Donald Trump and the new great game

Donald Trump and the new great game

On June 23, President Vladimir Putin of Russia called President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the two leaders had a telephone conversation mainly focusing on the prospects for bilateral cooperation on energy. Although frequent telephone conversations are becoming a new feature of Turkish-Russian presidential relations, this last one was not an ordinary call. Putin was on board a pipe-laying ship in the Black Sea involved in the construction of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline.

Putin emphasized the importance of the Turkish Stream and expressed his determination for its realization. Erdoğan, for his side, reassured his counterpart and underlined the importance of overall bilateral energy equation prevailing between the two countries including the construction of the nuclear power plant in Akkuyu.

Putin seems to be personally committed to the Turkish Stream project. He monitors the pipe-laying on board and contacts Erdoğan on the spot, which proves his direct scrutiny over the construction process. Is there a particular reason for that?

Russia is not very happy with the latest developments on U.S.-Russia relations. On a number of issues, starting from Syria to U.S. domestic politics, Russia is facing increasing pressure. Energy, however, is the most crucial element in all these developments. As Russia persistently fails to deliver a solution to the Ukraine problem, U.S.-led sanctions regime on Russia tighten and expand. Pipeline construction, apparently, is a new target.

The new race in the global energy market seems to be twofold. On the one hand, U.S. increases the stress and frustration of Russia by targeting its energy sector, being aware of the fact that energy exports are crucial for the Russian economy. The new sanctions regime, therefore, is becoming more and more annoying for Russia.

Second, Trump’s vision of foreign relations is very much inspired by his businessman background. Reports about the possibility of increasing the U.S.’s energy exports are widely shared on the American media. Those reports mainly put forth the potential in LNG exports as a new element of American trade policy. When one looks at the 300 billion U.S. dollars of trade deficit with China, Trump’s efforts to see LNG exports as a means to balance America’s foreign trade does not appear to be a mere fantasy.

Developments in the energy sector all over the world also seem to encourage Trump to pursue such an aggressive trade policy. On the one hand, due to its domestic shortage, Australia is now considering to cut down on its LNG exports. Hence the potential for U.S. exports to China. 

In the U.K., British Gas’ parent company Centrica has recently announced that it will close its Rough natural gas storage facility, which increases the likelihood of U.K. gas imports in the winter months, too. Overall, there is a desire in the U.S. energy sector to become a more active actor in the global energy market by means of LNG exports.

The most important move, however, is the new development in the Persian Gulf. Qatar, although has declared that its LNG export commitments will not be affected by the Saudi sanctions, will inevitably be so in terms of making new contracts due to the unpredictability imposed by an unfolding crisis in the region. Trump’s personal involvement in the Qatar crisis, therefore, hints that the issue cannot be solely reduced down to combat against terrorism.

The U.S. policy to increase its energy exports with a view to balance its trade relations in the global market, coupled with the intention to expand the sanctions regime against Russia, appear to be the dynamics of the new Great Game. Inevitably, this policy will affect other aspects of global international relations as well. 

On the one hand, it will affect U.S.-Russia relations and will probably result in polarization, having implications in other areas such as the Middle East, but particularly in Syria. Recent incidents in the Syrian theatre, such as the American shooting of Syrian regime forces and the retaliatory attacks of the regime on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) seem to substantiate such a probability.

The unfolding crisis in Qatar is also increasing the differences of opinion between Turkey and the U.S. Turkey’s insistence on deploying troops in a naval base recently established in Qatar is a case on point. This is yet another example of Turkey’s loss of impartiality in its foreign policy conduct and will probably affect Turkey’s relations with the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Telephone conversations between Putin and Erdoğan do not fill in the expanding loneliness of Turkey.