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Caspian Sea: Europe’s New Hope in Energy Quests

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The argument presented by Robert Kaplan, who designated “Every international order in early modern and modern history is based on an energy resource” in a 2014 article,[1] provides a crucial viewpoint to describe the conflicts in the current international relations. The process, which got under way after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, resulted in a wide range of developments, particularly in the energy field. Vladimir Putin, who came to power in 2000, has made energy the focal point of his foreign policy and built pipelines that extended far into Europe, making the Europe continent dependent on Russian energy. Putin masked his actual intentions towards Europe while implementing this plan. In this regard, Gerhard Schröder’s appointment to the Russian energy company Gazprom and use of his influence was one of the cleverest steps are recorded in political history as a substantial soft power gain for Russia.

Europe, which failed to understand Putin’s strategy properly and fell into the trap, has realized the mistake it made with Russian intervention in Ukraine and started to face the negative consequences of this circumstance. Europe has long been regarded as one of the centers of global production and one of the fundamental geographies of growth since it emerged from the ashes of the Second World War and has shown huge economic development. In particular, the completion of the industrialization process of European countries such as England, France, Germany and Italy labeled them to be referred to as the main locomotives of the European train.

Europe, which has built trade, welfare and development security on strong pillars, has not been able to show the same approach when it comes to energy security. As is known, there are three stages of energy security. It would be a correct approach to call these stages security of demand, security of supply and route safeness. While the security of demand concerns the selling countries, the security of supply concerns the receiver countries. As to route security, the same interests are shared by both sides.

Europe relied entirely on Russia for its natural gas supply for many years since it was unable to or did not choose to engage with almost any other suppliers while Putin’s mastery of using the energy card and Russia’s proximity to Europe are two of the major factors contributing to this predicament, one of the other factors is Europe’s incapacity to follow a cohesive policy and not able to turn to alternative routes.

The recent developments and the energy crisis that Europe has experienced within itself have triggered the Europe countries to new searches. At the beginning of the war, Europe attempted to deal with this issue with energy provided by US-origin LNG companies but was unsuccessful. Because the internal dynamics of the LNG market prohibited a continuous energy flow and because vast distance increased the cost of energy.

The EastMed Pipeline was another project that Europe considered as an alternative. Theoretically, this project, which aims to transport natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe under the sea, has been on the public agenda for quite a long time. The plan, which gained attention after the parties’ 2020 agreement, was criticized in many ways and called an “impossible” task. The major criticism has centered on the project’s high cost and its trajectory, which would exacerbate the conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean. The European Union (EU), however, trusted on EastMed and anticipated that the project may materialize. But, time has revealed that the people who argue that EastMed is impracticable are right and that the EU is placing its hopes on the wrong project. Due to reasons such as cost, ecological concern and tension in the region, both the parties and the countries closely following the project announced that the project could not be implemented. EastMed sank into the waters of the Mediterranean after the USA announced that the project was not viable.[2]

The EU has not yet been able to develop a substitute for Russian natural gas, despite its intentions, which include looking into using LNG and the EastMed Project to meet its energy needs. However, Caspian natural gas came to the rescue of the EU, which quickly moved to new searches and attempted to diversify its energy supply. The EU, which has taken the theoretical projects on its agenda for a long time, has turned to projects that have a ready and functioning infrastructure due to the urgency of the situation. The Caspian Sea was the dominant region in this sense.

Given its rich natural resources, the Caspian Sea, one of the oldest oil-producing areas in the world, is regarded as a significant source of global energy production. EIA estimates that there were 48 billion barrels of oil and 292 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas in proved and probable reserves within the basins that make up the Caspian Sea and surrounding area.[3]

On July 18, 2022, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the EU Commission, traveled to Azerbaijan to enhance diplomatic relations and met with Mr. Ilham Aliyev. Following the meeting, “A new Memorandum of Understanding on a Strategic Partnership in the Field of Energy” was signed between Azerbaijan and the EU in the field of energy. Stating that the EU is turning to more reliable energy suppliers, Leyen made the following statement:[4]

“The European Union has therefore decided to diversify away from Russia and to turn towards more reliable, trustworthy partners. And I am glad to count Azerbaijan among them. You are indeed a crucial energy partner for us and you have always been reliable. You were a crucial partner not only for our security of supply, but also in our efforts to become climate neutral. The Memorandum of Understanding that we have just signed makes our energy partnership even stronger.”

According to the agreement reached, it is expected to increase the 8 billion cubic meters of natural gas going to Europe to 12 billion cubic meters next year and to 20 billion cubic meters in a few years. One day after Leyen’s visit, The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Ceyhun Bayramov came together and made similar statements. In the written statement made by the European Council after the meeting, the following points were emphasized:[5]

“Azerbaijan is an important partner for the European Union and our cooperation is intensifying.  I am very glad to welcome the signature of the EU and Azerbaijan Memorandum of Understanding on a Strategic Partnership in the Field of Energy. This Memorandum will allow to double the delivery of gas from Azerbaijan to the European Union by 2027. It paves the way to our future energy partnership, including in renewable energy and energy efficiency.”

It can be said that the EU’s orientation towards the Caspian will also contribute positively to the normalization efforts that have already begun in the South Caucasus. Route security, as an element of energy security, is regarded essential parameter for the EU, which seems to have learned lessons from the past. In this context, the EU’s interest in the region and its goal of providing a stable energy flow will act as a shield against the power centers that seek to sabotage the peace process and will create an encouraging effect for the elements supporting the peace process.

Additionally, Turkmenistan, one of the most prominent Caspian partners, will benefit from the plan for Caspian natural gas to reach Europe. As a matter of fact, after years of disagreement, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan came to an agreement at 2021 to perform the exploration, operation, and energy consumption in the “Friendship” oil field in the Caspian Sea jointly.[6]

It is obvious that, in addition to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan’s interest in the Caspian Sea has deepened in the last period. Kazakhstan sought an alternative route due to the interruption of its oil exports through Russia due to the Ukraine War, and Kazakhstan President Kasım Cömert Tokayev’s directive to the government to prioritize the Trans-Caspian Corridor for oil shipments will help the Caspian Sea to turn into transit energy corridor.  This situation is seen as a corridor that the EU will also support. Because, during his visit to Azerbaijan, Leyen also said the following words that were not on the public agenda, but that contains a very vital clue about the coming period:[7]

The European Union wants to work with Azerbaijan to build connections with Central Asia and beyond. So, we follow with great interest the discussions and the ideas about trans-Caspian connections. We will deepen these discussions.

Several geopolitical fault lines were broken as a result of the process that began with Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, and varied effects were experienced on a worldwide scale. One of these fault lines, energy, has come first among the priorities of the EU. Heading towards new searches, the union gravity to the Caspian Sea, which is the most suitable for itself both geographically and in terms of security, and took a strategic step. The efforts of the Union and the objectives of the Caspian countries to diversify their energy supplies reveal that the Caspian Sea will come to the fore in the coming period.

[1] Robert Kaplan, “The Geopolitics of Energy”, Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/stratfor/2014/04/04/the-geopolitics-of-energy/?sh=71defe1b3b39, (Date of Accession: 20.07.2022).

[2] “ABD, Yunanistan’ın Büyük Umut Bağladığı EastMed Projesine Destek Vermeyeceğini Bildirdi”, Euro News, https://tr.euronews.com/2022/01/10/abd-yunanistan-n-buyuk-umut-baglad-g-eastmed-projesine-destek-vermeyecegini-bildirdi, (Date of Accession: 20.07.2022).

[3] “Oil and Natural Gas Production is Growing in Caspian Sea Region”, Energy Information Administration, https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=12911, (Date of Accession: 20.07.2022).

[4] “Statement by President von der Leyen with Azerbaijani President Aliyev”, European Commission, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/STATEMENT_22_4583, (Date of Accession: 20.07.2022).

[5] “Azerbaijan: Remarks by High Representative Josep Borrell after the Cooperation Council”, European Union, https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/azerbaijan-remarks-high-representative-josep-borrell-after-cooperation-council_en?s=217, (Date of Accession: 20.07.2022).

[6] Ayyıldız Huri Kaptan, “Azerbaycan ve Türkmenistan, Hazar’daki Petrol Yatağı Konusunda Anlaştı”, Kırım Haber Ajansı, https://qha.com.tr/haberler/azerbaycan-ve-turkmenistan-hazar-daki-petrol-yatagi-konusunda-anlasti/296473/, (Date of Accession: 20.07.2022).

[7] “Statement by President von der Leyen with Azerbaijani President Aliyev” European Commission, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/STATEMENT_22_4583, (Date of Accession: 20.07.2022).

Mustafa Cem KOYUNCU
Mustafa Cem Koyuncu, Karabük Üniversitesinde Uluslararası İlişkiler bölümünde Master öğrencisi olup Hint-Pasifik Bölgesi, ABD-Çin Rekabeti, uluslararası güvenlik, jeopolitik ve stratejik araştırmalar alanları üzerinde çalışmalar yapmaktadır. Karabük Üniversitesi’nde eğitimine başlamadan önce, Boğaziçi Üniversitesinde Lisans eğitimini tamamlamıştır. Özel sektörde yöneticilik tecrübesi kazanmasının ardından Koyuncu, kariyerine ANKASAM’da devam etmektedir. Koyuncu, ileri seviyede İngilizce bilmektedir.