Russian Violation of Turkish Airspace Threatens Current Energy Projects

Russia‘s relationship with Turkey has become stressed in recent days due to repeated violations of Turkish airspace by Russian military aircraft.  This incident has thrust into the bilateral relationship the fundamental disagreement that they have over the fate of Bashar Assad in Syria.  Whereas this disagreement had been sidelined over the past year in the interest of pursuing strategic economic and energy-related projects between the two countries, recent events have fractured this status quo.

Accordingly, in response to the recent air incursions by the Russian military, Turkish President Erdogan ‘‘‘ who has been facing unusual political headwinds domestically ‘‘‘ has responded with threats to several high-profile projects of importance to Moscow.  The specific initiatives mentioned are the Turk Stream natural gas pipeline and Rosatom‘s planned construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant.  Erdogan is quoted as saying, ‘‘‘If the Russians don‘t build the Akkuyu plant, another will come and build it.‘  He also reiterated that Russia is not the only source from which Turkey can import natural gas.

It would be difficult, however, for Turkey to transit away from Russian gas supplies anytime in the near future, as it would have to, for example, increase LNG purchases from Nigeria and Algeria to make up for the shortage.  The inclination to cancel Turk Stream would be a significant blow to Russia, if Erdogan‘s threats progress from political bluster to actual national policy.  Nuclear power generation is not an immediate need, as Turkey already generates a surplus of electricity.  Erdogan rightly believes that Turkey is not as vulnerable as Russia to the canceling of these projects should tensions between them continue.

Talks between Russia and Turkey on the signing of an intergovernmental agreement on Turk Stream have been on hold since September over the price of the Russian gas imports (and due to lingering uncertainty in Turkey‘s domestic political situation).  The project cannot continue until this agreement is signed.    Construction on the Akkuyu nuclear plant cannot begin until Turkey provides the necessary construction licenses.

It is likely that these threats will be taken seriously by Putin (and, in our view, have an impact), due to the importance that Russia has placed on Turkey in its broader, predatory energy strategy vis-‘‘-vis Europe.