Turkey Slams Russia for Syria Attacks, Warns Could Sever Energy Ties

A year ago, Russia and Turkey were preparing a "strategic partnership" cemented by energy. Now, after Russian military strikes in Syria and violations of Turkish airspace, the relationship is getting a whole lot chillier.


Russia’s military adventure in Syria seems to have angered most of the Sunni world, and reports of stray Russian missiles hitting Iran could well tick off the Shiite one, too. But Russian President Vladimir Putin’s armed support for Syria may also cause another casualty with even bigger long-term implications: an abrupt chill in Russian-Turkish relations.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, lashed out Thursday for the second time this week about Russian adventurism in his neighborhood, warning Moscow that such behavior could scupper multibillion-dollar energy deals between the two countries, including a burgeoning natural gas trade and a new nuclear power station.

“We can’t accept the current situation,” Erdogan told Turkish reporters on his way to Japan. Russia is using military force to back the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and is targeting anti-Assad rebels whom Turkey has backed. And Russian jets have violated the airspace of Turkey, a NATO member.

Such antics, Erdogan said, could drive Turkey to find other energy suppliers. “If necessary, Turkey can get its natural gas from many different places,” he said.

Russia’s lunge into the nearly five-year Syrian civil war has shaken Turkey’s leaders, who less than a year ago were clasping hands and proclaiming a “strategic partnership” with Moscow. The centerpiece of that partnership was a huge new natural gas pipeline that would cross the Black Sea, enter Turkey, and fuel both the local market and southern Europe. The accord was greased with billions of dollars in Russian financing for a long-planned nuclear plant in Turkey.

Yet Ankara has summoned Moscow’s ambassador three times in the past week to protest what Russia is doing in Syria, even as Erdogan is basking in public support from the very partners — NATO and the United States — he has spent his time in office spurning.

The big question now is whether Moscow’s mission in Syria — and Ankara’s unease with its increasing dependence on Russian energy supplies — will end up ultimately sundering what looked like a beautiful friendship.

“There could potentially be a silver lining. This is pushing Turkey more toward the West, and toward its NATO allies, which could be a good thing in the medium and long term in terms of the geopolitical situation,” said Emre Tuncalp, a senior advisor at Sidar Global Advisors, a risk consultancy.

That isn’t to say that a pair of wandering Russian jets have by themselves torpedoed the Turkish Stream pipeline or plans for the big nuclear plant. Both energy projects have been wobbly for quite a while. Doubts over the viability of the pipeline surfaced as soon as it was announced, since Russia has little money to finance it and it is hardly an appealing route for European gas consumers. Even before Erdogan’s scolding this week, Russian gas firm Gazprom abruptly announced it would cut the planned pipeline to half its size. The nuclear plant, meanwhile, had already faced years of delays.

And Erdogan’s outburst has at least as much to do with domestic politics as with international relations. Turkey will hold another parliamentary election at the beginning of November, since the July general election didn’t produce an outright majority. Faced with a military adventurism that threatens to upend his Syria policy, and buffeted by a growing chorus of voices at home warning about the perils of relying too much on Russia as an economic, trade, and energy partner, Erdogan had little choice but to take a hard rhetorical line with the Kremlin.

But Erdogan has a credibility gap. Despite his bluster, Turkey has little power to alter the energy relationship for now. Russia is Turkey’s biggest supplier, and there are few alternatives that could make up any shortfall if Ankara started shopping around, which leaves the fate of Turkish power plants and factories essentially in Russian hands. Additional volumes of gas from Azerbaijan and Iran would take years to bring online; importing gas from Iraq is a dicey proposition with the Islamic State still entrenched. The eastern Mediterranean Sea may hold plenty of gas, but that isn’t an option for Turkey right now. And the country has only two terminals to import liquefied gas from places like Algeria, Qatar, or the United States.

What’s more, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) was precisely the driving force behind Turkey’s cool relations with Washington and Brussels — and cozier links to countries like Russia. The rhetorical about-face seems designed to let Erdogan zig after years of zagging.

“At the end of the day, it seems like an empty threat, mainly for domestic consumption,” Tuncalp said.

Photo credit: FRANCOIS LENOIR/AFP/Getty

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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