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photo source: tenva

by Eren Alp

The term “Grexit”, Greece’s catastrophic exit from the Euro-Zone as a result of its financial woes, is all everyone is talking about.  The worst case scenario which sees Greece returning to its old currency, the drachma, spells economic doomsday for the country, with unknown implications beyond.  As such, the temptation of a drowning man to clutch at any straw grows ever stronger.  The Russo-Turkish “Turkish Stream” project offers a spark of hope to Greek politicians, but it’s a dangerous straw to be grasping at, for Greece, Turkey, and the EU.

The Turkish Stream is an ambitious pipeline project to bring Russian natural gas across the Black Sea to Turkey, and from there on to Europe, thereby bypassing the overland route through conflict-riddled Ukraine and replacing the now defunct South Stream project.  Along with the already-operating Blue Stream and the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) currently under construction, the Turkish Stream pipeline fits well into Turkey’s strategic ambition to become an indispensable part of the EU’s energy politics as a supply bridge.  The Turkish Stream pipeline also fits well into Russia’s desire to find alternate routes to supply its gas to its primary customers, EU member states, while bypassing partners perceived to be unreliable, Ukraine being a prime example.

Turkey and Russia are expected to sign the final agreements sometime in July 2015, and plans may already be in the works to expand the supply route of the Turkish Stream project further into Europe through Greece and into the Balkans and Italy.  Greece has been very enthusiastic about the proposed expansion of the pipeline, which would likely create tens of thousands of new jobs and generate hundreds of millions of euros in gas transit fees for the crisis-stricken and cash-strapped country.  In fact, Greece has already taken the first step in June 2015 of signing a memorandum with Russia regarding its role in the expanded Turkish Stream project.

The project, and its anticipated expansion into Greece does appear to be to the economic advantage of all parties – Russia the supplier, Turkey and Greece as transit hubs, and the EU as a final consumer.  The geopolitical case for the project, however, is far less clear-cut.  The Turkish Stream, beyond its purely commercial merits, is a Russian foreign policy tool, and its implications must be evaluated with this in mind.

While Turkey wishes to benefit from both the transit fees and the economic stimulus the project would provide for its growing but energy-hungry economy, the Turkish Stream will likely further weaken the already strained relationship between the country and the EU, drawing it further into Russia’s orbit.  Though Turkey will enhance its role as an energy hub for Europe, it will become further reliant on Russian gas, which can render the economy vulnerable to political shocks, either due to sanctions or Russian reprisals to them. Turkey’s ability to freely side with the EU and NATO in tensions with Russia will be seriously impaired, potentially handicapping the former organizations’ ability to counter Russian ambitions.

Similarly, Greece, with its dire financial situation, could easily be trapped under Russia’s influence by the prospect of jobs and cash promised by the project.  Offering a relatively quick fix to Greece’s economic crisis, the Turkish Stream will weaken the bonds between Greece and the rest of Europe, which have already been severely damaged by the deadlocked bailout talks.

So why should the EU care?  The Turkish Stream, providing an alternate route bypassing Ukraine for Russian gas will discourage European countries from seeking other gas suppliers, be they in the Caucasus, Central Asia, or North Africa, particularly if Russia undercuts those other suppliers with cheaper prices.  This in turn will ensure Russia’s ability to economically blackmail the EU vis-à-vis its regional ambitions.  Simply put, the EU must recognize that its ability to act as a regional and global actor can be hamstrung by Russia luring peripheral and vulnerable European countries into its own geopolitical sphere.  And so I say to the leaders of Greece, Turkey and the EU: beware Russians bearing gas.

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