For now, the Turkish Stream gas pipeline project appears to align the geopolitical goals of both Russia and Turkey, especially as it concerns their future cooperation in Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, welcomes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Konstantin palace outside St.Petersburg, Russia, on Aug. 9. Photo: AP

On Jan. 20, the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament, the State Duma, ratified the agreement between Russia and Turkey on the the Turkish Stream, a gas pipeline across the Black Sea to Turkey’s European part, with further extension to the border with Greece.

Earlier, Moscow and Ankara signed an intergovernmental agreement in October 2016 outlining the construction of two underwater lines of the gas pipeline in the Black Sea. The annual capacity of each is estimated to be 15.75 billion cubic meters of natural gas. Pipe-laying work for the Turkish Stream is expected to begin in 2017 and end in December 2019.

The ratification of the intergovernmental agreement by the Russian State Duma is an important step in the implementation of the project. Now, only the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament and the president have to approve the agreement. After that, construction work can start.

Interestingly, the Turkish side has already adopted the agreement through all necessary legislative procedures (the Turkish parliament ratified the agreement in December 2016) and it is Russia that has been holding up ratification of the project. This raises a question: What is behind Russia’s behavior?

Turkish Stream as convenient leverage for Russia

When Russia-Turkey relations started improving in summer 2016, economic projects of mutual strategic interest became important drivers for strengthening Moscow-Ankara ties. However, until recently, those very projects, in particular the Turkish Stream, seem to have been used to exercise mutual pressure on each other to impose their own agenda.

After all, the Syrian problem remains an important challenge for both Russia and Turkey. Their bilateral relations largely depend on the level of their cooperation or rivalry on Syria. Despite growing mutual understanding and coordination on Syria, Moscow and Ankara still have serious differences on certain questions, such as the Syrian Kurds, the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Ankara’s support of various radical groups.

Also read: "Russia and Turkey, still divided on the future of Syria"

In this context, Moscow might use the construction of the Turkish Stream as a tool to influence Ankara’s policy in Syria. Remarkably, Moscow decided to ratify the Turkish Stream project agreement only several weeks after the Dec. 29 Russia-Turkey-Iran agreement on the Syrian ceasefire. So, Russia moves forward with the Turkish Stream project only if Ankara complies with its commitments under the ceasefire agreement.  

What does construction of the Turkish Stream give Moscow?

If the Turkish Stream pipeline will ultimately be constructed, its launch will substantially mitigate transit risks for Russian gas via the territory of its neighbors, although it will not fully solve the problem of gas transit through Ukraine, according to Russia’s Deputy Energy Minister Yuri Sentyurin. Nevertheless, it will give additional leverage to Moscow over Ukraine and Europe.

Russia also will increase its presence in the Turkish gas market. Currently Turkey receives 16 billion cubic meters of gas a year through the Blue Stream and about 12 billion cubic meters of gas a year via the Trans-Balkan gas pipeline through Ukraine. After construction of the Turkish Stream, Russia will increase its gas supplies to Turkey by over 50 percent (by 15.75 billion cubic meters a year). Therefore, it will increase Turkish dependence on Russian gas.

It will also give Moscow additional influence on Europe as the second line of the pipeline is designed to supply an additional 15.75 billion cubic meters of Russian gas a year through Turkey to Southern Europe. If it is implemented, Russia will increase its gas supplies to Europe by about 10 percent.

Construction of the Turkish Stream is also important for Moscow amidst the cancelation of sanctions against Iran and increased investment into the country's obsolete energy production facilities. In fact, Tehran not only plans to renovate its outdated oil and gas infrastructure but also to create a facility for delivering liquefied natural gas (LNG). Such a strategy carries certain risks for Russia. Over the next three years, if Iran manages to attract investments, it might well become a competitor (although a limited one) for Russian gas in Europe.

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It is important to remember the plans of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to build their own gas pipeline through Syria to the Mediterranean coast in order to increase their gas deliveries to Europe in a more cost-effective way. Although now those plans are growing dim, those ambitions still pose a certain threat to Russia’s interests. Partly because of that, both Qatar and Saudi Arabia finance various radical groups in Syria, as they do not want to see the Syrian state in its pre-civil war form under Assad’s rule.

Another important fact is that Turkey is still a NATO member. Moreover, it is the only Middle East state that is an alliance member. It also has the second biggest army in the region, which makes it extremely important for the U.S. and NATO. This is why any joint projects that create solid foundation for the mutually beneficial relations between Ankara and Moscow are essential.

Turkish Stream’s importance for Ankara

As for Turkey, its full support for the Turkish Stream project is indicative.

Firstly, Turkey needs to satisfy its growing domestic consumption of gas, which will only increase in coming years. Taking into account this fact as well as the absence of any real alternatives that can satisfy Turkish demand for gas, Russia is the only real and reliable partner here. Neither Iran, nor Qatar, nor Azerbaijan will be able to satisfy Turkish needs.

Iran has to update its entire energy-producing infrastructure and build new pipelines to deliver bigger gas volumes to Turkey. Azerbaijan also needs additional pipelines. Qatar can only deliver LNG, which is more expensive and requires construction of receiving terminals in Turkey.

Also read: "Syria and energy complicate Russia-Turkey relations"

Secondly, with the Turkish Stream, Ankara will become a regional energy hub through which gas will go to South European and European countries. This undoubtedly will make Turkey a more influential actor and will give it more leverage on Europe (in its negotiations on a visa-free regime with the EU, the refugees problem, EU membership, etc.).

Thus, the Turkish Stream gas pipeline is beneficial for both Russia and Turkey. As they are both interested in its timely construction, they will try to foster easy and quick implementation of the project. It gives an opportunity for economic interests to take precedence over the political and geopolitical ambitions of Moscow and Ankara. As a result, the countries can continue their cooperation in Syria.

That's why Russia’s State Duma ratification of the agreement demonstrates Moscow’s interest in the project, although it sends a signal that the construction process will depend on Moscow-Ankara cooperation in Syria.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.