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Istanbul straddles the
Historically, U.S.-Turkish relations have been strong.
Throughout the Cold War, Turkey was a staunch member of the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization (NATO). Along with Norway, it was the only NATO
country to border the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union's collapse
fundamentally altered Turkey's geopolitical position. To the east, Turkey
found itself a neighbor to three new countries: Azerbaijan (through the
Nakhchivan enclave), Armenia, and Georgia. The Warsaw Pact's demise made
neighboring Bulgaria a promising new market. And the Black Sea, once the
proving ground of the Turkish and Soviet navies, suddenly became a much
friendlier place. It was not long before Turkish businessmen began
exploring new economic opportunities.
Analysts and politicians have explained the rapprochment as
"ever closer cooperation and [a] multidimensional partnership." At the same time, many U.S. analysts
and officials worry that Ankara's warming ties with Moscow signal a
decline in the U.S.-Turkish alliance. It need not be like this, however; rather, the
growing Turkish-Russian relationship is based on the economic interests of
In many ways, the private sector has driven Turkish-Russian
rapprochement. In 1990, Turkish-Soviet trade was $1.7 billion. A decade later, it was $4.5 billion.
By 2007, bilateral trade between Turkey and Russia reached a record $28
billion, albeit with an $18.6 billion Turkish trade deficit. In the first
nine months of 2008, bilateral trade had already reached $30 billion with
a total trade volume expected to reach $36 billion for the year. Whereas
Germany was Turkey's number one trading partner up to 2007, today Russia
has taken its place. Indeed, Turkish-Russian trade is now, by volume,
almost three times that of U.S.-Turkish trade.
In 2002, both countries completed the 16 billion cubic
meter/day capacity Blue Stream pipeline, running from the Beregovaya
compressor station in Arkhipo-Osipovka to the Durusu terminal located 38
miles from Samsun, Turkey. Gas flow from Russia to Turkey started in
February 2003. However, because of a price dispute between the two
countries, the inauguration ceremony could not be held until November 17,
Energy cooperation—both gas and oil—forms the basis of
Russo-Turkish economic relations. Gas is Turkey's major import. In 2007,
Turkey imported 23.15 billion cubic meters of natural gas through both
western and Blue Stream pipelines, up 18 percent from the year before.
Turkey, as the third largest importer of Russian gas after Germany and
Italy, depends on Russia for almost two-thirds of its gas imports. If Turkey cannot tap other major
supplies from Azerbaijan, Iraq, and Turkmenistan by the early 2010s, then
the Russian share of Turkey's gas supply will increase to 80 percent of
In addition, Turkey imports approximately six million
barrels of oil (seven million tons) annually from Russia, 30 percent of
Turkey's total oil import and second only to that purchased from Iran.
Turkey is also the third largest importer of Russian coal following
Ukraine and Great Britain, spending $710 million in 2007.
It is not just geography and energy that make Russia such an
attractive trading partner for Turkey. Even though Russia's population is
twice that of Turkey's, if the energy sector's contribution is subtracted,
the Russian economy is smaller. Flush with cash from the still
underdeveloped oil boom, Russia provides Turkish industry with ample
opportunity. Turkish contractors have engaged in projects worth close to
$28 billion; $5 billion in 2007 alone. In addition, Turkish direct investments in Russia
reached $6 billion by the end of 2007.
Tourism has also helped cement relations. In 2007, 2.5
million Russian tourists visited Turkey, almost four times the number of
American visitors. In only the first
six months of 2008, Turkey welcomed two million Russians. Both Ankara and
Moscow encourage this trend, which is unprecedented in the history of the
two countries. According to the memorandum of understanding signed in 2006
between the Turkish Ministry of Culture and the Russian
Federation's Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography, Ankara
named 2007 the year of Russian culture in Turkey. Moscow reciprocated and
declared 2008 the year of Turkish culture in Russia. On October 20, 2008,
the Red Army Chorus and the Ottoman Army Military band (Mehter) gave a
joint concert in the Kremlin. Such a
concert may seem a side note to a U.S. audience, but for both Turks and
Russians, it had immense symbolic meaning, given that the Russian and
Ottoman armies had clashed eleven times in major battles in the course of
history. Few Turks ever expected a "Janissary" soldier to sing "Kalinka"
in the Kremlin Palace.
The leaders of both Turkey and Russia have encouraged
further bilateral developments. On December 5-6, 2004, Russian president
Vladimir Putin paid his first bilateral visit to Turkey, the first by a
Russian head of state since 1972 when Nikolai Podgorny, the chairman of
the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, paid a symbolic visit to
the country. Putting aside Podgorny's visit, Putin's was the first state
visit by a Russian head of state since the beginning of official
diplomatic relations 512 years before. During the visit, Putin and Turkish
president Ahmet Necdet Sezer signed a joint declaration of cooperation
which characterized bilateral relations as a "multilateral strengthened
partnership." The following year,
Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Russia three times,
and Putin returned to Turkey to mark the opening of the Blue Stream
pipeline. On June 28-30, 2006, Sezer became the first Turkish president to
visit Russia, and his successor,
Abdullah Gül was scheduled to visit Moscow in January 2009. In contrast,
during this period, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited
Turkey only twice (February 5-6, 2005, and April 25, 2006) and National
Security Adviser Stephen Hadley just once.
Nor are the Russo-Turkish visits just symbolic. In follow-up
agreements to the Turkish-Russian partnership, the foreign ministries of
both countries established a bilateral consultation mechanism to cover
twelve different subjects in February 2006. The commission held meetings
in November 2006 and June 2008.
In contrast, the United States and Turkey do not enjoy such a
comprehensive, regular mechanism for meetings or developing relations.
Instead, because of the difference of opinion over the invasion of Iraq,
they started in July 2006 to have irregular "Shared Vision and Strategic
Dialogue" meetings. Although it is one of the key strategic partnership
topics for Ankara and Washington, the parties were able to establish a
working group on energy issues only in the summer of 2008.
Turkey's Energy Strategy
Turkey's energy strategy has three main pillars. The first
is to ensure diversified, reliable, and cost-effective supplies for
domestic consumption; the second is to liberalize its energy market; and
the third is to become a key transit country and energy hub. Three
quarters of the world's proven oil and gas resources are located in
regions neighboring Turkey, and there is an increasing dependence on
Russian, Caspian, and Middle Eastern oil and natural gas by Europe, the
United States, and developing East Asian countries.
Approximately 3.7 percent of the world's daily oil
consumption transits the Turkish Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. While
this is currently only one-fifth of the traffic that passes through the
Strait of Hormuz, it still represents a 240 percent increase in traffic
over the last decade. Two-thirds
of these tankers carry Russian oil and gas exports; most of the bulk cargo
trade is also Russian.
This creates a problem for Turkey, however. Istanbul, its
largest city, straddles the Bosporus with a population of thirteen
million. The 19-mile-long Bosporus has a convoluted morphological
structure that requires ships to change course at least twelve times,
including four separate bends that require turns greater than 45 degrees.
At Kandilli, a blind 45-degree bend complicates navigation where the
channel narrows to less than half a mile. At both Kandilli and Yenikoy,
forward and rear lines of sight are blocked during turns. Moreover, two
bridges built in 1973 and 1988 spanning the channel increase the
navigational threats. Approximately 1.5 million people cross the waterway
daily on intercity ferries and shuttle boats, accounting for about 1,000
east-west crossings. No other
city in the world is exposed to the transit of such volatile cargo every
Planning for an accident in the congested shipping passage
is every Istanbul waterway official's nightmare. All Turkish officials
remember the conflagration that followed a collision between two Cypriot
tankers at the Black Sea entrance to the Bosporus on March 13, 1994. The
accident killed twenty-nine crewmen, polluted the waterway with nineteen
million gallons of crude oil, shut the channel for a week, and caused $1
billion in damage. Today, ships
four times as large as those involved in the accident ply the waterway.
Turkey has been lucky that there have been no more major accidents. Still,
between 2004 and 2007 alone, there were 103 minor accidents in the
Bosporus strait. Over the same period, 651 tankers experienced technical
breakdowns or malfunctions in the passage. Shipping is no longer a
sustainable way of carrying hydrocarbons through the Bosporus.
Russian energy companies understand the gravity of the
situation, and even as Moscow demands fulfillment of the 1936 Montreaux
Convention's guarantee of "free and uninterrupted passage" through the
Turkish straits, Russian officials and energy companies are aware that
current traffic through the Bosporus is unsustainable. The solution lies
in the use of alternative oil export options that bypass the straits.
The Blue Stream natural gas pipeline is one of the main
components of a north-south axis alternative transport strategy. In 2007,
Turkey imported 9.3 billion cubic meters of Russian gas through Blue
Stream; the figure for 2008 is likely to be 25 percent higher. The Turkish
Ministry of Natural Resources and Energy regards the implementation of gas
transit projects through Turkey to third markets as possible new projects
to strengthen Turkish-Russian energy cooperation.
Turkey also has begun work on other pipeline bypass options.
While the Trans-Thrace pipeline has been cancelled because of
environmental concerns, the Samsun-Ceyhan project (also called the
Trans-Anatolian pipeline) broke ground at Ceyhan on April 24, 2007, in a
joint venture between Turkey's Çalık Energy, Italy's Eni, and the Indian
Oil Corporation (IOC); it is expected to have a capacity of 60 million
barrels annually (70 million tons). Ceyhan provides distinct advantages
for its existing infrastructure and linkages to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan
pipeline. Originally meant to terminate at Samsun, its directors
calculated that Unye, a small town in eastern Samsun province, would allow
larger offshore facilities while reducing the total length by sixty miles.
The proximity of Unye-Samsun to the oil outlets of Novorossiysk, Supsa,
and Batum on the eastern Black Sea minimizes seaborne transportation of
oil in the Black Sea.
While environmental concerns have also caused Turkish
officials to oppose plans for an oil terminal in the Aegean Sea, there has
been preliminary progress on the potential Medstream project, which
envisions a network of pipelines to supply oil, natural gas, electricity,
and water, possibly along with a fiber optic line from Turkey to Israel by
connecting the Blue Stream and Samsun-Ceyhan pipelines to Israel's
Ashkelon-Eilat pipeline. Feasibility studies have been positive, and
Israeli demand would enable Russia's state oil company, Gazprom, to fill
the Blue Stream pipeline although progress has stalled as Moscow and
Jerusalem have yet to agree on a contractor to lay the pipeline from
Ceyhan to Ashkelon.
Turkey's Energy Relations with Iran
Despite frequent Iranian declarations of contracts and
partnerships, since 2001 Turkey has been the only significant importer of
Iranian gas. Turkey signed the Iran contract in 1996, during the short
tenure of the Refah Party, whose leader Necmettin Erbakan's Islamist
leanings later led to public pressure for his resignation. While the
Islamic Republic is Turkey's second largest gas supplier after Russia,
Ankara's dealings with Tehran have not been easy. Iran often demands
prices higher than those of alternative suppliers, and gas quality and
quantity often fall below the terms agreed. Even after renegotiation, Iran
currently supplies Turkey with a little over half of its contracted 9.6
billion cubic meters of natural gas a year (6.16 billion cubic meters in
2007). In both January 2007 and
January 2008, Tehran slashed gas exports to Turkey in the face of high
Iranian domestic demand.
Turks certainly do not always consider Iran a reliable
partner. Ankara and Tehran have also come to loggerheads over Iran's
failure to respect commercial contracts. On May 8, 2004, the Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps forced the expulsion of the Turkish construction
consortium TAV from Tehran's flagship Imam Khomeini International Airport
despite a 15-year service contract. That same year, the Iranian government
also cancelled Turkcell's successful bid to enter the Iranian cell phone
Still, under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)
chairman and prime minister Erdoğan's administration, there has been a
renewed drive for energy partnership with the Islamic Republic. On July
14, 2007, Iranian oil minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh and his Turkish
counterpart, Hilmi Güler, signed a memorandum of understanding by which
the two sides agreed to build 2,200 miles of gas pipelines to transport up
to forty billion cubic meters of gas annually to Europe through Turkey.
They also agreed to increase cooperation in electricity generation and to
construct natural gas power stations. This would allow the Turkish state
oil company, Türkiye Petrolleri Anonim Ortaklığı, to develop successive
phases of the South Pars gas field, a $3.5 billion undertaking. But one year later, the energy
accords remained formally unconcluded.
Turkish-Iranian energy cooperation has angered Washington
because it undercuts White House efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic
over its defiance of three U.N. Security Council sanctions seeking
suspension of uranium enrichment.
Reuben Jeffery III, undersecretary of state for economic affairs, urged
Turkish officials to bypass Iran and develop alternatives in the Caucasus
and Central Asia. U.S. energy secretary Samuel Bodman and undersecretary
of state Nicholas Burns have traveled to Ankara to underscore U.S.
displeasure. Burns even alluded to possible application of the Iran
Sanctions Act which would enable the U.S. government to sanction any
company investing more than $20 million in the Iranian hydrocarbon
Erdoğan, however, has shrugged off Washington's displeasure
and said Turkey seeks diversified energy supplies. It would be "out of the
question to stop imports from either country [Russia or Iran]," Erdoğan said following the Georgian
war, especially as Turkey's energy needs grow by almost 6 percent per
Geopolitical Reality Check
The August 8, 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia has
complicated Turkish strategy. Immediately after the invasion, Anatoly
Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of Russia's General Staff, warned Ankara that
Moscow would hold Turkey responsible for allowing U.S. navy ships through
the Turkish straits to provide humanitarian assistance to Georgia should
U.S. ships remain in the Black Sea for more than three weeks, as
stipulated by the Montreaux Convention.
According to some analysts, in apparent retaliation for
allowing the U.S. ships passage, Russia has imposed new import controls on
trucks at Russian border points. Russian foreign affairs minister Sergei
Lavrov's September 2, 2008 visit to Turkey failed to resolve the dispute
although he denied any connection with the U.S. ships' passage to the
Black Sea. Some Turkish trade
officials say—depending upon the timing of final resolution of the
problem—Turkey may lose roughly $3 billion because of these new Russian
Turkey's leaders are treading carefully around the Georgia
crisis. Although Turkey has called for Georgia's territorial integrity to
be respected, it has refrained from embracing the stronger rhetoric coming
out of Washington and Brussels. An explosion on the Turkish portion of the
Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline three days before the Russia-Georgia conflict
highlighted Turkish vulnerability, even if it were caused by technical
Prime Minister Erdoğan walked a very tight rope, explaining
to the Turkish daily Milliyet, "It would not be right for Turkey to
be pushed toward any side. Certain circles want to push Turkey into a
corner either with the United States or Russia after the Georgian
incident. One of the sides is our closest ally, the United States. The
other side is Russia with which we have an important trade volume. We
would act in line with what Turkey's national interests require." Prime Minister Erdoğan's top
foreign policy advisor Ahmet Davutoğlu explained, "You can't say that
Turkish-Russian relations can be like Danish-Russian relations, or
Norwegian-Russian relations, or Canada-Russian [sic] relations. ...
Any other European country can follow certain isolationist policies
against Russia. Can Turkey do this? I ask you to understand the
geographical conditions of Turkey... We don't want to pay the bill of
strategic mistakes or miscalculation by Russia, or by Georgia."
As some analysts at Stratfor Intelligence Service put it,
however, "Moscow got its point across: Europe can sink its money into
projects designed to leave Russia in the cold [mainly east-west energy
corridor projects like Baku-Tbilisi- Ceyhan, Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum, and
Nabucco], but the Russians still have the will and capacity to disrupt
many of these projects."
The Georgian crisis has shattered many of the assumptions in
both the East and West about how oil and gas from the Caspian Basin can
best be transported to international markets and, as a result, about the
relations between producing and transit countries on the one hand and
those two categories and the rest of the world on the other.
Both Caspian Basin oil and gas producers and Western powers
have wanted oil and gas export pipelines from that region to bypass Russia
but, at the same time, have ruled out Iran as an alternative. Following
the successful completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Erzurum pipelines
and the first leg of the Turkey-Greece-Italy gas interconnector, the
U.S.-Turkish "east-west energy corridor" concept envisions extending these
pipelines east to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan via the Trans-Caspian
pipeline and west to Europe via the Nabucco pipeline between Turkey and
Austria. This would, for the first time, allow the European Union to buy
Caspian gas without a Russian intermediary.
Given the continued standoff between Azerbaijan and Armenia
over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, that leaves only one route available:
the current BTC pipeline route through Georgia. Georgian and Russian
actions there have called into question the security of this pipeline.
According to analyst Soner Cagaptay, "It is hard to imagine today how any
energy company would invest in extensions to the East-West corridor, along
which Georgia has become the weak link."  With its actions in Georgia, Russia has sent a
strong message to "the U.S.-Turkish plans to boost the East-West corridor
and make Turkey an entrepôt of Caspian energy. Moscow has also
preemptively blocked the EU's plans to buy energy from the Caspian Basin
without having to go through Russia." 
As a result, some Caspian Basin states are now considering
exporting their hydrocarbons via Russia even if that gives Moscow leverage
over them, while some Western
countries that want to punish Russia are discussing allowing exports via
Iran; still others are pushing to
resolve the Karabakh crisis in order to allow the export of oil and gas
No matter what solutions major powers pursue, the mere
discussion of alternative energy strategies suggests old allies may come
into conflict while old enemies may begin to cooperate. Perhaps the first
major shift will be in Turkish-Armenian relations. On September 6, 2008,
at the invitation of Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan, Turkey's president
Abdullah Gül visited Armenia—a country with which Turkey does not have
diplomatic relations—to watch the 2010 World Cup qualifier soccer match
between their national teams.
A second outgrowth of the Georgian crisis has been plans to
create a "Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform" to include Armenia,
Azerbaijan, and Georgia as well as Turkey and Russia. In principle, each country has agreed to support
Energy dominates Turkish strategic thinking. While the
United States enjoys a relatively peaceful neighborhood, Turkey exists in
a tough and complicated region. As Turkey continues to industrialize and
develop into a regional hub, its thirst for oil will only increase. This
requires not only diversification but also good relations with all its
neighbors, in addition to and not to the exclusion of its traditional
partnerships. Turkey simply does not have the luxury to remain aloof from
its neighbors, even if they are Russia and Iran.
Still, the Russian invasion of Georgia underlines the
uncertainty that marks Turkey's diplomatic realignment. The future of
Turkish-Russian energy relations and the north-south corridor depend
largely on Moscow's vision of energy security for Europe and the world.
Russian officials often point out that during the Cold War, they did not
stop supplying oil to the West. While that is correct, it is equally true
that the reputation of the Russian Federation as a consistent and
trustworthy energy supplier is questionable. Moscow's use of energy as a
trump card against Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the
Czech Republic raised eyebrows. Even if Russian decision-makers perceive
energy as not only an economic but also a political matter, energy
bottlenecks due to political risks are always a possibility—a situation that will increase the
legitimacy of energy policies aimed at creating alternative supply
This should make Turkey's long-term energy development
important to the United States and Europe even if Washington remains upset
at the short-term implications of Ankara's dealings with Tehran.
Diversification of new energy supply routes remains crucial not only to
Turkey's development but also for the West's energy security.
Tuncay Babalı, Ph.D., is counselor at the embassy
of the Republic of Turkey in Washington D.C. The views expressed in this
article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the
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