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Russia Pressures Trade and Energy Routes in Eastern Mediterranean

The Eastern Mediterranean Sea is a major strategic point of connection for international shipping and commerce. In recent years, this has drawn the attention of the Russian Federation, which seeks to reassert itself into the strategically important region. Russian military forces in Syria now provide a means to invoke a threat of military force against vital regional economic lifelines and energy resources. Alongside its military, the country has developed its political and economic influences across the region, increasing its non-military leverage over international maritime trade routes and energy flows. As I have previously argued in Charged Affairs, Russia has escalated its military and political presence and the Eastern Mediterranean is part of its strategy to increase its power over the region, a stepping stone on the country’s path to reestablish itself as a global superpower.

USS Mount Whitney and Russian Navy ship. Image courtesy of EUCOM, © 2015.

The Eastern Mediterranean plays host to a number of economically vital sea lines of communication (SLOCs), important not only to Russia, but to the global economy. The Turkish Straits and the Suez Canal represent two of the six most important international chokepoints, vital and vulnerable arteries of international trade. In fact, the Suez Canal moves between seven and eight percent of the world’s annual GDP. Significant energy flows—important to not only Russia, but also many other countries—pass through Turkey’s Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. As of 2013, nearly 2.6 million barrels of oil transited the Turkish Straits per day, and Russia alone is estimated to have transported 24.6 million tons of its own oil through the Turkish Straits in 2014. That same year, the Suez Canal saw 3.2 million barrels of oil transit its waters per day.

In addition to these SLOCs, the Eastern Mediterranean today represents a growing center of international production and pipeline transit for hydrocarbons. As the Russian presence has expanded in the region’s waters, so too has its ability to apply pressure and influence regional economic SLOCs and energy infrastructure vital to the European Union’s energy consumption, as well as the export markets in the Middle East. Recent finds have increased the region’s energy production value. Israel, for example, is currently developing the Tamar and Leviathan natural gas fields. These fields will export to the European Union through an as of now incomplete pipeline passing from Cyprus to Turkey. The Israeli-EU pipeline construction efforts, for example, have proved vulnerable to political interference, as Russian meddling in Cyprus’ domestic peace efforts has undermined the project.

Along with the Israeli gas fields, Egypt recently discovered significant natural gas resources in its Eastern Mediterranean territorial waters. Its Zohr gas field is expected to begin production in late 2017. Russia has been directly involved in the development of Egypt’s Zohr Field with the state-owned Rosneft recently purchasing a thirty-percent stake in the field. The discovery of the Israeli and Egyptian natural gas resources has made the Eastern Mediterranean an increasingly important player in the European energy market, and Russia has capitalized on its influence in the region in order to have influence over that market at its source.

Major oil pipelines to the Mediterranean, too, are vulnerable to Russian pressures. The Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan provides a major export location for Russian, Caucasus, and Middle Eastern oil, with the Baku-Tbilisi Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, which transports oil from Azerbaijan—and the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, which transports oil from Iraq—both terminating there. The as of yet incomplete Samsun-Ceyhan pipeline, too, would transport Russian oil to the Ceyhan port. In Egypt, the SUMED Pipeline transports oil from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Russia’s improved political and security relationships with both Turkey and Egypt, through which these pipelines flow, comes as their relations with the European Union and the United States have deteriorated. Russia’s budding ties with these two states could prove an additional point of leverage against European energy security. Russia could incentivize its new partnerships to strategically threaten these pipelines, to great effect.

By positioning the Russian Naval forces in the Eastern Mediterranean, the country maintains the threat of force against vital global chokepoints. While the likelihood of Russia using its military to attempt to close these SLOCs is low, the very presence of Russian military assets in the region provides a deterrent and possible point of escalation. Furthermore, Russia has further sunk its political and economic hooks into the region. From investments in Egyptian gas to political manipulation in local politics, it appears to have its sights set on having influence, if not outright control, over new energy production under the Eastern Mediterranean seabed. The Eastern Mediterranean has become a new playground for the revanchist state’s strategy to return to what it believes is its rightful role as a global power.


Kevin Truitte

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