Russia opens a new pipeline of diplomacy

Russian diplomacy has been on a roll in recent months, the revival of ties with Ukraine being the most dramatic manifestation. But a string of successes, major and minor, sung and unsung, has been notched up below that high point – in Poland, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Norway and Syria.



Even with regard to Russia’s highly inflammable
relations with Georgia, Prime
Minister Vladimir Putin has opened a new front by
trying to find people to talk
to in Tbilisi, such as former parliament speaker Nino
Burjanadze.



Russian commentators freely admit that the improved
climate for relations with
the United States opens up opportunities for Russian
diplomacy to spread its
wings. But then, according to a most recent strategy
report prepared for
President Dmitry Medvedev (which has found its way to the Russian media
somehow – presumably
through an authorized leak), the Foreign Ministry in
Moscow remains
apprehensive that respite from United States antagonism
toward Russia could
well prove transient.



Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov apparently wrote in his
preface to the leaked
70-page report that “the military, intelligence and
foreign policy
establishment of the US” is seeking to “return to the
confrontational policies
of the last administration”, referring to George W
Bush’s presidency. Lavrov
pointed out that US President Barack Obama has
“transformative potential” as a
leader and any weakening of his position could lead to
increased tensions
between the US and Russia.



Unsurprisingly, the Kremlin appears to be hastening to
explore the new vistas
that have emerged as the fog of Cold War politics
fades.



However, an historic breakthrough in Russia’s ties with
Turkey does not quite
fall into this category. A tempo has been steadily
building up over the past
two decades for Russian-Turkish relations to develop
into a strategic
partnership between the two rivals who constantly
jostled or even fought bloody
wars against each other through centuries.



Their post-Cold War “reset” – as much at Ankara’s
initiative as Moscow’s – in
actuality by far predates the Obama era, and is based
on well-thought-out
foundations of hardcore mutual interests.



Medvedev’s visit to Ankara this week has cemented this
phenomenal
transformation in the ties and launches it onto a far
higher trajectory. A
relationship that was heavily based on economic
interests so far is rapidly
acquiring political content. As Medvedev pointed out on
Wednesday, “Russia and
Turkey are strategic partners, not only in words but
genuinely.”


Russia cracks atom in Anatolia

Medvedev’s Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul,
reciprocated that the
relationship had progressed to a “new phase” to become
“multi-dimensional” with
a strong strategic angle. The establishment of a
high-level cooperation council
co-chaired by Medvedev and Turkish Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdogan
testifies to the fact that “our cooperation has grown
to such an extent that it
became a necessity for political leaders to oversee
them”, to quote Medvedev.



During Medvedev’s visit, the countries signed 17
agreements, which Medvedev
estimated to have a combined value of US$25 billion.
Principal among them is
the agreement that opens Russia’s nuclear power
industry to the highly
lucrative market in Turkey, something that has become
possible only amid the
dramatically new level of mutual understanding between
Ankara and Moscow.



In essence, Turkey will allow Russia to build – and own
– a $20 billion nuclear
power plant. The agreement envisages the construction
of four reactors on
Turkey’s southern Mediterranean coast. The deal’s
unique feature is that
Russia’s Rosatom will control the facilities and sell
the electricity that it
generates.



Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Rosatom and a former
prime minister, openly
admitted that Russia had been “craving” such a
breakthrough in nuclear exports.
Russia’s established partners like China and India
always insist on excluding
Russia from any ownership or management role in the
nuclear power plants that
Rosatom may set up.



The deal with Turkey allows Rosatom to initially
establish a fully-owned
subsidiary, which will eventually offer up to 49% of
the venture to investors
from Turkey or even from third countries. Kiriyenko
hinted that there could be
potential investors from Europe. Rosatom expects to
recoup the $20 billion cost
of the project 15 years after completing each reactor
by selling half of the
electricity generated to the Turkish government-owned
distribution company and
the rest to the country’s unregulated market. Rosatom
is obliged to share 20%
of its profits with the Turkish government.



The breakthrough is strategic for Russia since it will
now become very
difficult for competing countries to offer Turkey
matching investment terms.
Rosatom will complete the first reactor in seven years
and thereafter one
reactor in every three years. Significantly, Rosatom
may also set up a facility
in Turkey to make nuclear fuel.



Russia already meets close to 70% of Turkey’s energy
needs, and the established
cooperation is also expected to grow. The two countries
are discussing Russia’s
possible involvement in the north-south 550-kilometer
oil pipeline to connect
the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean, which was
envisaged as a
Turkish-Italian project.



The pipeline will provide a faster transit route for
Russian and Kazakh oil to
reach the global market by bypassing the congested
Bosphorous and Dardanelles
straits. An energy security agreement signed during
Medvedev’s visit to Ankara
identifies the proposed $3 billion oil link as a
priority project for
cooperation with Russia.



In effect, Russia is helping Turkey realize its
ambition to become a global hub
for energy transportation, while Moscow expects Ankara
not to promote pipeline
projects that rival Russia’s. The two countries are
inching closer to
cooperation in the Moscow-backed South Stream gas
pipeline project that binds
the south European markets to Russia’s energy sources.



In geopolitical terms, among other things, Turkey is
playing a role in
facilitating the return of Russia to its Slavic
backyard in the Balkans from
where it was rudely evicted in the 1990s with the
West’s dismantling of the
former state of Yugoslavia, as well as in buttressing
Russia’s lead role in
supplying energy to Europe.



Assessing the overall prospects of Russian-Turkish
economic ties, Medvedev said
a target of reaching $100 billion in bilateral trade
volume in the next five
years from the current level of $40 billion was
feasible. “It is hard even to
imagine, but this figure is an attainable one,” he
said. “Once we achieve this
goal, it becomes a model for Europe.” Russia’s overall
trade with Europe
presently stands at $200 billion.


Europe is the ailing partner

Medvedev was spot on. The galloping Russian-Turkish
cooperation and emerging
climate of trust and understanding – as illustrated by
Turkey’s agreement to
grant visa-free travel for Russian tourists who
currently number 3 million a
year – holds profound implications for Europe.



Ironically, if the concern a century ago was that
Turkey was the “sick man of
Europe”, today there has been a curious reversal of
roles. Turkey is raring to
go like an adventurous explorer of new frontiers while
Europe is lost in
thoughts habitual to old age and inertia. The specter
that haunts Europe is a
new geopolitical axis that might revive the “imperial
ambitions” of both Turkey
and Russia.



Europe is hit in ways more than one by the
Turkish-Russian energy cooperation.
Consumer countries in Europe develop political
dependency on Turkish goodwill
as the pipelines go through the Anatolian heartland
and, simply put, Europe may
also have to be more conscious of Ankara’s
sensitivities, especially on the
vexed issue of Turkey’s proposed European Union
membership.



The reality is that Europe is already flustered by its
energy dependence on
Russia – Russia supplies one-third of Europe’s needs -
and the emerging
prospect is that in political terms, Russia and Turkey
are finally reaching an
equilibrium in pooling their oil-and-gas friendship for
augmenting their own
bargaining strength vis-a-vis Europe. Moscow and Ankara
do not seem to care
anymore as to which side needs this “friendship” more
than the other. Clearly,
their pipeline politics are finally beginning to
dictate geopolitics in a vast
arc of surrounding regions.



Turkey can be trusted to use the “Russia card” in its
future negotiations over
EU membership and Brussels will have to factor in that
continued negativism may
only drive Ankara more into Moscow’s embrace. That
embrace is already resetting
the geopolitics of the Black Sea and the Caucasus and
is poised to impact the
Middle East as a whole, including the situation around
Iran and the
Israel-Palestine issue.



Medvedev spoke about this while in Ankara. In an
extremity meaningful
statement, he said in Gul’s presence, “Russia and
Turkey are working together
to maintain global and regional stability. Sitting in
the president’s office
just now we spoke about the fact that the Black Sea
countries themselves, and
above all the region’s two biggest countries, Russia
and Turkey, bear direct
responsibility for the situation in the region.”



Things couldn’t have been stated more explicitly that
Russia and Turkey have a
shared interest in forestalling any attempt to make the
Black Sea a “NATO
[North Atlantic Treaty Organization] lake” and that
Moscow counts on Ankara’s
helping hand to keep outsiders away from its Crimean
backyard. Coupled with the
recent Russian-Ukrainian agreement extending the lease
of the Russian naval
base in Sevastopol, Moscow is energetically boosting
its capacity to delimit
NATO’s activities to the Black Sea’s west coasts.


A regional alliance in the making

Medvedev also underlined that Russia and Turkey hold
“very close views” on the
Middle East peace process. Interestingly, he traveled
to Ankara via Damascus,
where he had a meeting on Tuesday with Hamas leader
Khaled Meshaal. Medvedev
lamented that there had been ”something of a slowdown”
in the US-brokered
peace process which in turn “is having an impact on the
situation in the Middle
East”.



He called Gaza a “humanitarian disaster”, sought wider
regional and
international participation in seeking “actual
solutions and decisions” in the
Middle East and, in an oblique reference to Israel,
insisted that Hamas
shouldn’t be excluded from the peace process. Coupled
with the revival of
Russia’s traditional ties with Syria, Moscow is
reappearing on a Middle Eastern
chessboard where China also is aspiring to be a new
player and where the US’s
predominant status is being challenged.



What is striking is that Medvedev virtually echoed
Turkish viewpoints. The
Russian and Turkish position on Iran is also similar,
underpinned by the “need
to incite Iran to take a constructive line, while at
the same time emphasizing
the need to resolve this problem through peaceful
means”, as Medvedev phrased
it.



The developing Russia-Turkish coordination of positions
over the South Caucasus
aims at creating a regional security system. Arguably,
the process is also
subject to the US’s acceptance and the climate of a
US-Russia “reset” will have
a bearing. As a Turkish report pointed out, “Azerbaijan
is leaning toward
Turkey, Armenia has embraced Russia, and Georgia has
been seeking rapprochement
with NATO and the US. When these countries lean (or are
prodded) toward
different supports, it usually ends badly, as proved by
the August 2008 war
between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia.”



In the immediate aftermath of the 2008 conflict, Ankara
proposed a Caucasus
stability and cooperation pact, which would include the
three South Caucasus
countries plus Russia and Turkey. This was a manifest
attempt by Ankara to
insert itself into the Caucasian circle but also
reflected the tacit Turkish
acknowledgement of the Russian claim that the conflict
brought to light the
failure of existing forums – the Organization for
Security and Cooperation in
Europe, the EU and the United Nations – to address
security in the Caucasus.



Without doubt, what is unfolding is also Moscow’s
diplomatic foreplay even as
NATO gears up for a refocus on its destiny in the 21st
century at the
alliance’s summit in November in Lisbon. There is much
irony here, in that
Moscow has sought out a key NATO member country as its
privileged partner in
this enterprise.



It does, though, take two to tango. No matter Moscow’s
assiduous courting of
Ankara, the diplomacy wouldn’t have proceeded at such
speed had it not been for
the tectonic shift in Turkish foreign-policy thinking
and its new diplomatic
thrust toward creating an environment of “zero
problems” with its neighbors.



Many factors have contributed to the new impetus in
Russian-Turkish
understanding. Putin’s extraordinary personal
friendship with Erdogan became a
significant template in itself. But ultimately, as the
Foreign Ministry report
to Medvedev, entitled Program for Effective Use of
Foreign Policy in the
Long-Term Development of Russia, seems to have pointed
out, Russia’s
“modernizing alliances” with foreign partners need to
be based on the calculus
that there are neither friends nor enemies, only
interests.


Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career
diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union,
South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and
Turkey.



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