The TurkStream gas pipeline will transport natural gas from Russia into Turkey by the end of 2019, through its first line, and onward from Turkey into Southern and Southeastern Europe, through an expected second leg. However, it remains unclear whether the European connection will be completed through Bulgaria or via Greece – an objective that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has set out to achieve, following his official visit to Moscow in December. Each of TurkStream’s two pipelines will be 939 kilometers long, with the first pipeline – connecting Russia and Turkey via the Black Sea – having entered its final stage, according to the announcement made by Russia’s Gazprom in November last year. With expectations set for the first leg of TurkStream to meet up to 35 per cent of Turkey’s natural gas consumption; upon completion, each pipeline will have a capacity of 15.75 billion cubic meters (bcm) per annum.
TurkStream was initially envisioned as part of the now-shuttered South Stream project, which was meant to transport natural gas from Russia into Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary, via the Black Sea. However, the project was met with controversy due to its alleged non-compliance with EU legislation, especially with respect to the Third Energy Package – legislation concerning the European gas and electricity market – according to which, companies must separate sales operations from transmission networks. Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom’s reluctance to comply in this regard, along with European sanctions that followed the 2014 Crimean crisis, resulted in Russia cancelling the South Stream project in December 2014. The TurkStream pipeline is something of its inheritor, and Greece is keen on becoming the gateway for its natural gas into Europe.
With Tsipras having initiated negotiations with the European Union on the matter, Greece is determined to make it work, and hopes to rely on its traditionally warm ties with the Russian Federation to see it through. The Greek Prime Minister met with Russian premier, Vladimir Putin, in December, to discuss matters relating to energy, investment, and increased exports to Russia. Tsipras took the opportunity to stress that Russia cannot be left out of the EU’s security architecture, in what was seen as an attempt to boost ties between the EU and Russia, particularly within the scope of the energy sector.
In an interview with state news channel Russia-24, and news agency TASS, Tsipras described his hopes for a future energy partnership with Russia, saying that “Greece and other European countries should seek a cooperation with the Russian Republic for the transfer of Russian natural gas toward Europe, via Turkish Stream,” also proposing that the pipeline be named Europe Stream.
“We are negotiating [it] in the European Union,” Tsipras was quoted as saying by TASS. “I believe that our arguments are strong. We have persistence and patience, and I believe that possibly we will have positive results in the future.”
Greece’s Alternate Minister for Foreign Affairs, George Katrougkalos, said in an interview with the Greek newspaper Ta Nea, that during this meeting between Tsipras and Putin, “important interstate agreements were signed, and assistance was provided, with cooperation between Greek and Russian companies in the agriculture, shipbuilding and other sectors, that are crucial for Greece’s economy. Important discussions on energy issues regarding [the] extension of TurkStream to Europe were also held.”
Centre for Strategic and International Studies Senior Fellow, Nikos Tsafos, argued in an article that the pipeline could be good for European-Russian relations overall. “For a continent bitterly, and often needlessly divided by pipelines, TurkStream offers an opportunity to depoliticise gas, and show that new infrastructure can be a win-win for Russia and Europe.” While it would not alter Russia’s foreign policies, Tsafos posits that TurkStream “can enhance liquidity and competition in Southeast Europe, just like Nord Stream 1 did in Central Europe. It can improve supply security, allowing countries like Romania and Ukraine access to additional supply sources.”
He also added that TurkStream could lessen the need for new infrastructure, “as long as the existing infrastructure is used better – which will only happen with strong regulatory oversight, allowing access to infrastructure, and enabling virtual trades that shrink price gaps between countries.”
However, with an expected 49 bcm of gas destined for European markets – out of a total of 63 bcm that would be delivered to Turkey – the volume of gas would outweigh the existing pipeline capacity at the Greek-Turkish border. Consequently, the viability of Greece’s bid will depend on increasing pipeline capacity at the border, as well as from Greece to Italy, and into the rest of Europe. There are also concerns that the volume of Russian gas could exceed the demands of European customers.
It is up to Greece to convince the EU, that extending the TurkStream gas pipeline across Greece, and to other EU countries, is in European interests. Tsipras sees this as part of their multi-faceted energy policy, especially in the light of Greece’s evolving strategic relationship with Turkey. Tsipras hopes the EU will see the benefits of backing his plan, despite the fact that cooperation with the Russian Federation is limited, due to Greece’s status as an EU and NATO member. “We value the fact that Russia is an important partner in the energy sector, as it has rich energy sources,” Tsipras said.
However, Greece may have to contend with Bulgaria as a likely transit point for Turkish gas, as a 100-kilometer pipeline between Bulgaria and Serbia is already under construction, making it an economically attractive option. And despite historically friendly ties between Greece and Russia, there is ongoing strife between the Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, and the Russian Orthodox Church, as the former granted the Ukrainian Orthodox Church independence from the Russian Orthodox Church in 2018. The Russian church subsequently cut ties with the Fener Greek Patriarchate, and described the Patriarchate’s decision on Ukrainian autocephaly as “dissent.” While obscure to many onlookers, this church schism has substantial political ramifications in the light of the Crimean crisis in 2014, and ongoing unrest between Ukraine and Russia.
Volkan Özdemir, head of the Ankara-based Institute for Energy Markets and Policies (EPPEN), in an interview with Anadolu Agency, said that “Russians in response to this are focusing on the Bulgarian option, and not on Greece. Therefore, in this sense, I think that a political preference will be made by the Russians.”
In the midst of ongoing negotiations, the USA launched major criticisms against both TurkStream, and another pipeline project called Nord 2. American envoy to Germany, Richard Grenell, sent a letter to several firms involved, that “reminds [them] that any company operating in the Russian energy export pipeline sector is in danger (…) of US sanctions”, an embassy spokesman told AFP.
“If completed, Nord Stream 2, and the second line of TurkStream, would facilitate Russian efforts to bypass Ukraine as a gas transit route to Europe. If this occurs, it could well mean the removal of a key strategic deterrent against Russian aggressive behaviour in Ukraine. As a result, companies who support the building of these pipelines are actively undermining Ukraine and Europe’s security,” Grenell writes. The concern is that the TurkStream pipeline could deprive Ukraine of its current transit income, thereby isolating the country from its allies. However, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, refuted this argument by saying that Ukranian interests would be protected, as Russian gas would still travel through Ukraine once Nord 2 is online.
Things are far from settled. Even with the second leg of TurkStream up in the air, follow-on projects to bring Russian gas into Europe include the potential Tesla pipeline – that would run from Greece to FYROM, Serbia, and Hungary, ending at the Baumgarten gas hub in Austria. And the proposed Eastring – which would transport gas north, via Bulgaria to Romania and Hungary. Since the meeting between Tsipras and Putin, no additional statements have been made by Greece or Russia about the European port of call for Gazprom’s TurkStream. Nonetheless, much relies on the EU’s decision on the matter, as Germany, France, and Austria, have backed the TurkStream project overall, without weighing in on a preference for Greece or Bulgaria. Ultimately, the EU’s final decision will carry weight beyond the ongoing bilateral talks between the countries in question, and will determine whether Greece’s ambition to be the entry point for Russian gas into Southern and Southeastern Europe will become a reality.