For those who saw it coming, the sight of a massive, 382-metre-long ship passing through Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait in May said a lot about Turkey’s plans to influence Europe’s access to new natural gas supplies.
The world's largest vessel by displacement, Pioneering Spirit comes complete with offices, accommodation for 571 people and a €2.6 billion price tag. Earlier this summer it journeyed from the North Sea – where it lifted and removed an entire 24,500-tonne decommissioned oil platform, a record engineering feat – south and then east around the European continent, and through Istanbul.
The ship is today off Russia's Black Sea coast, where it has begun work on the deep-sea section of the TurkStream project, a pipeline that will see Russian gas flow under the Black Sea and emerge in western Turkey 900 kilometres southwest. Around 15.75 billion cubic metres of gas are expected to be available to southern European countries every year, via Greece or Bulgaria, from late 2019. The twin pipeline will see a similar discharge of gas sold to Turkey.
At an estimated cost of €11.4 billion (though developers wouldn't give an exact figure "for commercial reasons"), TurkStream may for Europe become an important new source of the energy its member states need in ever-increasing amounts.
The project also points to how swiftly events are moving in the region. Twelve months ago, Russia and Turkey were in the midst of a major diplomatic spat over the latter's shooting down of a Russian jet on the Syrian border. Today, as is made most markedly obvious by the TurkStream project, Ankara and Moscow are forging ahead together.
As presidents Putin and Erdogan have buried the hatchet, Europe, however, remains at odds with Turkey over its deepening crackdown on opposition and independent groups fuelled by a botched military coup 12 months ago.
And despite a growing appetite for its energy, Brussels is also at political loggerheads with Russia over its military incursions into eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in March 2014. That the TurkStream pipeline runs less than 100km from Crimea is another slap in the face for Kiev, a strategic ally of Europe that is finding itself bypassed and increasingly isolated from the lucrative westward flow of gas. Ukraine is expected to lose billions of euro as a result of Russia's rerouting of pipelines to its north and south.
Furthermore, Qatar’s falling-out with neighbouring Gulf states has the potential to threaten its supply route to customers in Europe, a state of play that may continue for months or even years. Should European countries eventually replace the Qatari supply with gas from TurkStream, its energy imports could lie increasingly in the hands of governments hostile to Brussels or its allies.
Despite Europe's political grievances with Russia and Turkey, its member states are heavily dependent on Russian gas. Austria increased its consumption by almost 70 per cent last year and Italy by 41.5 per cent. The Nord Stream pipeline that runs from Vyborg in Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea supplies a third of the total amount of natural gas Germany consumes. A second pipeline, Nord Stream 2, is under construction despite EU and United States efforts to scupper it.
There were many in Europe who never envisioned TurkStream coming to pass. As recently as last year, officials in Brussels questioned whether Russia and Turkey, its chief sponsors, would follow through, claiming the pipeline was as much about Ankara and Moscow “signalling political messages” as delivering a project that could have major consequences for its member states.
Experts say that Europe did attempt to draw Turkey into its own sphere of influence in recent decades and years.
"The West encouraged Turkey to create an east-west energy corridor, and [TO PIPE GAS)]from Israel, northern Iraq and Cyprus that would break the Russian monopoly," says Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. "What is different now with this massive TurkStream project is that Turkey-Russia relations have improved, and Turkey is drawn closer to Russia. Clearly energy is at the core of this."
Lignite coal aside, Turkey has almost no energy reserves of its own. In the first quarter of this year it imported almost €9 million worth of energy, a 39 per cent increase on the same period in 2016. Imports of gas from Russia rocketed 26 per cent in the first four months of 2017. China aside, no other country's demand for foreign natural gas is greater than Turkey's, and with a population closing in on 80 million, a dependable supply of natural gas – that today is mainly bought from Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran – is essential to economic stability. The TurkStream project will help satiate that demand, and, fortuitously for Turkish consumers, it will do so at a heavily discounted price.
Observers say Turkey’s dependence on Russia is only likely to increase.
“Iran shuts off its supply to Turkey when domestic demand requires, so it is not a dependable source,” says analyst Aliriza. “And there is the Akkuyu nuclear reactor [in southern Turkey] that’s being built together with the Russians, which will be an additional Russia factor for Turkey. Going forward, Turkey will be more dependent on Russia.”
But with the pair on opposing sides of the war in Syria, Ankara is well aware that diversifying supplies is essential to maintaining its place as a strategic player in the region. The construction of the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline or TANAP, from Azerbaijan through Turkey and on to southern Europe, which is projected to open next year, is an attempt to help achieve that.
Geopolitics aside, the TurkStream pipeline is a significant feat of modern engineering. Gas will be pumped through 12-metre pipe sectionals made from carbon manganese steel used to prevent the massive water pressure – in places under the Black Sea more than 1.33 tonnes per square inch – from crushing or damaging the pipes.
"One of the challenges that we (and the Pioneering Spirit) will encounter are changes of water depth at the continental shelf break," says Sander van Rootselaar, a spokesperson for TurkStream. "Techniques such as underwater bridges, cavern filling or peak shaving will be used to ensure a smooth passage along this stretch."