The Regional Impact of Turkish – Russian Maneuvers in the Eastern Mediterranean

On September 2, 2020, Turkey announced two new naval warnings in the eastern Mediterranean for Russia to conduct live ammunition exercises in the gas exploration area, and the first date was set between September 8-2022 with the second between September 17-25 2020.

What is remarkable in these Russian drills is that they will take place near the areas in which France and Greece carried out joint military manoeuvres. The question is, will the eastern Mediterranean energy crisis lead to fresh political and military alliances?

In order to answer this question, it would be imperative to perceive that Turkey’s relationship with Russia is not based on an alliance as is the case between Turkey and America. The principle upon which Turkey has been proceeding, since she ended her collaboration with America and moved away from her total affiliation to the Western order, is preserving her strategic interests.

In order to achieve these supreme interests, she has the option of dealing with major power on a case by case basis. In Libya, she cooperates with America against Russia and France, irrespective of America’s long-term policies for Libya and North Africa, and in Syria, she cooperates with Russia regardless of the Russo-American understandings. Hence, Turkey carves her way in international politics on the basis of her interests rather than affiliation, and she is prepared to raise the stakes if she were to face a direct threat, especially in respect of her national security; but apart from this, she would either bow down, or manoeuvre, or conclude an understanding. 

  What ought to be remarked in the Eastern Mediterranean crisis is the intertwinement of the international interests, which in the first instance are crucial to Europe as they are directly linked to the European Union’s energy security strategy and to Europe’s attempt to impose a new reality through Greece, which would deprive Turkey of the gas bourse and prevent her from interfering with the EastMed pipeline which is believed to supply Europe with “Israeli” gas in the future.

Going back to the question, Russia has her own interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, not only due to her military presence in Syria, but also because of what America and Europe are concocting in terms of constructing gas pipelines for the Eastern Mediterranean towards Italy and Bulgaria to reduce Europe’s virtually total dependence on Russian gas. Europe needs to diversify her energy sources lest she should remain hostage to one single source. America, Europe and “Israel” are strongly backing this pipeline which, if achieved, would reduce dependence on Russian supply of energy to Europe, especially the South Caucasus and the TurkStream pipeline. However, Turkey objected to this pipeline because it passes through the “Blue Homeland” pursuant to the maritime agreement with Libya. Turkish vice-president Fuat Oktay expressed this objection conspicuously on 2 September by saying: “The Turkish-Libyan agreement is a red line and no one has the right to contest it, especially France.” This statement was a direct riposte to the “red lines” Emmanuel Macron allegedly set against Turkey in Eastern Mediterranean. Since Turkey has perceived this strategic Russian interest, and since she is eager to dismantle the Euro-American alliance against her in Eastern Mediterranean, she will very likely exploit Russia’s wishes and interests as a bargaining chip to achieve a strategic interest of her own. This is why Turkey has been instrumental in embroiling Russia in the crisis of Eastern Mediterranean to preserve her energy interests in the European market and in bringing Europe to the negotiating table, knowing that she holds a host of negotiating trump cards, in addition to her military might, the effectiveness of which was recently proven in the face of Greek jetfighters and French frigates.

It is known that America is attempting to prevent Russia from completing the construction of Nord Stream 2 under the pretext that it undermines Europe’s security. Donald Trump signed on 21 December 2019 a law that imposed sanctions on any company assisting Gazprom in completing the construction of that pipeline which was designed to increase Russian gas exports to Germany. And it is clear that America and Europe are working towards preventing Russia from continuing to export gas to Europe and substituting it with Eastern Mediterranean and American gas. If America succeeded in this undertaking, she would deal Russia a heavy geostrategic blow.

This is why it is in Russia’s interest to back the Turkish standpoint, not just in order to drive a wedge between NATO member states but also to defend her strategic interests in keeping Europe as one of the biggest importers of Russian gas, not to mention the impact this may have on European decision-making and on preventing Europe from complying blindly with American policies pertinent to Russia and her interests.

What is remarkable in these Russian drills in Eastern Mediterranean is that the announcement came via Turkey and not Russia. This denotes a strong message that Russia and Turkey wish to send: Turkey wants to stress her sovereignty over the areas in which the seismic survey is taking place and in which she allowed Russia to hold the live-fire naval drills, whereas Russia wants to implicitly express her recognition of Turkey’s sovereignty over those areas contrary to the Greek, European and American standpoint. The message also denotes that Turkey is not alone in the face of the European and American intransigent stances; and it seems that the message has been received loud and clear by the European leaders as per the statement of the Russian foreign ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, who described as “provocative” what some Western media outlets published about Turkey’s hostile behaviour in Eastern Mediterranean due to Russia’s support to Ankara. She added that Russia called for settling disputed issues between states via political dialogue, building confidence and seeking the solutions suitable to all stakeholders on the basis of international law.

Finally, Turkey could be simply maneuvering by luring Russia into the struggle in Eastern Mediterranean, now that America has lifted the arms embargo on Cyprus, but not to establish an alliance with her against America, but to avoid making concessions to Russia in Libya and Syria; and in this way, she would be doing Russia and America a favor and blackmailing Europe. Russia’s presence in the crisis accentuates the need for NATO which is about to be undermined due to the Franco-Greek rift with Turkey. And inasmuch as the European need for NATO increases, the rift within the Alliance does undermine it to the advantage of Russia who would be able to conclude further understandings with Turkey.