As Ukraine war drags on, Turkey should make more progress

After receiving praise from Ukraine for its drone performance, helping negotiate a grain deal that could have averted famine, organizing preliminary peace talks and leveraging Western sanctions against Moscow to boost its trade with Russia, one would have thought that Turkey had benefited as much as it could from Russia’s war in Ukraine.

But lo and behold, two new intertwined perks surfaced last week. First, Russian President Vladimir Putin met his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Astana and offered to realize Ankara’s long-held vision of becoming a regional energy hub.

Moscow’s proposal would divert its natural gas from the damaged NordStream pipeline to Turkey, via their joint TurkStream pipeline, and from there to EU member states. Such a change would not be completely new. Russia uses TurkStream to send significant amounts of natural gas not only to Turkey, but also to Hungary and other European countries.

Turkey’s energy minister said the new proposal seemed feasible, while France quickly rejected the plan. In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU made an effort to wean itself off Russian energy supplies and most EU states would likely follow Paris’ lead.

Mr Putin’s suggestion comes just as gas supplies from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe could be getting closer to a reality, after more than a decade of wrangling. Lebanon and Israel reached a landmark US-brokered maritime border deal last week that is expected to unlock access to their sizeable reserves.

On Friday, the EU’s energy commissioner said gas from the eastern Mediterranean could help the bloc move away from Russian energy. Some observers believe the Levant deal, between often-warring neighbors, could give fresh impetus to a possible Cypriot resolution that would supply Eastern Mediterranean gas to EU markets via a pipeline through Cyprus and Turkey .

That remains to be seen, especially given the heightened tensions between Turkey and Greece in recent weeks. But Cyprus is the key to Turkey’s other potential new gain in the war against Ukraine. Three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine still depends on Soviet-era artillery, weapons and ammunition, and since the summer has been dangerously short of these military supplies – to the point of retaining shells in the field.

Eastern Mediterranean Gas Supply to Europe Could Be Closer to Realization

While seeking to quickly train Ukrainian troops on more advanced Western weaponry, Kyiv’s Western backers also scoured the world for Soviet-style weaponry. Several states in Africa and the Middle East, including the Congo, Rwanda, Kuwait and Egypt, have large stockpiles of Soviet weapons, but they are not members of NATO and have been reluctant to supply lethal aid to Ukraine.

Poland and other Eastern European countries have already sent Ukraine all the Soviet-style weapons they can without risking their own defences. Enter the Republic of Cyprus, which, thanks to a decades-old US arms embargo, has a vast stockpile of Soviet-era weaponry, including more than 100 tanks and armored vehicles.

In recent months, US officials have met several times with officials from Cyprus, which is an EU member but not a NATO member. The Cypriot position is that, given the continuing security threat from Turkey’s occupation of the northern third of the island, they could only send Soviet-era weapons to Ukraine if they received adequate replacements.

It is no coincidence that the United States this month lifted its arms embargo on Cyprus, paving the way for Washington to sell arms to Nicosia. The catch in this possible exchange is Ankara. Mr Erdogan has already said he would boost Turkey’s military presence on the island if the US starts arming Cyprus.

This would risk reigniting an arms race and further heighten tensions between Turkey and Greece. It should be noted that the current wave of unrest between the Aegean neighbors began after Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis urged the US Congress in May not to sell Turkish F-16 fighter jets , prompting Mr Erdogan to claim that the Greek leader no longer exists.

Things went downhill from there. But last week, the ground changed when the US Senate dropped two amendments to its annual defense spending bill that would have blocked the sale of F-16s to Turkey. Could paving the way for F-16 sales to Turkey be Washington’s attempt to appease Ankara in case the US sells weapons to Nicosia?

US Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of Senate foreign relations and driving force behind the lifting of the embargo on Cyprus, promised the next day to reject any sales of F-16s to Turkey “until Erdogan stops his campaign of aggression in the region”.

Mr. Menendez did not specify which Turkish actions could be considered part of this campaign, but he was likely referring to Turkish violations of Greek airspace and military aggression against US-allied Syrian Kurds. Either way, Turkish officials have since expressed confidence that F-16 sales will continue, possibly in late November.

Despite congressional opposition, US President Joe Biden reportedly offered F-16s to Turkey last year as reimbursement for the $1.4 billion Ankara paid for F-35 fighter jets that ‘she never received. The new US defense bill is still a long way from approval and debate will resume after the midterm elections in early November.

But for now, the plan seems tidy: Cyprus sends its Soviet-era weapons to Ukraine and the United States replaces them with more advanced weapons while calming Turkey with F-16s which it has much needed. If the Greeks complain, Washington could remind them that they are taking delivery of more than 80 upgraded F-16s, alongside other US defense deals.

In the end, Ankara may not get everything it wants, despite Mr. Erdogan’s favorable response to Mr. Putin’s proposal on TurkStream. “There will be no waiting,” he said over the weekend, urging Turkish and Russian engineers to start work.

In truth, Turkey may well have to put its gas hub dreams on hold once again.

Posted: October 18, 2022, 04:00

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