As the Ukraine war drags on, Turkey is set to make more gains

Ankara is trying to eke out two deals, both of which could involve Cyprus

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of a conference in Astana, Kazakhstan, last week. Reuters
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After earning Ukrainian praise for the performance of its drones, helping broker a grain deal that may have staved off famine, hosting preliminary peace talks and leveraging western sanctions on Moscow to sharply boost its trade with Russia, one might have thought Turkey had benefited as much as it could from Russia's war in Ukraine.

But lo and behold, two new intertwining advantages emerged last week. First, Russian President Vladimir Putin met his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Astana and offered to bring to fruition Ankara’s long-standing vision of becoming a regional energy hub.

Moscow’s proposal would divert its natural gas from the damaged Nord Stream pipeline to Turkey, via their shared TurkStream pipeline, and from there to EU member states. Such a shift would not be completely new. Russia has been using 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 sounded feasible, while France quickly rejected the plan. In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU has been working to wean itself off Russian energy supplies and most EU states would probably follow Paris’s lead.

Mr Putin’s suggestion comes just as Eastern Mediterranean gas supplies to Europe may be inching closer to fruition, after more than a decade of squabbling. Lebanon and Israel last week reached a landmark US-brokered maritime border deal that should unlock access to their sizeable reserves.

On Friday, the EU energy commissioner said Eastern Mediterranean gas could help the bloc shift away from Russian energy. Some observers think the Levant deal, between oft-warring neighbours, could give fresh momentum to a possible Cyprus resolution that would deliver East Med gas to EU markets via a pipeline through Cyprus and Turkey.

That remains to be seen, particularly given the sky-high tensions between Turkey and Greece in recent weeks. But Cyprus is the key to Turkey’s other new potential gain from the Ukraine war. Three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine still relies on Soviet-era artillery, weapons and ammunition, and has since summer been running dangerously low on these military supplies – to the point of conserving shells in the field.

Eastern Mediterranean gas supplies to Europe may be inching closer to fruition

While seeking to quickly train Ukrainian troops on more advanced western weapons, Kyiv’s western backers have also been scouring the globe for Soviet-style weaponry. Several African and Middle Eastern states, including Congo, Rwanda, Kuwait and Egypt, have sizeable stockpiles of Soviet weapons, but they are not Nato members and have been reluctant to provide Ukraine with lethal aid.

Poland and other Eastern European nations 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-long US weapons embargo has a vast stockpile of Soviet-era weaponry, including more than 100 tanks and armoured vehicles.

In recent months, US officials have repeatedly met officials from Cyprus, which is an EU member, but not a member of Nato. The Cypriots’ stance is that, given the persistent security threat of Turkey’s occupation of the northern third of the island, they would be able to send Soviet-era weapons to Ukraine only if they were to receive adequate replacements.

Not coincidentally, the US this month lifted its arms embargo on Cyprus, clearing the way for Washington to sell arms to Nicosia. The hitch in this possible swap is Ankara. Mr Erdogan has already said that he would reinforce Turkey’s military presence on the island if the US were to start arming Cyprus.

This would risk reigniting an arms race and further exacerbating Turkey-Greece tensions. It’s worth noting that the current wave of agitations between the Aegean neighbours began after Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis urged US Congress, in May, not to sell Turkey F-16s fighter jets, prompting Mr Erdogan to assert that the Greek leader no longer existed.

Things deteriorated from there. But last week, the ground shifted when the US Senate dropped two amendments from its annual defence spending bill that would have blocked the sale of F-16s to Turkey. Could clearing the way for F-16 sales to Turkey be Washington’s attempt to mollify Ankara in the event that the US does sell arms to Nicosia?

FILE PHOTO: A formation of U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II fighter jets perform aerial maneuvers during as part of a combat power exercise over Utah Test and Training Range, Utah, U.S. November 19, 2018. Picture taken November 19, 2018. U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Cory D. Payne/Handout via REUTERS. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY/File Photo

US Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the senate foreign relations committee and the driving force behind ending the Cyprus embargo, the next day vowed to reject any F-16 sale to Turkey “until Erdogan halts his campaign of aggression across the region".

Mr Menendez did not clarify which Turkish actions might be considered part of that campaign, but he was probably referring to Turkish violations of Greek airspace and military assaults on US-allied Syrian Kurds. Regardless, Turkish officials have since expressed confidence that F-16 sales will go forward, possibly at the end of November.

Even if Congress is against it, US President Joe Biden last year reportedly offered F-16s to Turkey as a reimbursement for the $1.4 billion Ankara paid towards F-35 fighter jets it never received. The new US defence bill remains a long way from approval, and debate will resume after mid-term election in early November.

But for now, the plan seems tidy: Cyprus sends its Soviet-era weapons to Ukraine and the US replaces them with more advanced weaponry while mollifying Turkey with much-needed F-16s. If the Greeks complain, Washington might remind them that they’re taking delivery of more than 80 upgraded F-16s, alongside other US defence deals.

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

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

Published: October 18, 2022, 4:00 AM
Updated: October 19, 2022, 8:45 AM