What Will Happen If Energy Disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea More Political than Economic in Nature ?

By Chris Deliso

November 19, 2020

Although regional states have for decades been locked in competition over the region’s largely offshore untapped energy resources, a good question remains regarding the extent to which resource competition is more of an economic or political issue.

Map by Euractuv

My own exhaustive research, interviews with industry experts and comments from officials has informed the consideration that as of 2020, disputes over fossil fuels deposits are being primarily generated to support territorial claims, and build up support from interested international parties (such as governments and energy corporations) to support these rival claims.

This is occurring at a time when Turkey is asserting its Mavi Vatan or ‘Blue Homeland’ maritime doctrine, while Greece seeks to expand its sea borders from 6 to 12 nautical miles, and while Cyprus attempts to assert the inviolability of its proclaimed maritime EEZ against Turkish hostile drillship activity.

At the same time, in summer 2020 Turkey also began seismic research in contested areas of Greek water claimed by Ankara under an otherwise unrecognized maritime border agreement it inked with the Tripoli-based GNA regime in Libya. In response, Greece achieved maritime border deals with Italy and Egypt, and agreed to go to Hague arbitration to resolve a maritime border dispute with Albania. Greece has historically criticized Turkey’s non-recognition of international maritime law and Ankara’s disinterest in international arbitration.

In this context, the 17 October 2020 announcement that Turkey had discovered hydrocarbons in the Black Sea, near the borders of Romanian and Bulgarian waters added an intriguing new element to the energy competition. President Erdoğan presented the find as complementary to the ongoing disputed explorations in Cypriot and Greek waters, and added that it could enhance the state’s capacity to develop its own energy sector and infrastructure. As with the other finds to be discussed, whether or not anything ever materializes (in terms of formal pipeline construction) is less important than the political implication that Turkey believes it has Black Sea energy potential, and can use this to offset its potential relationships, gains and losses in Aegean and Mediterranean fields.

ENERGY EXPLORATION EVENTS AS TRIGGERS FOR CONFLICT AND POLICIES ON MARITIME BORDERS

Even though commentators often conflate the concept of Neo-Ottomanism with the ideas and rule of President Erdoğan in Turkey, the pre-2003 Kemalist system was predicated on a similar vision. The difference was simply in the type of action or perceived provocation that would be required to incur a reaction from the military-led authorities in Ankara.

Energy was one such case. In 1973, following the announced discovery of oil off of Thasos – an island well to the west of Turkey – the Turkish government enacted a policy of ‘gray zones’ in the Eastern Mediterranean, which intended to thwart Greek maritime energy exploration on its own territory as a matter of course. This occurred at a time of pivotal tension between two governments that had arisen following respective military coups; unsurprisingly, the ultimate result of the energy dispute came in a peripheral manner with the Turkish invasion of Cyprus the following July.

The sentiment that energy resource competition is intrinsically linked to conflict remains today. Turkey views itself as unfairly restricted within the ‘Gulf of Antalya’ by Greek maritime claims, while Greek officials in 2020 questioned why Turkish energy research vessels were named after ‘conquerors and pirates’ rather than scientists or explorers. There is definitely an element of optics at work, in that all utilization of such vessels is inevitably featured in domestic and international media and conveys implicit meaning about the former Ottoman zone of control.

ISRAEL’S KEY POSITION, ROLE AND ALLIANCE STRUCTURES

The geographic location of major oil and gas deposits such as the Leviathan field in the maritime triangle between Israel, Cyprus and Egypt became critical in reshaping geopolitical alliances after work intensified in the energy industry around 2010 (as we reported at the time).

The possibility that Israel could for the first time possibly become a major energy player, and even the source of a new pipeline route to Southeastern Europe that could at the same time decrease Russian control over energy exports to the Continent, remade historic alliances.

This was exacerbated by the AKP government’s increasingly pro-Islamist stance and high-profile incidents such as the May 2010 Mavi Marmaris incident that brought Turkish-Israeli relations to an all-time-low. Thus, whereas in the prior Kemalist military-secular system Turkey had often been a preferred ally for Israel over Greek governments that were themselves often friendly to Israeli’ Arab enemies, the new reality provided an opportunity for rapprochement between Greece and Israel.

This reached its culmination in late 2019 and into 2020, when a US and EU-backed EastMed pipeline plan from Israel to Europe via Cyprus and Greece (including Egyptian cooperation) was signed.

At the same time, Turkey heading into 2020 was taking steps to improve its own diplomatic relations with Israel, and pushing the concept of an Israel-Turkey alternate pipeline. While the reality of volatile territories in between the two makes this somewhat tentative, the Turks have argued that it would be far cheaper than the alternate sea route. Of course, it would also give them all of the geostrategic leverage over their Greek and Cypriot rivals.

Since experts in the energy field believe the depth of resources, cost of extraction compared to expected market rates, and trends in terms of alternate energy options may make the whole project unfeasible, it is thus clear from the research (and reading between the lines of different diplomatic statements) that the ultimate ‘prize’ of an energy alliance with Israel is all of the other benefits that come with it. Turkey has not changed its Islamist course, but remains pragmatic enough to recognize Israel as a regional superpower, and knows that improving its relations with both Washington and Moscow can be achieved in certain respects through closer ties of any kind. Energy is one such relationship, and whether or not the stated projects ever materialize is less relevant than is the idea of being visible in the game and not conceding defeat to the other side. That is the approach both Greek and Turkish leaders are taking.

CONCLUSIONS

In additions to offshore hydrocarbons fields, the regional rivalry over energy is likely to become increasingly territorial as EU and UN-mandated renewable energy sources will both compete with and complement the established sources. And it will also require more access to territorial (including maritime territory) for things like wind farms and hydropower.

Thus, in all respects regional states (and the alliance structures they create and expand) will likely tend to manifest energy projects (especially in the political and media spotlight), even when they are not likely or credible, if they can in some way remain as sort of placeholders for national and territorial interests.

 Therefore, analysts would do well to consider the general hypothetical question of what elements will become most significant, should energy disputes in the region in fact be more politically than economic driven.

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