Erdogan Navigates Between Ukrainian Wheat, Russian Nukes and Israeli Gas

A Russian-owned nuclear power plant is under construction in Turkey, one explanation for why Moscow is letting Ukraine export grain through the Bosphorus

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Tehran, last month. In the background: Ears of wheat are seen in a field in Kharkiv Region, Ukraine, and The Sierra Leone-flagged cargo ship Razoni sails at the entrance of the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul, Turkey.
Credit: AP Photo/Emrah Gurel / REUTERS Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy / Turkish Presidency via AP, File
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The cargo ship the Razoni flying the Sierra Leone flag completed its journey Tuesday from Odesa to Istanbul. What was once routine was now a monumental event: The corn on board, destined for Lebanon, was the first grain shipment to leave Ukraine since Russia launched its war in February.

This cargo, the result of an agreement between Russia, Turkey and the United Nations last week, is a major achievement for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On Friday, Erdogan is scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the resort city of Sochi on the Black Sea.

After many weeks of meetings and tough negotiations, Russia agreed to allow the passage of ships carrying grain from three Ukrainian ports. In return, Russia will be able to export fertilizer, skirting the economic sanctions.

If the agreement isn’t violated, the less expensive wheat will guarantee at least basic food needs for African and Middle Eastern countries. Turkey believes that it will be possible to transport about 3.5 million tons of wheat a month.
At the beginning of their journey, the cargo ships are being escorted by Ukrainian pilots, experts on the mines that the Ukrainian military has laid near the ports to block Russian warships. Later, Turkish vessels will escort the ships to Istanbul, in coordination with Russian and UN officials who will operate a joint situation room in Istanbul.

The cargo ship Razoni crosses the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul on Wednesday.Credit: Khalil Hamra/AP

It’s not completely clear what convinced Putin to grant this achievement to Erdogan, especially after Turkey agreed to let Sweden and Finland join NATO. It’s hard to accuse Putin of altruism for the poor countries that desperately need Ukraine’s wheat; Moscow has other considerations.

It seems Erdogan will stick to his plans aimed at strategic control in the region, no less than his goal of attending to Turkey’s energy needs.

One explanation lies in the nuclear power plant that Russia is building in Turkey; it’s described as the largest one of its kind in the world. The deal for the project was signed in 2015 and construction began in 2018. It’s planned to start operating next year and satisfy 10 percent of Turkey’s electricity consumption when fully operational.
Turkey recently agreed to complete construction of the reactor with TSM Enerji, a company owned by three Russian-based firms. The contract was signed after the previous agreement was terminated with Turkish company IC Ictas.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a signing ceremony in Istanbul, in July.Credit: UMIT BEKTAS/Reuters

No official explanation was given for the change, but we don’t need a sophisticated investigation: The nuclear power plant is owned by Russian company Rosatom, which has financed over 90 percent of the construction. As a result, it can be used to bypass sanctions on Russia.
Last week, Rosatom transferred $5 billion to its subsidiary building the reactor. Rosatom is also expected to transfer $10 billion for buying parts and construction materials for the plant. Turkey and Russia will quell the protests by the Turkish company's employees by having the Russian company employ them.

Even after the plant is built, Turkish electricity production will still be dependent on imports of Russian natural gas, which accounts for some 45 percent of Turkey’s gas consumption – and this dependence brings with it diplomatic pressure. Similar to Iran, which a few months ago cited “pipeline maintenance” in halting gas supplies to Turkey, two months ago Russia stopped the Blue Stream pipeline’s flow for 10 days. It said this was a “technical stoppage” for maintenance.

Like Europe, Erdogan envisions energy independence from Russia and is thus improving relations with Israel.

The Russians informed Turkey just two days before the flow was halted – and the pipeline supplies 60 percent of Russian gas imported by Turkey. It was more than just a hint: Reconsider your position on Sweden and Finland joining NATO.
For Erdogan as well as Europe, Russia’s leveraging of its gas for diplomatic pressure isn’t something new. But unlike Europe, Turkey hasn’t joined the sanctions on Russia. Back in March, Erdogan made clear he couldn’t let Turkey’s citizens freeze during the winter, or allow a shutdown of Turkish industry. Since then, Erdogan has been maneuvering pretty successfully between the American pressure to join the sanctions on Russia and Turkey’s strategic and economic interests.
For example, he can now depict the agreement on shipping Ukrainian grain as the result of his good relations with Putin – as he contributes to the West by letting Sweden and Finland join NATO.

A field of winter wheat in southern Ukraine in June.Credit: Edgar Su/Reuters

But just like Europe, Erdogan is striving to reduce dependence on Russian gas. Turkey discovered an enormous offshore field in the Black Sea that contains about 540 billion cubic meters of gas. According to Turkey’s energy minister, the first stage in building the pipeline from the Black Sea will be finished this year, with the gas starting to flow in the first quarter of next year.
Israeli gas

Meanwhile, Turkey is still drilling for gas in the eastern Mediterranean. A new drilling ship, the Abdulhamid Han, will soon arrive at a site near northern Cyprus. This exploration has already caused harsh disputes between Ankara on one side and Brussels and Washington on the other. Turkey was even asked by U.S. President Joe Biden to maintain stability in the Aegean Sea and Middle East.

A drill ship at the Karish natural gas field off Israel's coast in May.Credit: Ari Rabinovitch/Reuters

But as in the past, it seems Erdogan will stick to his plans aimed at strategic control in the region, no less than his goal of attending to Turkey’s energy needs.
Erdogan, who wants to make Turkey the center for selling gas from the Middle East and Asia to Europe, continues to promote relations with Cairo. According to data released last week in Egypt, Turkey has become the largest importer of Egyptian gas with sales of $917 million in the first quarter. The two countries haven’t yet renewed diplomatic relations, and Turkish officials say Egypt isn’t showing great enthusiasm in advancing these ties, but it’s doubtful this will slow the gas flow.
Turkey also wants to promote the gas pipeline project from Israel to Turkey. In June, the United States told Israel, Greece and Cyprus that it no longer supports the construction of the pipeline that would connect these countries to Europe – even though during Donald Trump’s presidency this conduit was championed by the Americans and memorandums of understanding were signed. As a result of the turnaround in American policy, Erdogan declared that “the gas from the Mediterranean Sea can flow to Europe only through Turkey.”

In principle, Israel is ready to sign a long-term agreement for sending gas to Europe via Turkey, but it has made this conditional on the full rehabilitation of relations with Turkey and the creation of a “positive atmosphere” and a trial period for Erdogan’s actions on Israel. Erdogan’s version is that he’s motivated by economic considerations because of Europe’s immediate need of a new source of natural gas, and the gas agreement with Israel can also improve relations between the two countries.

Without a doubt, the war in Ukraine has opened a window of opportunity for any country with natural gas in its economic waters. The question is whether this gas will shape policy or be dictated by strategic considerations.

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