On May 3, Moscow criticized Turkey's plans to explore natural gas deposits around the divided island of Cyprus, under the protection of Turkish naval and air power. Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry's chief spokesman, Aleksandr Lukashevich, cautioned Turkey that its actions "may exacerbate the situation on the territory of Cyprus".Source: Asia Times
The Greek Cypriots and Israel are coordinating their plans to develop offshore gas deposits and export the product in partnerships with international companies. One export route under consideration would run via mainland Greece into Europe.
The Republic of Cyprus, Greece and, recently, Israel are all involved in disputes with Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean. Explicitly siding with the Greek Cypriots (and implicitly with Israel and Greece), Moscow is positioning to bid for offshore gas exploration licenses, also hoping for control of the delivery route.
These gas projects and potential exports to Europe are creating an economic basis to the geopolitical alignment among Israel, Cyprus and Greece. The swing factor in this development is Israel, now turning toward these historic opponents of Turkey, after Ankara's reversal of the Turkish-Israeli strategic partnership.
Israel, Cyprus and Greece have been holding intensive talks in recent months at the prime minister, ministerial, and chiefs-of-staff levels, about offshore gas projects and regional security.
Greek and Greek Cypriot observers commonly suggest that a Greece-Cyprus-Israel triangle is necessary to counter-balance the increasingly assertive Turkey. The official consultations within this triangle are developing, however, in bilateral formats, carefully avoiding the appearance of a tripartite grouping, although the agenda is largely a shared one.
Turkish naval and air force activities around Cyprus are perceived as intending to discourage offshore exploration and development. Potentially, this affects Russian interests there no less than Western interests.
The Republic of Cyprus (Greek Cypriot government in Nicosia) holds that it is fully entitled to develop offshore mineral resources within the state's internationally recognized borders and exclusive economic zone (as delineated by agreement with Israel).
According to Nicosia, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC, which Turkey alone recognizes) could share the benefits of such development, if and when a federal solution reunifies the divided island.
Ankara and the TRNC argue, however, that Nicosia may not unilaterally initiate exploration and development at offshore deposits, including those off the island's southern coast. Turkey does not recognize Cyprus as a sovereign country with an exclusive economic zone, opposes mineral projects there in the absence of a political settlement, and deems such activity prejudicial to the island's reunification.
Turkey initiated seismic research and exploration drilling for gas and oil off the island's southern coast in September 2011 and off the northern coast in April 2012. Ankara has warned the Greek Cypriots and Israel that Turkish warships and planes based in the TRNC are on hand to escort Turkish exploration vessels.
The Greek Cypriot government has hinted via the press repeatedly that it would allow Israeli warships and planes to operate in its waters and air space. Israel, however, shows no appetite in becoming involved even indirectly in the Cyprus dispute, or otherwise "containing" Turkey.
The process of demarcating exclusive economic zones in the Eastern Mediterranean is far from complete. The Lebanese government officially claims a portion of Israel's Leviathan gas deposit, the richest in Israel's exclusive economic zone.
The Hezbollah movement threatens unspecified "asymmetrical" actions from Lebanon to back up that claim. Syrian claims would likely overlap with Israeli and Cypriot claims, but the Syrian government is currently too distracted by internal unrest to act in the maritime area.
Russia seems willing to put its friendship with Turkey at risk by endorsing the "triangle's" position on zoning and exploration rights, against Turkey's position. Moscow's minimal objective is access to Cypriot offshore gas deposits for Gazprom and Novatek, in the framework of the Greek Cypriot government's international tender for 12 offshore blocks.
Russia's maximal goal is to aggregate Cypriot and Israeli offshore gas volumes for transportation and reselling via Gazprom on international markets. Toward that goal, Gazprom recently concluded a preliminary (non-binding) agreement to purchase liquefied gas volumes from Israel's Leviathan project.
Meanwhile, Gazprom is one of the bidders for DEPA, the gas transmission pipelines in mainland Greece. If successful in that bid, Gazprom would undoubtedly strive to increase its intake of Cypriot and Israeli offshore gas, transport it (probably in liquefied form) to mainland Greece, and use DEPA pipelines to re-sell it on European markets.
Vladimir Socor is a Senior Fellow of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation and its flagship publication, Eurasia Daily Monitor, and is an internationally recognized expert on the former Soviet-ruled countries in Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Socor is a regular guest lecturer at the NATO Defense College and at Harvard University’s National Security Program’s Black Sea Program. He is a Romanian-born citizen of the United States based in Munich, Germany.