Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bombshell decision in December 2014 to suspend the South Stream gas pipeline, which was to link Russia to Southeastern Europe, and replace it with a new project under the tentative name of Turkish Stream has caused more than a few raised eyebrows in Brussels.
Fears that Turkish Stream will block the EU-backed Southern Gas Corridor, which will bypass Russia and bring gas directly from Central Asia and the Middle East to Europe, and undermine EU energy security might be far-fetched and conceptually fallacious. Yet the real problem with the proposed new pipeline is that it is part of an energy security dilemma in which the EU and Russia have been trapped.
The construction of Turkish Stream is not written in stone, and it will come as no surprise if the project is eventually scrapped. This would not be the first energy transportation network to be highly publicized by Moscow but never implemented. Besides, the economic viability of the pipeline has been questionable as it remains unclear who will finance the project, how the gas will be transported in Europe, and what purchase contracts will be signed.
But even if Turkish Stream is concluded, allegations that it poses a direct threat to the EU’s energy security strategy can be contested. Turkish Stream should be regarded as an alternative route for the transportation of Russian gas, which will remain a basic element of the European energy mix for the foreseeable future. Despite striving for increased diversification of its energy supplies, the EU is nowhere near meeting its target of 100 percent energy independence from Russian gas.
Robin Dunnigan, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary for energy diplomacy, has suggested that while energy diversification should be pursued, Russia could remain a primary supplier of natural gas to Europe. More recently, Mario Mehren, chief executive of the German oil and gas producer Wintershall, which has close contacts with Gazprom, argued that European energy security is only possible with Russia since Russia is an integral part of Western Europe’s energy provision.
What is more, given the EU energy landscape and the capacity of the existing pipeline network, there is ample room for both Turkish Stream and the Southern Gas Corridor. In 2013, Russian energy giant Gazprom supplied the EU with 82 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas through Ukraine. Bluff or not, according to Alexey Miller, the boss of Gazprom, the firm will suspend gas deliveries to Europe through this route by 2019. As a result, the EU needs to secure an alternative and safer transportation route for this quantity of gas.
The suggested Turkish Stream pipeline, if concluded, will bring 47 bcm of gas annually, while the foreseeable capacity of the Southern Gas Corridor does not exceed 20 bcm annually. Even if the total capacity of the Southern Gas Corridor reaches 60 bcm per year in the future, as has been suggested, the excess capacity will cover projected needs as European dependence on gas imports is expected to rise in the coming decades from 64 percent of total gas demand now to above 80 percent.
On top of this, the Turkish Stream project cannot dent Brussels’s zeal for diversifying its energy supplies. Quantities corresponding to the full current capacity of the Trans Adriatic Pipeline, a Southern Gas Corridor project, have already been sold for the next twenty-five years.
The EU did not oppose the Nord Stream pipeline and former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s Germany First policy, which connected Russia gas fields to the German energy market. More recently, a number of European energy firms, including Shell, inked a deal with Gazprom to add two lines to Nord Stream. Yet the news did not even hit the headlines.
So why is the EU so hostile toward the Turkish Stream project? For one thing, the problem lies in the nature of the EU-Russia energy security relationship, which has the characteristics of a security dilemma. Neither side can improve its energy security without undermining the security of the other.
Contrary to what the proponents of liberalism would expect, closer ties in energy trade have not eased economic and political frictions between the two actors. Instead, energy dependence between the EU and Russia has increased mistrust and conflicts between them. Now, energy security relations have become an issue of national security for both sides.
Europe has been increasingly worried about overdependence on Russian gas. Fears that Moscow might use energy as a political weapon to blackmail Europe have been exacerbated since the 2006 and 2009 gas disputes between Ukraine and Russia. The EU’s response to those episodes included promoting the Southern Gas Corridor, which Russia considers part of a Western strategy to undermine the Russian economy and penetrate Russia’s sphere of influence.
Thus, for Moscow, Turkish Stream is a policy option that would secure Russia’s European market share, which is of vital importance for the Russian economy. After all, Russia exports 70 percent of its gas to Europe, and closing Russia out of the EU energy market would be a major threat to Moscow’s economic survival. Responding to the Russian plans, Brussels regards Turkish Stream as an attempt to thwart the Southern Gas Corridor—hence the EU’s objection to Greek plans to back the project.
What makes Turkish Stream different from Nord Stream is the strategy of the Greek government vis-à-vis the project. Contrary to Germany, which has been focusing merely on the energy and economic merits of the Nord Stream pipeline, Greece has been using Turkish Stream as a bargaining chip in the ongoing negotiations with Greece’s international creditors.
The gradual rapprochement between Athens and Moscow has been followed by a series of reports, Greek government nonpapers, and statements by Greek officials implying that Turkish Stream would bring valuable economic and geopolitical trade-offs. In April 2015, officials in Athens claimed that the revenues from transit fees would reach €3–5 billion ($3–6 billion), an amount that does not correspond to the economics of the project.
In parallel with consultations on Turkish Stream, Athens has repeatedly questioned the EU’s sanctions imposed on Russia for its actions in eastern Ukraine. Allegations of a Greek foreign policy shift toward Russia have intensified since the former Greek energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis stated that Greece does not belong to any sphere of influence, and that the government will pursue an independent energy security policy.
As a result, Greek policies, together with Russian and European misinterpretations, have pushed Moscow and Brussels into a downward spiral with the characteristics of a security dilemma. It is in the interests of all sides to find a way to exit this trap.
Stratos Pourzitakis is pursuing a PhD program at the Department of Government and International Studies, Hong Kong Baptist University, under the scholarship of the EU Academic Program in Hong Kong.