When Russia’s Gazprom and its European partners announced plans for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to deliver Russian gas directly to Germany, eight members of the European Union (EU) and the Obama administration objected. They understood that the Nord Stream 2 operation would give the Kremlin leverage over Europe and also allow it to isolate Ukraine, which remains dependent on outside energy. The conviction did little to slow down the project. Germany is thirsty for gas regardless of strategic costs.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had little patience for this tactic. He understood that a greater reliance on Russian gas would make the West vulnerable and therefore removed the sanctions exemptions. Nord Stream 2 stalled until President Joe Biden lifted sanctions on the logic that ending objections to Germany’s pet project would mend US relations with Europe and foster a transatlantic partnership against China. As Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has foresightedly pointed out, the Kremlin would interpret the lifting of sanctions on Nord Stream 2 as a green light for aggression.
While Biden now understands the mistake of increasing Russia‘s share of Europe’s energy sector, he seems blind to the larger lesson. Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Biden administration rolled back Trump-era pledges to support the Eastern Mediterranean Pipeline (EastMed), supposedly because the State Department deemed it economically unfeasible.
There are three problems with this excuse: First, private sector assessments matter more than diplomats who have no business experience or financial interest in the project. Second, while gas pipelines through Turkey may be cheaper if they only carry gas, the EastMed pipeline which would bring gas from Israel and Cyprus to Europe bypassing Russia, Turkey and Iran, could also support the Cypriot development of green hydrogen. A larger initial investment provides longer term rewards. Finally, as Turkey threatens a war of aggression against NATO member Greece, Biden ignores the danger of trading reliance on one dictator for another.
It’s time to turn around. The bipartisan Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019 stated, “It is in the national security interest of the United States to promote, achieve, and maintain energy security between allies and through cooperation with them. It approved the EastMed gas pipeline and other energy infrastructure infrastructure to Europe; called on Greece, Cyprus, Israel and the United States to strengthen their partnership and cooperation in energy production; and directed the Department of Energy to establish the US Eastern Mediterranean Energy Center in the United States to further research in innovative energy technologies and water sciences. The Europe-Asia Interconnector, the longest submerged power cable in the world, is already under construction and will connect Israel’s power grid to Europe. Unlike the corridors that Turkey is now promoting, the interconnector is a multi-use plug-in infrastructure that can accommodate electricity generated in multiple ways and from multiple sources. It passes the climate change criteria of progressives.
Part of the strategic wisdom of the East-Med partnership lies in its carrot-and-stick approach. He pushed the State Department to support the US partnership in the Eastern Mediterranean Natural Gas Forum, but he also omitted Turkey as long as it remained an autocratic and destabilizing force in the region, an approach to which the State Department shirks in the name of promoting inclusion. This links reform in Ankara to financial benefits rather than recalcitrance. As ExxonMobil continues to find significant gas reserves off Cyprus, State Department efforts to give Turkey a voice in Cypriot gas are counterproductive for two reasons. First, it legitimizes Turkey’s maritime claims and its illegal occupation of northern Cyprus. Second, it encourages continued irredentism toward Greece by signaling that perseverance trumps truth in illegal takeovers.
Today, Turkish officials boast of doubling the transit of gas and oil to Europe. Ironically, they plan to do this by laundering Russian hydrocarbon investments, strengthening the Azerbaijani dictatorship and strengthening Iran.
The simple fact is that any new or improved TurkStream is as bad an idea as Nord Stream. It encourages both Turkey and Azerbaijan, regimes that are not content to live within their borders, and makes European democracies subject to blackmail by hostile regimes.
The first consideration for new Mediterranean energy projects should be that they do not harm the United States and its allies. Biden should give the Trans-Turkish Energy Corridors the same treatment he ultimately gave Nord Stream 2, and for the same reasons.
Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can follow him on Twitter: @mrubin1971.