Russia Uses Energy Deal To Poach A Key US Ally From Obama

REUTERS/Osman Orsal

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Russ Read Pentagon/Foreign Policy Reporter
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As U.S.-Russian relations continue to deteriorate, Russia has found an opportunity to grow closer with Turkey — a key U.S. asset in the fight against the Islamic State — through an energy deal.

Turkey and Russia announced a major deal on the Turkish Stream (TurkStream) project Monday, which will connect Russian gas with Turkey via an underwater pipeline. Additionally, Russia’s plan to build a nuclear power plant in Turkey will be accelerated. Turkey has been crucial in the fight against ISIS due to its strategically important Incirlik air base and operations along its border with the ISIS held territory in Syria and Iraq.

A year ago, it appeared Russia and Turkey were on the brink of an all-out conflict after Turkey shot down a Russian jet, but the Turkish-Russian relationship has taken a drastic turn. The TurkStream energy agreement will open up the European market to Russia’s premier energy company Gazprom, which lost an opportunity to drastically increase its presence in the European market after a deal with several European Union countries collapsed.

Putin blamed the European Union for intentionally scuttling the deal and pursued a new pipeline deal with Turkey instead. The eventual TurkStream deal was presumed dead after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter flying in its territory in 2015, but the it has been revived as the two countries grow ever closer.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildrim took an unusual conciliatory tone toward Russia Monday, calling on the U.S. and Russia to “put regional confrontation on the backburner” and coordinate on the fight against ISIS.

The Turkish-Russian relationship is problematic for the Obama administration, particularly given the decrepit state of current U.S.-Russian relations. TurkStream could make it difficult for the U.S. to economically counter Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and Syria with sanctions.

Turkey’s turn to Russia follows two major disagreements with the Obama administration. Erdogan called on the U.S. to extradite popular Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen for an alleged role in an attempted coup in July, though no evidence appears to connect him thus far. Putin took advantage of the opportunity and immediately offered help. Additionally, Turkish leaders have expressed concern for U.S. support of Kurdish groups fighting ISIS, which it considers a national security threat.

Turkey has historically oscillated between the West and Russia since becoming a NATO member in 1952, according to Kemal Kirisci, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the emergence of a globalizing world led Turkey to forge much closer economic and political relations with Russia,” said Kirisci in a blog post for Brookings in August.

Kirisci noted that it is important that the West continues to nurture Turkey as a partner, without pushing it into the “axis of the excluded.”

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