FEBRUARY 23, 2015 DR JEAN-MICHEL VALANTIN – 7On 1 December 2014, President of the Republic of Turkey Recep Tayyit Erdogan and President of the Federation of Russia Vladimir Putin agreed on the implementation of a new gas pipeline, linking the Russian Federation to Turkey through the Black Sea ( “Gazprom to build new 63 bcm Black Sea pipeline to Turkey instead of South Stream”, Russia Today, December 1, 2014).

This new project is called “Turkish stream” and replaces the late “South Stream”, which was meant to connect Russia to Europe, by crossing southern European countries. The decision of Bulgaria to withdraw from the project, in the context of the tensions regarding Ukraine between the U.S. and the EU, on the one hand, Russia, on the other, led the Kremlin to “kill” South Stream (“Why Putin Pulled the Plug on South Stream”, Russia Today, December 3, 2014).“Turkish Stream” will run 660 km along the corridor defined for South Stream, and will have the same annual capacity of 63 billion cubic meters, but will stop at a new terminal in Turkey, very close to the border with Greece (Tyler Durden, “Putin Kills “South Stream Pipeline, Will Build New Massive Pipeline Instead”, Zero Hedge, 12/01/2014).

The signature of this deal with Russia is an extremely important driver of the transformation of Turkey into a continental energy and environmental power. In fact, “Turkish Stream” exemplifies one of the ways Turkey works at becoming a Eurasian pole of power, based on the strategic use of the nexus of relations linking geography, water and energy. 

Turkish environmental geopolitics

Turkey is the upstream country of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which cross downstream Syria and Iraq, and are the main sources of surface water in a largely water deprived region.

The Turkish political authorities have understood the way environment can be used as a form of political power and influence, especially through the water management of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, in a region where access to water is a vital necessity for entire societies.

Starting from the 1960s, the Turkish political authorities have given themselves a strategic framework for the water management and development of southern Anatolia, known as the Southeast Anatolia Project, or “Guneydogu Anadolu Projesi” (GAP), which was first thought about by Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, during the twenties (“History of the South Eastern Anatolia project”, South Eastern Anatolia Project Administration, March 31, 2006).

This roadmap, central to the political thinking of the successive governments, has led to the construction of 14 dams on the Euphrates River, and the completed construction of six dams on the Tigris River throughout the years. (Joost Jongerden, “Dams and Politics in Turkey: Utilizing Water, Developing ConflictsMiddle East Policy Council, 2010). A seventh should be completed in 2017 (Ryan Wilson, “Water Shortages Crisis Escalating in the Tigris-Euphrates Basin”, Future Directions International, 2012).


This immense water project is used for the development of electricity production and for agricultural irrigation (South Eastern Anatolia Project Administration, ibid). In the meantime, Turkish use and control of the upstream water has led several times to very high levels of tensions with Syria and Iraq, as well as with the different Kurdish factions: especially in 1975 and 1990, water tensions almost led to open war between the downstream countries and the upstream country, because of the drastic decrease of the Euphrates flow during the building of a dam (Michael Klare,Resource Wars, 2002).

Since then, a permanent state of negotiations and tensions about the water flow exists between the three countries (Martin Chulov, “Is Iraq’s Next Crisis Ecological?”,TomDispatch, 2009).

Furthermore, these infrastructures and their control are a tool in the long-standing conflict between Turkey and the Kurdish populations and armed political parties, because they can be used to “weaponize” the rivers through the threat of reducing the flow of water and the economic development of poor areas (Klare, ibid).

The Turkish water management is both a highly political tool of development and  a strategic weapon, because it is also used to develop South Anatolia, a poor area with an important Kurdish population, and thus to expand the legitimacy of Ankara’s rule among the South Anatolian Kurdish population (Ilektra Tsakalidou, “The Great Anatolian Project: Is Water Management Panacea or Crisis Multiplier for Kurdish Turks?”, New Security Beat, August 5, 2013).

In other terms, the Turkish political authorities have accumulated an important capital of experience in using environment and infrastructure as tools of domestic political power and international influence. Since the end of 2014, the Russian gas project opens a new area and new levels for Turkish soft power.

Becoming an energy power?

It is interesting to note that the decision to transform “South Stream” into “Turkish Stream” has triggered a specific political process for the rapid implementation of the project (“Russia and Turkey agree on Turkish Stream onshore route“, Russia Today, February 10, 2015).

In effect, this massive gas project will allow Turkey to have access to the huge amounts of gas, coming from Russia, necessary to its current economic and demographic development, and thus complement the “gas relation” already implemented with Russia through “Blue Stream”, which was the first pipeline linking the two countries (“Putin: Energy is “locomotive” of Russia-Turkey cooperation”,Russia Today, November 28, 2014). However, “Turkish Stream” will not only deliver gas to the Istanbul region, but also a special end-hub is planned at the Greek border. Thus, the western part of Turkey may very well become an energy attractor for European countries and corporations interested in buying gas.

This energy and infrastructural development goes with very profound strategic consequences, both for Russia and Turkey. From the Russian strategic perspective, of which the gas giant corporation Gazprom is the actor (Pol-Henry Dasseler, Gazprom, l’idéalisme européen face au réalisme russe, 2009), “Turkish Stream” heightens the influence and reinforces the international security of Russia in this most strategic country, which stands exactly between the “Russian lake” that the Black sea is, and the Mediterranean Sea, Russia, the Caucasus region, Central Asia, the Middle East and Southern Europe.

On a “civilizational” level, contemporary Turkey is also a pole between the Muslim world, both Sunni and Shiite (especially given the common border with Iran), the Christian Orthodox area that follows the ancient “sphere of influence” of the Byzantium Empire from Greece to Russia, and the rest of the Mediterranean world (Hamit Bozarslan, Histoire de la Turquie, de l’Empire à nos jours, 2013).

In other terms, “Turkish Stream” is a way for Russia to exert its influence on this whole “mosaic” by creating what can be called a channel of power between itself and that other Eurasian pole that Turkey is, currently crossed by multiple political, social, economic, ideological, religious and ecological tensions.

“Turkish Stream” must be understood as a very complex strategic entity. In effect, it would be wrong to qualify it simply as a tool of Russian influence in Turkey, on Southern Europe and the Mediterranean world. It is also a way for Turkey to host the channel of political power and influence inherent to such an infrastructure (Rafael Kandiyotti, Pipelines, Flowing Oil and Crude Politics, 2012). As a result Turkey also makes of the political project and decision-making process that allowed for the happenstance of “Turkish Stream” the basis for new levels of energy security and influence.

By welcoming this second Russian pipeline not only on its territory, but also into the very fabric of its development process, Ankara couples this new energy power with its water management power, by literally “sharing” the Russian energy power and linking it with its dam system, when the latter is, as seen above, used to produce electricity and an instrument of agricultural development and foreign policy.

In order to both strengthen and secure its new status as an energy power, and its access to energy for its development, Ankara has also signed a deal with the Russian Giant nuclear corporation Rosatom to build the Akkuyu nuclear power plant (Marin Katusa, The Colder War, How the Global Energy Trade Slipped from America’s Grasp, 2015), which could be the first of a series of three (Zulfikar Dogan, “Energy deals may make Turkey irreversibly reliant on Moscow”, Al Monitor, 12 December 2014).

By doing so, Turkey could become part of the “civil nuclear club”, knowing that the development of nuclear energy can be a powerful driver for the whole national educational, training, science and industrial system, and thus “force” the technological development of the country.

Enter China?

This renewal of the Turkish influence through the energy-water nexus could very well connect with another factor: the Chinese quest for the resources it needs for its own national development (Michael Klare, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, 2008). This “global Chinese power of need”  is exerted on the whole world through a variety of means (Valantin, “Arctic China (1) – The Dragon and the Vikings”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, May 26, 2014). Notably, China is devising strategies and means to channel these resources through “win-win” deals, qualified as “the new silk road” (Deng Yaqing, “A Shared Path”, The Beijing Review, July 10, 2014).

The “new silk road” is based on the vast project of developing new systems of roads, railways, pipelines and sea-lanes, which are divided in “belts”. Beijing and Ankara are discussing the sino-turkish “belt” of this “new silk road”, called “One Belt, One road”, or the “Silk Road Economic Belt” (SREB) (Anna Beth Keim, Sulmaan Khan, “Can China and Turkey Build a New Silk Road?”, Yale Global on Line, 18 January 2013).

This Sino-Turkish cooperation could help Turkey to attract Chinese financial investment, while allowing China to access markets and resources (Brenda Goh, “China Pays Big to Expand its Clout Along the New Silk Road”, Reuters, Nov 10, 2014).

It must be noted that these talks started in 2010 and that in 2012, the Turkish government asked, and obtained, to have the status of “dialogue partner” among the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an international organization, which purpose is to reinforce economic, especially energy, and security cooperation between its members: Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan (Zachary Keck, “Turkey Renews Plea to Join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization”, The Diplomat, December 1, 2013).

In other terms, Ankara attracts the power of Russia and possibly China, in order to become a new kind of continental power, through an active use of the energy-water-geography nexus. In effect, the SREB would allow Turkey to play a significant part in the politics of Central Asia, through the coordination of the different segments of the roads and railways linking it to China (Selcuk Colacoglu, “The Silk Road Project and the Opportunity to Improve Sino-Turkish relations”, The Journal of Turkish Weekly, 30 December 2014).

The very fact that Turkey, a NATO country, could have these discussions with Beijing and the SCO is a strong political indicator of how Ankara works at changing its strategic status through Davutoglu’s “Strategic Depth”, (Marija Mitrovic, “Turkish Foreign Policy Towards the Balkans”, GETma Working Paper Series, 2014) by benefiting from being at the crossroad of the Russian and Chinese influences. It also exemplifies how it transforms these two emerging and powerful influences into its own national power, thus becoming a new political and strategic pole.

It now remains to be seen how this energy-water nexus is going to be used in a region very sensitive to climate change and where immense political and social tensions and change are building up.

To be (soon) continued

Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.