The continuing game in the geopolitics of energy

With last week’s announcement that a somewhat substantial deposit of natural gas has been discovered in the Black Sea off the Turkish coast, Turkey formally enters the energy resource game. It has, of course, pursued its dream of energy independence for a long time but with the ongoing struggle with Greece and Cyprus over energy reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean and now these reported reserves in the Black Sea, Turkey’s dream of weaning itself off its reliance on its neighbors for its energy needs feels tantalizingly close. But the geopolitics of energy is a wicked game to play. What are some of the risks Turkey faces as it enters the high stakes world of energy?

Adnan R. Khan: Why is energy independence so important to Turkey?

Ilter Turan: Energy independence and, more broadly, independence in international politics are closely related phenomena. Turkey expends a considerable amount of money on importing energy from other countries, much of it in the form of natural gas. Urbanization has necessitated cleaner forms of energy production, for heating, cooking, etc. Turkey is a growing economy, so in the future, the demand for energy will go up rather than down. Also, its population is expanding which will create additional energy needs. Like any advanced nation, it makes sense for Turkey to be seeking out energy.

But it is important to keep in mind that the competition is not only about energy. The maritime areas where these energy resources exist are also areas that are relevant for a number of other economic and strategic reasons. So, energy independence is also mixed up with broader strategic considerations of how Turkey can act more independently within the international system. In the Eastern Mediterranean, for instance, the tensions between Turkey and Greece may be based on energy but behind that is the drawing of the boundaries of exclusive economic zones. We don’t know what sort of other potential benefits countries will derive from these zones in the future and also what kind of strategic benefits these boundaries may bestow on those who claim them.

Adnan R. Khan: Some commentators in Turkey argue that this is really about the EU making sure that Turkey remains a junior partner in the region, that some nations might even fear its rise if it does acquire a more independent posture. What do you make of that argument?

Ilter Turan: There are some members of the EU that find the rise of Turkey problematic. Obviously, Greece is one example. And France, which has had great difficulty adjusting to the reality that it is just an average nation now and no longer an imperial power is another almost pathological case. Much of the rest of the EU, however, thinks it is important to have good relations with Turkey. Those members do not want relations to be irreparably damaged by a conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean into which they are drawn by Greece. Many of the EU members have been forced to play a double game, encouraging Greece and Turkey to settle their differences through negotiations, while engaging in simultaneous symbolic acts of solidarity with Greece because otherwise the legend of EU unity would be undermined.

Adnan R. Khan: So, energy is one piece in a bigger geopolitical chess match. Does this gas discovery in the Black Sea change the game?

Ilter Turan: In some ways yes, in some ways no. In other words, it’s not a game changer if we simply look at the currently estimated reserves. The figure – 320 billion cubic meters – is speculative, but probably a reasonably accurate estimate. At current levels of consumption that will not go very far. There is reason to think, however, that there may be other areas where gas will be found. More importantly, the discovery demonstrates that Turkey has increased its research and exploration capabilities. Those capabilities give Turkey the power to discover new reserves. In that sense, it may mark the beginning of changing the game.

Adnan R. Khan: So, Turkey is becoming a player in the energy game, which can be a dangerous game to play.

Ilter Turan: Indeed. What worries me is that this competition for the demarcation of exclusive economic zones, driven by hopes of finding natural gas, is bringing with it the rather dangerous game of brinkmanship between Greece and Turkey. Games of brinkmanship are sometimes employed to get results, but at the same time they are dangerous because any mistakes might lead to a conflagration that ensues in escalation where domestic needs of both sides may add fuel to the fire.

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