By Huseyin Alp Sari
Given Turkey’s membership to NATO and the privileges that come with this membership, Russia will likely not choose to escalate the current crisis vis-à-vis NATO following the downing of the Russian jet by the Turkish Air force. However, short of a military response, Russia has a number of other highly effective tools that can ‘hurt’ Turkey. Russia provides over 50 percent of Turkey’s natural gas needs. In fact, both Iran and Russia (the two are very close allies in the Syrian conflict) provide more than ¾ of Turkey’s energy needs. Considering the winter months ahead, if Russia cuts off the natural gas, Turkey might face a huge energy shortage and that would surely have a devastating impact on Turkey’s already fragile economy.
Closely related to this issue, just a few months ago Turkey and Russia inked a natural gas pipeline deal – Turkish Stream – that would supply Turkey and parts of southern Europe with a much needed supply of natural gas. Such a project was going to be another ‘notch’ on Turkey’s growing influence in becoming a major energy transportation hub via a web of pipelines running primarily from East to West. Having these webs of pipelines is important, however, if you don’t have gas/oil to fill those pipes, it means nothing; especially if the supplier has other options to transport its products.
In addition to natural gas deals, Turkey and Russia finalized another huge energy project just this year. Turkey agreed to grant the construction deal of the country’s first nuclear power plant to Russia. The initial phase of the construction is already underway in Akkuyu, Mersin, Turkey. The project was to be completed in 2020 and, this project is part of Turkey’s comprehensive energy security plan to curb the nation’s growing energy reliance on imported natural gas and oil. If Russia or Turkey scraps this project that will be a huge setback for Turkey as such an action will delay the building of Turkey’s first nuclear energy plant for at least a few years.
Also, the Turkey-Russia tensions will place a huge pressure on Azerbaijan, Turkey’s closest ally in the region. Even though the current Azerbaijani government has very tight relationship with Turkey, it should not be expected that the Azeri government would openly stand by with Turkey against Russia. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russia successfully ‘reintroduced’ its reformed influence onto many former Soviet republics, including energy rich Turkic republics of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Russia will not hesitate to pressure the governments of these states to significantly reduce/if not cut their close ties with Turkey. And this is another area where power dictates the terms.
On a different front, the Kurdish issue is Turkey’s most sensitive and destabilizing problem. The so-called ‘peace process’ between PKK and Turkish government is now shattered in pieces just after the June 7th elections. The armed conflict still continues to take lives of both civilians and Turkish security forces. Many Kurdish residents are forced out of their homes to move towards more secure areas. As of yet, there are no positive signs for the warring sides returning to the negotiating table for a new peace plan. Considering the historic close relationship between PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party recognized as a terrorist group by Turkey-EU-US) and Russia, it should not be a surprise to the observers of the region to see increased fighting and instability in Turkey’s eastern and south-eastern provinces between the Turkish security forces and PKK militants. That can only mean a further deepening of the insecurity for Turkey’s citizens across the country.
Lastly, Russia and Iran are the two staunch allies of Assad government in Syria. After today the downing of the Russian fighter jet, Turkey has no other option but to treat Iran in a similar fashion that it needs to treat Russia. And that will have serious consequences for Turkey. Beyond the serious obvious energy related consequences mentioned in previous paragraphs, there is a very important corruption trial going on in Iran for over a year now. According to news that are coming out this corruption trial, there are serious allegations for Turkey’s involvement (particularly, the members of AKP and Erdogan family) in international oil-for-gold laundering schemes. Some of the allegations indicate that despite Western sanctions on Iran (especially during the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s term between 2005 and 2013), the officials linked to the Turkish government helped Iran to get around the sanctions. The investigation reveals that Turkey’s involvement is all but certain, but still, Iran chose to keep most of the serious allegations out of the international media’s attention. If, given the recent developments, Iran decides to release the documents that proves the involvement of the Erdogan’s AKP, that can seriously damage the credibility of Erdogan and the AKP both domestically, and internationally.