Russia may not politicize energy against Turkey

Russia may not politicize energy against Turkey

Serhan Ünal
Despite the downing of a Russian warplane by Turkey, Russia may not choose politicizing its energy card against Turkey. In the long run, it is wiser for Russia to resort to non-energy economic sanctions.

When Turkish air forces shot down a Russian Su-24 warplane on Nov. 24, the global agenda focused on possible retaliations with Russia. One of the main issues is Turkey’s dangerous dependence on Russian gas. Currently, the share of Russian gas in Turkey is around 55 percent, which amounts to 11 percent of Turkey’s primary energy consumption. Moreover, Turkey generates 50 percent of its electricity from Russian gas. At first glance, it seems Russia can use its energy card for a quick victory; yet, it can only be a self-defeating “Pyrrhic victory” in the long run. Maintaining its quick victory seems unlikely for three main reasons: Russia’s need to export its gas, the cost of Russian gas and Turkey’s diversification capabilities.

Firstly, Russia’s gas export strategy is a dualistic one. Russia, on one hand, politicizes energy against weaker or former Soviet countries, but, on the other hand, avoids it against more powerful importers. Russia, by depoliticizing energy against powerful major importers like Germany, stabilizes its economy, strengthens its financial arm and divides a possible anti-Russian solidarity front by appeasing major regional powers, as it did for Nord Stream. Depoliticising energy provides Russia with required means for selectively politicising energy in its near abroad.

Here the problem for Russia is that Turkey is neither a “sick man” nor a politically-torn Ukraine. To sell its gas to Turkey, which is expected to import 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas from Russia, Moscow must avoid politicization of energy as much as possible. Without Turkey in this region, who will buy this huge amount of gas and who will pay this money to Russia which has already been under economic pressure due to sanctions?

Secondly, Turkey’s high dependency on Russia is just a function of the political and economic costs of Russian gas, rather than a compulsion. In terms of economic costs, although Russian gas is expensive and has the second highest price Turkey pays after Iranian gas, the Turkish side tolerates it more or less. In terms of political costs, Moscow has consciously avoided exploiting its energy card directly for political purposes in its relations with Turkey. In other words, there has not been any politically vital cost for Turkey until now. Therefore, Turkey has maintained its position about Russian gas since it has been economically affordable and politically bearable for Turkey so far.

If Russia changes this equation by creating new political costs for Turkey, it may no longer be politically bearable. Turkey, with a new cost-benefit analysis, may choose other options which would become politically competitive to Russian gas in the new state of affairs. Energy supply security concerns may overwhelm other political-economic concerns. If Russia makes Turkey pay too high political costs, perhaps even eastern Mediterranean and Iraqi supplies can become politically feasible, or Ankara can begin supporting the southern gas corridor much more actively. These have the potential to be a real game changer for both the Turkish and European energy markets in the long run, to the detriment of Russia.

Lastly, although Turkey is highly dependent on Russia in the short-term, it still has considerable diversification capabilities in the medium-term. This is why an energy-based quick victory is destined to turn into a self-defeating Pyrrhic victory for Russia. Despite Turkey’s two-week gas storage, Russia has the ability to use its energy card suddenly and swiftly by combining its own moves with a comprehensive means of timely “coincidences,” like the mysterious cyber-attack on the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline in 2008. A possible Russian gas cutoff, this time, may coincide with a mysterious cyber (or terrorist) attack on the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline as a way to freeze Turkey during the bitter winter.

However, among medium-term diversification capabilities, Turkey has the Trans-Anatolia (TANAP) and Iraq-Turkey gas pipelines. Moreover, Turkey, by expanding and extending the existing domestic pipelines, can prepare infrastructure to allow the private sector to construct some medium-sized floating liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals on the Mediterranean shore as a first step to restructure the natural gas market, or by ignoring all costs for the sake of energy security. Besides, Turkey can construct new electricity interconnection lines with its eastern and western neighbors to compensate some portion of its gas import with electricity.

Consequently, maintaining energy relations with Turkey is much better for Russia to sustain its “reliable supplier” image in the eyes of major importers like the EU and Turkey in the long run. If Russia politicises energy against Turkey, it will lose a serious economic source to ameliorate the economic consequences of its geopolitical ambitions in its near abroad. Besides, if Russian gas becomes politically too costly, this may urge Turkey to seek fundamental solutions at all costs by decreasing its dependence upon Russia. Moreover, Turkey has the necessary capabilities to achieve this in the medium-term, so time is on Turkey’s side. Therefore, despite some continuing risks of minor cutoffs, Russia may not use its energy card against Turkey extensively. On the other hand, serious delays in joint projects such as Akkuyu and the Turkish Stream are likely to occur.

Still, one critical question goes unanswered: Is Turkey’s position sustainable? Can Turkey shoot a second Russian warplane, even if Russia violates Turkish airspace again?

*Serhan Ünal is a senior researcher in Turkish Energy Foundation (TENVA).