Russia, Greece forge closer ties

There was a touch of irony to the whole scene in Istanbul last week. The host, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, heard Russian President Vladimir Putin and Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis endorse the construction of a pipeline that will channel Russian natural gas to Bulgaria, Greece and Italy, bypassing Turkey. Indeed, the South Stream pipeline has been especially designed to bypass Turkey, which has put great effort into becoming an energy hub in the region in recent years. A major step in this effort had been the construction of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, transporting Azeri and Kazakh oil to the eastern Mediterranean, and from there by tanker to western markets. This pipeline was constructed because the US wanted to have a route out for Caspian and Central Asian oil that would bypass Russia. But it also helped Turkey serve its own interests. To be sure, Ankara was not really interested in where the gas came from. Washington put a lot of pressure on Turkey not to become a transit hub for Russian gas to Southern Europe, but to no avail. The Blue Stream pipeline, running north-south under the Black Sea, will supply it with Russian natural gas which it will use both for its own requirements and to channel it further afield through Greece and Italy. Due to the frequent problems which Ukraine poses in the transit of Russian gas to Western Europe, Moscow is urgently looking for alternative routes. The Blue Stream pipeline was part of this effort, and it would also feed into the Nabucco pipeline, taking gas to Central Europe through Bulgaria and Hungary. However, this planning had a crucial geopolitical disadvantage for Greece. After a point, Greece would become excessively dependent on Turkey for energy. In a time of crisis in volatile Greek-Turkish relations, Turkey could theoretically turn the tap off. This risk has been averted with the Putin-Karamanlis decision for the South Stream pipeline, which will carry gas from Novorossiysk to Burgas in Bulgaria. From there, it will branch off to Greece’s western coast and then under the sea to Italy. Certainly, President Putin is pursuing his own geopolitical goals. Despite the fact that relations between Moscow and Ankara have made great progress, the traditional suspicion between them remains strong. It was with this in mind that Russia decided not to put all its eggs in the Turkish basket. In contrast to the oil pipeline that will run from Burgas to Alexandroupolis, which took more than 10 years for Russia, Bulgaria and Greece to agree on, the decision for the gas pipeline was made very quickly. This fact alone shows that the political will was strong and well established. With South Stream, Turkey loses its role as the sole transit hub for Russian gas to Southern and and Central Europe. And after a great deal of prevarication, Moscow has now come to regard Athens as a strategic partner. The bypassing of Ukraine and the other Eastern European nations that are friendly to Washington is of crucial importance, not only for Euro-Russian relations but also for Moscow’s relations with the central Asian nations. Washington has put a lot of energy into preventing them from falling into the Russian sphere of influence and into integrating them into is own. With the new pipeline, Moscow will have additional capacity for channeling into Europe not only its own gas but also that of the former Soviet republics. Given that it has already signed agreements with them for their natural gas, in some sense it acquires an advantage over Washington in the channeling of this gas to the West. The South Stream pipeline is no doubt a success of Greek foreign policy and a step with multiple positive implications. First, it avoids the country’s dependence on Turkey. Second, it makes Greece an energy hub in Southern Europe, which is per se a stabilizing factor. And third, it significantly upgrades Greek-Russian relations.

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