The Energy Dimension Of Turkey’s Russia Problem

Alex VanNess Manager of Public Information, Center for Security Policy
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Tensions between Russia and Turkey are at all times highs following the downing of a Russian Su-24 bomber by Turkish forces along the Syrian border on November 24. Russian leader Vladimir Putin called the attack “a stab in Russia’s back” and said that there would be severe consequences for Turkish/Russian relations.

As a punishment, Putin announced that Russia would impose sanctions against certain Turkish exports. Russia will also restrict certain types of work rendered on Russian territory by Turkish organizations, as well as a halt to charter flights between the two countries.

The Russian jet, which was described as being “less than 2 miles” into Turkish airspace, was shot down following claims by Turkey that they issued several warnings over a five-minute period of time. The standard responses to a slight incursion into another nations airspace are to issues warnings and then escort the aircraft out of your countries airspace. No attempt to escort the aircraft away from Turkish airspace was made and the surviving pilot disputes the claim that Turkey issued warnings.

Additionally, despite calls to normalize relations following the attack, Turkey has decided to double-down on their aggressive stance towards Russia by shutting off Moscow’s access to the Black Sea, preventing Russian naval vessels from traveling in the Black Sea to Syria. Turkey’s actions are further promoting the narrative that the attack on Russia was a preplanned incident aimed at provoking Russia.  

Not only is Turkey in a delicate situation, but also as a member of NATO, Turkey’s actions are placing the United States and other western nations in a precarious situation. As a NATO member, Turkey is party to Article 5 of the NATO convention, which stipulates that an attack on one NATO ally as an attack on all of them.

NATO has thrown its support towards Turkey throughout this incident. However, under the leadership of, Recep Tayyep Erdogan, Turkey has largely undermined the U.S. and NATO, and has not been a strong ally. Despite, on the surface, involvement in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), Erdogan prefers to use this fight against ISIS as a pretext to attack Kurdish militia groups instead. The Kurdish militias have proven to be an effective force against ISIS, yet they bear the brunt of Turkey’s assaults. Erdogan has met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and has expressed public support and financial assistance to the terrorist group Hamas.

It is unlikely that the downing of a Russian jet will escalate to the point of full-scale military incursions between Russia and Turkey; however, Russia may use its extensive and powerful energy sector to exert their influence. This will ultimately make a delicate energy situation in the region even more volatile.

Russia holds energy hegemony in the region. Russia’s state-owned gas company, Gazprom provides energy to many countries throughout Europe. While Gazprom has numerous deals with various European counterparts, including a recent strategic alliance with Royal Dutch Shell, The Company regularly acts as a weapon in Putin’s arsenal, often forgoing profits in order to help push the Kremlins agenda.

Russia has used the manipulation of gas supplies to get its way in Europe several times in the past. Both in 2006 and 2009, Russia manipulated gas supplies that led to shortages throughout Europe, as well as a complete shutdown of gas supplies to Southeastern Europe. Recently, Gazprom announced that they would halt deliveries of natural gas to Ukraine, citing a clash over natural gas pricing.

Gazprom has been in talks with Turkey to develop the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline, to ship Russian gas underneath the Black Sea to Turkey. Russia is Turkey’s largest gas supplier and the pipeline was designed to be an alternative route for Russian natural gas heading to Europe that circumvents Ukraine, giving Russia the ability to diminish Ukraine as an important energy transit state. However, Russian Minister of development, Alexi Ulyukayev, announced that Russia is canceling Turkish Stream.

Despite Turkish attempts at provoking a NATO engagement with Russia, Russia’s extensive energy influence throughout Europe decreases the likelihood that NATO countries will involve themselves in a direct military confrontation.

It would behoove Turkey to deescalate tensions before Russia uses its massive energy apparatus to shut off power throughout Turkey. Additionally, NATO nations need to let Turkey know their behavior is not acceptable and place them on notice regarding their status as a treaty signatory.

Alex VanNess is the Manager of Public Information for the Center for Security Policy