EU on edge as Putin, Erdogan set to meet

The secretary-general of the Council of Europe (CoE), Thornjorn Hoagland, gains distinction as the first high-ranking European official to visit Ankara after the abortive coup of July 15. Hoagland’s is a recce mission to fathom the mood in Ankara, which is of course very ugly.

Erdogan-Putin metting

Turkish President Recep Erdogan (R) will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg on August 9

It is not as if EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini remains indifferent. She is dutifully awaiting the green signal from Washington, but that may have to wait until Vice-President Joe Biden visits Turkey in the coming weeks, hopefully.

After the talks in Ankara, Joagland caved in to render an abject public apology on behalf of all Europeans.

“I would like to say there has been too little understanding from Europe over what challenges this (coup) has caused to the democratic and state institutions of Turkey,” he admitted after talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Ankara on Wednesday.

Joagland added that Turkey is “such an important European country. It is important that we do all that we can to help Turkey get through this process.”

The EU’s overture comes on the eve of the forthcoming meeting of Turkish President Recep Erdogan with Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg on August 9.

Reuters has reported that EU officials and diplomats are worried and are “watching warily” the Turkish-Russian rapprochement.

What could it be that makes the officials in Brussels tizzy, twisting their fingers, as angst builds in their body?

No, it is not about the consensus on ending the Syrian conflict that Moscow and Ankara are negotiating, which may reset the contours of Europe’s hopeless refugee crisis.

It’s the TurkStream, stupid!

A series of statements from the Turkish and Russian sides suggest that an inter-governmental agreement is within sight, finally, on starting the TurkStream gas pipeline project bringing more Russian gas to Turkey.

Turkey needs one line of TurkStream carrying 16 bcm to meet its needs but may also be persuaded to agree to be a transit country for Russian supplies to southern Europe.

The Russians envisage TurkStream as a trans-Black Sea project with a total capacity of 64 bcm of gas with the option for the pipeline to branch off at the border between Turkey and Bulgaria to supply the Balkans as well.

Gazprom delivered 27 bcm gas to Turkey through 2015, making that country the second biggest buyer of Russian gas after Germany. Additional supply of 16 bcm guarantees Russia’s status as the anchor sheet of Turkey’s energy security.

The geopolitical implications are self-evident. The European disquiet is understandable for a variety of reasons:

  • TurkStream opens the door to more exports of Russian gas to Europe, whereas EU (and US) would hope to reduce heavy dependence on Russian supplies.
  • EU abhors the idea of Turkey, a problematic partner, emerging as transit country for the continent’s gas imports.
  • TurkStream will kill EU’s trans-Caspian pipeline projects bypassing Russia.
  • TurkStream diminishes Russia’s dependence on Ukraine as transit country for gas exports to Europe, while it also compels Kiev to turn to Brussels to meet its own energy needs by crediting that country.
  • TurkStream strengthens Russia’s hands as regards the proposed Nord Stream 2 project (carrying additional Russian gas to northern Europe). The EU has been lukewarm about Nord Stream 2 (which bypasses Poland), given its potential to foster a geopolitical axis between Moscow and Berlin.

Therefore, ideally, EU and the US would have liked European market sourcing non-Russian energy, which could be in terms of:

  • Increased LNG supplies from the US;
  • A pipeline to connect Israel’s gas fields in Eastern Mediterranean. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on June 27 following a meeting with the Turkish Prime Minister Binaldi Ildirim in Rome, while explaining the raison d’etre of Israel-Turkey normalization, “The Leviathan gas fields can supply gas needs of Egypt and also for Turkey and from there to Europe.”
  • Qatar’s famous plan of 2009 to lay a pipeline via Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria connecting the massive North Pars gas fields with European market, to replace Russian supplies as well as forestall future Iranian export gas to the West. (President Bashar al-Assad had shot down the idea, which, some say, led to the ‘regime change’ agenda to overthrow him.)

All in all, therefore, the forthcoming summit between Putin and Erdogan next week becomes a defining moment impacting several key templates of the New Cold War.

From the Russian point of view, rapprochement with Turkey anchored on deepening economic cooperation – over TurkStream, $20 billion Russian nuclear plant, tourism, etc. – not only promotes mutually beneficial business ties but also creates powerful interest groups in Turkey who are stakeholders in the strategic ties with Russia. (Turkish business groups played an influential role to encourage Erdogan’s reconciliation with Putin.)

On the other hand, Erdogan’s political agenda is also critically dependent on continued success in delivering on a buoyant economy. The Turkish people experienced a level of prosperity during his rule that they never knew before, which explains the rock-solid 52% mandate they gave him in the last election.

Erdogan is aware that popular expectations are running high regarding a better life, increased income, low inflation, job creation, etc. all of which depend on high economic growth. Erdogan estimates that Russia is uniquely placed to help galvanize Turkey’s economy.

Two weeks back, in the heat of the moment after putting down the coup attempt, Erdogan had said, “Today, we are determined more than ever before to contribute to the solution of regional problems hand in hand with Iran and Russia and in cooperation with them.”

On August 2, he re-framed his thoughts: “If things go on as scheduled, I will visit Russia on August 9. A representative government delegation will accompany me. And we will again discuss our economic relations. There will be no restrictions (on the agenda) on our part.”

Through these statements, Erdogan sought to convey to the Kremlin that Turkey and Russia have shared interests in the geopolitical space surrounding the two countries. On the one hand, Turkey’s cooperation is crucial to Russian efforts to stabilize the Syrian situation while on the other hand TurkStream cements the EU market on a long-term footing for Russian energy exports.

As for Turkey, Russia can be of decisive help in preventing the creation of a Kurdistan enclave on its borders and/or the federalization of Syria (which are hugely consequential issues for Turkey’s national security), while TurkStream not only adds to Turkey’s energy security but enhances Turkey’s importance for Russia in its geo-strategies, apart from positioning itself as an energy hub for Europe (which becomes a trump card in Turkey’s tortuous accession negotiations with the EU).

The visits to Ankara on successive days by the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford and the CoE Secretary-General Thornjorn Hoagland underscore the sense of disquiet in Washington and Brussels, and a last-minute bid to slow down the pace of the Turkish-Russian rapprochement.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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