international analysis and commentary

Nord Stream sabotage, the Azerbaijani-Armenian war and the Turkish-Libyan agreement: connecting dots

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Three notable events extending across the borders of Europe have occurred in recent weeks.

On September 13, 2022 Azerbaijani forces broke the ceasefire that had been in place with Armenia since 2020 by attacking several Armenian towns. Although skirmishes are frequent along the Azerbaijani-Armenian border, this time there was an increased risk of escalation into a fully-fledged confrontation.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, these two former Soviet republics have fought two wars over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-majority enclave within Azerbaijan. The first war ended in 1994 with a truce whose demarcation line sealed Yerevan’s control over Nagorno-Karabakh and large swaths of Azerbaijani land allowing territorial continuity between Armenia and the contested region.

In late 2020, Azerbaijan started the second war and almost reversed Armenia’s territorial gains by inflicting a humiliating defeat to Yerevan’s troops. This was possible thanks to Turkey’s strong support, which provided Azerbaijan with the fearsome Bayraktar drones, as well as other military and intelligence assistance.

Azerbaijan’s latest attack seems to be an attempt to deliver a final blow to its exhausted enemy. Furthermore, this time it also counted on Turkey’s backing.

On September 26th, a leak was reported on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline linking Russia to Germany and the following day two more leaks were spotted on the parallel Nord Stream 1 pipeline. Although the newly built Nord Stream 2 pipeline had never started commercial operations and Nord Stream 1 was technically not delivering gas to Europe due to maintenance, the two pipes had a capacity of 55 billion cubic meter (bcm) per annum each.

Meanwhile, the Baltic Pipe inaugurated on October 1st, which will transport 10 bcm per year of Norwegian gas to Poland and Denmark, will allow Europe to replace only a portion of the 55 bcm of Russian gas previously imported through Nord Stream 1.

Notwithstanding the responsibility behind an act by now unanimously recognized as a sabotage, the damages to Nord Stream – temporary or definitive – as well as the elimination of Russia as a reliable source of energy – although the Russian gas share of Europe’s total gas imports has decreased to around 10% versus 40% before the start of the war in Ukraine – add further pressure on Europe to find alternative sources for its gas supply.

In this regard, the new Azerbaijan-Armenia crisis and the Nord Stream pipeline leaks are interrelated events. Both shift Europe’s gas dependency from one autocracy – the Russian Federation – to a few other autocracies, including Azerbaijan. Its President, Ilham Aliyev, has held the post since 2003, after succeeding his father. He gradually moved Baku’s international stance from Russian influence by entering into a close alliance with Turkey.

Azerbaijan is a crucial piece of the puzzle that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cultivated in order to build a confederation of Turanic states from Anatolia to Central Asia. To give this project an institutional dimension, Erdogan created the Ankara-led Organization of Turkic States. But, in order to secure territorial continuity between Turkey, Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea, Armenia would need to hand over the Zangezour Corridor to Azerbaijan. This would create a direct link between the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic, which borders Turkey, and the Azerbaijan mainland.

Erdogan and Aliyev’s interests therefore coincide. Both also know that Azerbaijan’s gas is increasingly important for Europe, which flows through the Trans Anatolian Pipeline crossing Turkey and the Trans Adriatic Pipeline. This provides Ankara with the possibility to “weaponize” its pipeline to the detriment of Europe, which is not in a position to block Baku and Ankara’s hostile actions against Armenia. The mild reactions by Brussels and other European capitals towards Azerbaijan’s attack on Armenia last month corroborate this.

Following Russia’s attack to Ukraine and Western sanctions against Russia, European leaders intensified their diplomatic efforts to seal gas supply contracts with new suppliers or increase the quantity of gas bought from the current ones. One of these efforts resulted in Aliyev’s visit to Italy last month, where he committed to increase the quantity of gas it supplies to Italy through the Trans Adriatic Pipeline from 8.1 bcm in 2021 to 12 bcm by the end of this year.

 

Read also: Natural gas pricing mechanisms and the current crisis: drivers and trends

 

The Italy summit was preceded by a visit to Baku by the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen who signed a memorandum of understanding with Aliyev under which Azerbaijan committed to increase its supply of gas through the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) to 20 bcm by 2027.

Baku, 18 July 2022. European Commission’s President, Ursula von der Leyen, and Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, after the signing of the MoU for the supply of gas.

 

In another sign of its intention to exploit the current geopolitical situation so as to advance its interests, on October 3rd Turkey signed a memorandum of understanding for the exploration of hydrocarbons in Libyan territorial waters and territory. This is a follow-up to the Turkish-Libyan agreement signed in November 2019 under which the two governments set their respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) so far as to border with one another.

The 2019 agreement raised stark protests by Greece, whose EEZ would be overlapped by Turkey’s. Ankara is not a signatory party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas. In 2019, France stood firmly with Greece. On this occasion, also the EU’s reaction was solid.

Cyprus rests in the forefront of the instability that currently afflicts the Eastern Mediterranean region. The Republic of Cyprus is the only state on the island that is recognized by the international community and is an EU member. Its Northern part has been occupied by Turkey since 1974. Speaking at the Cyprus Forum on September 30th, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola stated that “Europe cannot be truly whole as long as Cyprus remains divided,” and went on by saying that “the only way forward is to have a single, sovereign European state, a bi-communal, bi-zonal federation, in accordance with the UN Security Council resolutions.” Turkey’s position, instead, advanced by both Erdogan and the Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar, is that there can no longer be a federal structure on the island, negotiations for a two-state solution under equal rights must continue, and the international community should recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

 

Read also: The new energy geopolitics of “East Med”

 

The 2019 Agreement with Libya is a key milestone in Turkey’s Mediterranean strategy. It rests upon the Blue Homeland doctrine, according to which Turkey is entitled to claim sovereignty over its liquid vital space in the Aegean, Mediterranean and Black Seas. The direct maritime border with Libya would enable Ankara to secure access to North Africa. Here, Turkey has already started its expansion through Eastern African countries towards the Port of Mogadishu, from where it would reconnect with Pakistan and the Turanic world through the Indian Ocean. Likewise, it is expanding westward to reach the Gulf of Guinea.

Turkey’s aggressive stance and ambiguous flirting with Russia, China, Iran and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, on the one hand, does not bode well for Ankara’s hopes that the West will support its requests. On the other hand, unfortunately, Europe’s vulnerability in relation to energy and migration are making it easier for autocrats and dictators to advance their agendas.

Addressing the conflicting interests in the Mediterranean region requires an inclusive approach and strong leaderships that would enable all partners to gain economically, socially and politically. New mechanisms of cooperation between the northern, southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean are needed. The EU-led Union for the Mediterranean, launched in 2008, has lost momentum. This is the time to revive it or find alternative forms of regional cooperation. A Mediterranean Political Community, along the lines of the European Political Community inaugurated on 6 October in Prague, could be an agile forum for dialogue and cooperation. Will Mediterranean leaders be up to the task?