Russia was the world’s largest natural gas exporter until the invasion of Ukraine, when Europe too was forced to end its dependence on Russian fossil fuels. Europe imposed sanctions on Russia, which Turkey refused to implement. Since the start of the war, President Erdogan has tried to mediate the conflict, supplying arms to Kiev, while maintaining close relations with President Putin.

The Russian president proposed in October that Turkey become a hub for transporting Russian natural gas as an alternative supply route to Europe – a plan supported by Erdogan. But what Putin has in mind is not clear so far.

Turkey closer to “Moscow’s orbit”

Both presidents are going through tough times. After 20 years in power, Erdogan faces the toughest challenge of his political career in the upcoming elections, with inflation and the financial burden reaching record levels and conditions further worsening after the earthquake disaster. Putin faces his own challenges, including the war in Ukraine and harsh economic sanctions hitting the Russian economy.

“Putin is offering Turkey the ‘carrot’ to turn the country into a natural gas hub to bring Turkey closer to Moscow’s orbit – similar to what he sought to do with Germany with Nord Stream,” Agnia explains. Grigas, a senior executive at the American think tank Atlantic Council. “Putin has traditionally used personal relationships, natural gas deals and arguably corrupt practices to forge closer diplomatic ties with European and Eurasian countries, and Turkey is no exception.”

Technical obstacles

Despite the hopeful rhetoric from the leaders of both countries, there are technical concerns about the plan. “The idea behind it is to send more Russian gas to Turkey and then re-export it to Europe,” Anne-Sophie Corbo, a researcher at Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy, told DW. “The issue is that there is not enough capacity in the pipelines to do that,” he added.

There are two active gas pipeline systems between Russia and Turkey. With a total capacity of 31.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year, the TurkStream pipeline supplies natural gas to both Europe and Turkey, while BlueStream, with a capacity of 16 bcm/year, meets Turkish domestic demand. Both pipelines are currently very saturated and adding one or more pipelines will take years. Western nations worry that a Turkish hub with Russian gas would allow Moscow to continue supplies that Europe is trying to rid itself of.

Can Turkey become a natural gas hub?

“Despite the TurkStream pipeline, Turkey does not have the possibility to become a natural gas hub for Europe, as the EU states and Russia’s neighboring countries seek to distance themselves from Russian energy,” Grigas points out. “Most European countries are looking for alternative sources of supply, such as from the Caspian, Norway, North Africa and further afield, from the US. and Qatar via LNG”. Turkey relies heavily on natural gas imports from Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran, but also sources LNG from the US, Qatar and North Africa, which account for 24% of total imports of the country.

To turn Turkey into a supply hub for Europe, “the only possibility would be for Turkey to import more Russian gas, once pipeline capacity increases. Therefore, it will need less LNG, which it will then be able to supply to other European markets,” Corbo said. “I don’t think Europe wants to become more dependent on Russian gas coming from elsewhere.”

The elections are important for Turkey-Russia relations

Turkey’s strategic position on the Black Sea, its control of the Bosphorus and its status as a member of NATO make it a valuable partner for Moscow in the current geopolitical conditions. But Putin’s idea of ​​turning Turkey into a Russian gas hub could make Ankara more dependent on Moscow. “You have to remember that the relationship between Erdogan and Putin has not always been excellent, like in 2015 for example,” Corbo notes, referring to the downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkish forces in Syria.

Although relations were officially restored in 2016, the two countries remained at odds over some geopolitical issues. Korbo believes that Erdogan is playing an “interesting game between Ukraine and Russia.” Regarding Russian-Turkish relations, he considers that “it is not so much a relationship between two countries as a relationship between two presidents. At the end of the day it’s all about Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan.” The Turkish election is another piece of the puzzle, as Grigas says it could mark the end of the “intense Putin-Erdogan personal relationship,” prompting changes in Turkey’s energy and foreign policy.

This year, a natural gas summit was planned for February in Istanbul, where suppliers would meet with consumer countries in Europe. After the earthquakes, the event was eventually postponed indefinitely. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that work on the creation of a natural gas hub in Turkey is “a complex project, which unfortunately cannot be implemented without delays, without technical or other problems.”