Can TurkStream resurrect Turkey-Russia relations?

*Source: Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan meet at Mabeyn Palace in Istanbul, on October 10, 2016. Source: Metin Pala – Anadolu Agency

Turkey and Russia have agreed to begin construction on TurkStream, the ambitious natural gas pipeline aimed at delivering energy to the European Union.

The deal signifies a remarkable reversal in relations between the two countries, coming less than a year after Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet close to its Syrian border.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reached the agreement at the 23rd World Energy Congress in Istanbul, where energy ministers from both countries finalised details on the previously stalled plan to bring Russian gas to Turkey under the Black Sea. Twin pipelines will be constructed; with gas from one servicing Turkish domestic demands, and the other used for European markets.

Gazprom of Russia and Turkey’s state-owned BOTAŞ had signed a memorandum of understanding for the construction of the TurkStream pipeline, which will have a capacity of 63 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas per year from Russia to Turkey across the Black Sea. The agreement aims to build the lines by 2019, said Alexei Miller, chief executive of Gazprom.

Strained diplomacy

But plans for the project were halted following the so-called “jet-crisis” in November 2015, after which Russia responded with punitive sanctions against Turkey’s agriculture and tourism industries. However, announcing the deal, both leaders emphasised growing rapprochement between the two countries.

“Today has been a full day with President Putin of discussing Russia-Turkish relations… I have full confidence that the normalization of Turkish-Russian ties will continue at a fast pace,” President Erdoğan told a joint news conference.

Putin announced his government had lifted the remaining bans on imports from Turkey, and that both leaders had agreed to work toward the full-scale normalisation of bilateral ties.

After a year of tensions comparable only to Cold War levels, the TurkStream deal is the pinnacle of a carefully managed de-escalation, with both sides seemingly embracing a sense of realpolitik about their respective geopolitical ambitions.

For Ankara, this has been driven by a desire to diversify its foreign policy options as it looks to assert more autonomy as an independent regional power. As a result, traditional ties with Turkey’s old Western allies have weakened, to a certain degree. But following the attempted coup, President Erdoğan’s government in Ankara needs allies, now more than ever.

Turkey is also desperately short of its own natural resources. It has attempted to counter this with ambitions to become a regional energy hub; providing a safe route between its energy rich but unstable neighbors to its east, and lucrative European markets to the west. TurkStream is a step forward in that direction.

Notably, Erdoğan also announced  that the Akkuyu project, a plan for a Russian built nuclear power plant in the Turkish city of Mersin would be accelerated. Construction has already begun on what is to be Turkey’s first nuclear plant.

Russia, in turn, has long been seeking to diversify its options for transporting energy to Europe, particularly since the ongoing crisis in Ukraine has destabilised its traditional route. A previous attempt was made to establish a pipeline through Bulgaria. But the project was abandoned in 2014 after opposition from the European Union over Russia’s role in the Ukraine conflict.

The new deal comes with the added benefit of cementing ties with Turkey, a key NATO member, at a time of growing animosity between other members of the alliance and Russia. Ironically, it was Turkey’s downing of the Russian jet that first raised questions about the continued viability of the alliance. But now, with Turkey voluntarily increasing its dependence on Russian gas, questions will be asked about a growing conflict of interests.

Differences of opinions on Syria

Despite this, deep divisions between Turkey and Russia over the Syria crisis remain, particularly over the ongoing battle for Aleppo.

Russia has been backing the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the beginning of the civil war, providing air cover for the regime since this time last year; a move that triggered international outcry over its role in the mounting civilian casualties.

Turkey, on the other hand, has long been supporting the rebels under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and has in recent months taken a more active role, including bringing together various rebel factions for a push into Syria’s Jarabulus.

“We have a common position that everything must be done to deliver humanitarian aid to Aleppo. The only issue is … ensuring the safety of aid delivery,” Putin told the World Energy Congress.

“We discussed (…) how we can cooperate on this matter, especially on humanitarian aid to Aleppo, what strategy can we implement so people in Aleppo can find peace,” said Erdoğan.

In contrast, Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution on Saturday, that would have demanded an end to airstrikes and military flights over Aleppo. A counter Russian draft text failed to get the minimum nine votes in favor.

In the meantime, talks with the United States over Syria continue, with another round of international talks scheduled to take place in London on Sunday. The Russian Foreign Ministry announced the participation of several regional countries, including Turkey.

Relations resurrected

The energy agreement marks another milestone in the rapprochement between Turkey and Russia, two countries near the outer edges of an increasingly multi-polar world order; both seeking to bolster their own international positions by developing new economic and political alliances.

According to the Financial Times, Russia could be looking to compensate its losses from the abandoned South Stream route. As for Turkey, floundering relations with the West may be pushing Turkey towards alternative partnerships, not only with Russia but with China and Latin America.

Despite this, both countries have come under fire from the international community of late, for controversial foreign military operations in the region. Turkey is stubbornly maintaining its military presence near Mosul despite Baghdad’s protests, and Russia has been widely condemned for its indiscriminate bombing of Aleppo.

It’s possible that Ankara and Moscow will use the open door of energy cooperation as a counterbalance against such criticism. But plausibly, although with some difficulty, this cooperation may also be used to increase pressure on the two to reach a long-awaited agreement on Syria.

Yavuz Yavuz and Niall Finn

Yavuz, Yavuz & Finn, Niall “Can TurkStream resurrect Turkey-Russia relations?”, Independent Turkey, 14 October 2016, London: Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey). Original link: http://researchturkey.org/?p=12940

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