Will Putin Use the Energy Weapon Against Turkey?

Keith Johnson

Just one year ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin flew to Ankara to talk up the prospects of a “strategic partnership” with Turkey. Now, furious over Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet, Putin has a different message for Ankara: There are going to be “significant consequences.”

Tough talk aside, though, the two countries seem condemned to keep working together, even if grandiose dreams of a broader partnership may have been shot down on Tuesday. Turkey gets about 60 percent of its natural gas from Russia, but Moscow can’t easily forsake the one European market where demand for natural gas is growing, especially at a time when low oil prices have hammered its export-dependent economy. The demise last December of Putin’s $40 billion pipeline project, meanwhile, means that the Russian president will not likely want to jettison its successor, a $12 billion project designed to ship gas across the Black Sea to Turkey and eventually onward to Europe.

“The only place other than China that Russia says it is pivoting toward is Turkey,” said Sijbren de Jong, a Russia expert at the Hague Center for Strategic Studies. “Do they really want to throw that overboard? I sincerely doubt it. Energy has become a really hollowed-out weapon.”

And for Turkey — which itself threatened to break off the bilateral energy relationship last month after Russia started bombing rebels in Syria and violating Turkish airspace — there simply aren’t many appealing options other than continuing to do business with Moscow. Turkey’s demand for natural gas is growing, and Russia is one of the few genuine options Ankara has to deliver that fuel, at least in the short term. What’s more, Russia is helping to finance and build a $20 billion nuclear power plant in Turkey that’s needed to meet rising demand for electricity. New Turkish Energy Minister Berat Albayrak — son-in-law of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — said Tuesday that the energy ties between the two countries would not be threatened.

The Russian-Turkish rapprochement that Putin and Erdogan broached last year was dogged from the start by centuries of animosity and rivalry, and particularly by sharp divides over the ongoing civil war in Syria. Erdogan is a staunch opponent of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad and repeatedly called for his ouster; Putin indirectly backed Assad for years before diving headfirst into the conflict in September by sending warplanes to Syria to bomb U.S.-allied rebel groups working to unseat the Syrian dictator.

Those tensions dramatically came to the fore on Tuesday. For almost two months, Turkish officials had repeatedly told Russia that they would not tolerate violations of Turkish airspace and had threatened to shoot down any Russian planes crossing the Turkish border. On Tuesday, Turkey told the United Nations that it warned the two bombers 10 times over a five-minute period; one turned back, and the other was shot down. The two pilots were reportedly killed by Turkmen rebels in northern Syria where they landed after ejecting from the stricken plane.

After the incident, Putin immediately lashed out at what he called Turkey’s complicit attitude toward the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov followed by quickly canceling a planned trip to Turkey and urging Russian tourists to avoid traveling there; Russia’s state tourism agency recommended ending package tours to Turkey. Meanwhile, some Russian lawmakers suggested banning all flights between the two countries.

“We have long been recording the movement of a large amount of oil and petroleum products to Turkey from ISIS-occupied territories. This explains the significant funding the terrorists are receiving,” Putin said after a meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi with King Hussein of Jordan. “Now they are stabbing us in the back by hitting our planes that are fighting terrorism.”

The Islamic State earns anywhere from $250,000 to $1.5 million a day from selling oil and refined products like diesel and gasoline, both inside Syria and across the border in Turkey. That’s one reason why oil assets, especially mobile refineries, have been a major target of airstrikes launched by both the U.S.-led coalition and Russia.

Putin’s allegations that Turkey is essentially underwriting the Islamic State will land like a gut punch in Ankara, said Emre Tuncalp, a senior advisor at Sidar Global Advisors, a risk consultancy. “He didn’t mince his words and hit Turkey where it really hurts,” Tuncalp said.

That could further complicate the Turkish Stream pipeline project, which has already faced setbacks due to disputes over gas pricing and the formation of a new Turkish government in the wake of November elections. Jump-starting that stalled project was to have been at the center of Lavrov’s visit this week.

“Any significant progress on Turkish Stream now seems unlikely, at least in the short term,” Tuncalp said.

Beyond economic reprisals, Moscow could have one other option to make life difficult for Ankara: ramping up support for the Kurdish militants that for decades have bedeviled Turkey’s government. For nearly two centuries, Russia has maintained close ties to Kurdish tribes and in Soviet times established links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is again doing battle with Turkish security forces. Turkey, the European Union, and the United States list the PKK as a terrorist group.

“Putin has spoken publicly — and I think pointedly — in noting the Kurds as allies in the fight against ISIS. So backing the PKK and its subsidiaries would be an easy way for Russia to retaliate against Turkey,” said Michael Reynolds, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University.

But such a move would be highly inflammatory, especially as Erdogan has used the fight against the PKK as a domestic foil to entrench his party’s electoral victory this month. It could be especially dangerous at a time when U.S. President Barack Obama said his “top priority” after the downing of the Russian jet was to ensure the situation doesn’t escalate.

“That’s really a no-go. That’s as if the Turks were funding the Chechens,” said de Jong. “That’s a bit of a red line.”

Photo credit: CHRIS MCGRATH/Getty