures that the Russian Federation’s assistance will be forthcoming. All this enhances Ankara’s prestige at home and abroad.
Thus, to push his neo-Ottomanist agenda, Erdoğan will use a dual advantage of a ubiquitous footsie player. As a NATO member and America’s formal ally, he will object to any U.S. moves, say, on behalf of Israel, to check his brazen expansionism. As a transit buddy of Russia, he will milk Moscow’s vulnerability for all support he can get. In this subtle game, the neo-Ottomanist leader has shown once again that Turkey is not a mere pawn of the superpowers.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he also holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies. Professor Chodakiewicz is author of Intermarium: The Land between the Black and Baltic Seas. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.