East Mediterranean: Turkish Drilling, Russian Influence, and Rising Tension

seven navy ship sailing on ocean during daytime

For years, Turkey has been blocking Greek and Cypriot attempts at drilling for natural gas in the East Mediterranean Sea. Now, tensions are rising between NATO allies and the UN member states who surround the immense natural resources under the sea. Turkey continues to disregard international law and draw their own lines in the ocean, in a brazen attempt to drill in the natural gas fields between Cyprus and the area around the southernmost Greek islands. While these areas fall under the Exclusive Economic Zones of Greece and Cyprus, giving them sovereign rights to drill, Turkey continues to send surveying vessels with naval escorts into the region, effectively violating these rights, causing maritime mishaps, and provoking a response from the international community. The integrity of the Exclusive Economic Zones is important because the East Mediterranean Sea holds enough natural gas to eliminate European reliance on Russian energy and sustain all of Europe for years; without European access to this vital resource, Europe will continue to be reliant on Russia for natural gas, a situation that is less than ideal for the United States. 

As mandated by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is the area from a nation’s coast up to two-hundred nautical miles from the country’s coast. This EEZ area includes a nation’s 12 nautical miles of territorial waters, which extend from the nation’s coast line. While territorial waters represent the country’s full sovereignty, the EEZ provides sovereign rights to resources under the sea, such as the rights to fishing, mining, and drilling. This rule of law is followed by most nations in the UN. 

Currently, Turkey is the only country in the Eastern Meditarranean region who has not ratified the Convention. Turkey has instead taken its own approach in acknowledging EEZ areas. For starters, Turkey has adopted a different method for recognizing an EEZ when pertaining to another country’s islands. Signers of the Convention have agreed that a nation’s EEZ also extends from a nation’s islands, not just their mainland. This approach is extremely significant for nations like Crete, Cyprus, and Greece, who have many islands in the Eastern Mediterranean area. However, Turkey only recognizes an EEZ from a country’s mainland, not its islands. In Turkey’s eyes, Greek islands and a portion of the country of Cyprus are only entitled to the 12 nautical miles of territorial waters that extend from their coastlines. Turkey, however, has EEZ rights from 200 nautical miles from their mainland, encompassing the majority of Greek islands and Cyprus. To make matters worse, in November 2019, Turkey signed an accord* with Libya which effectively demarcated an 18.6 mile maritime boundary that would connect their EEZs (See Image 1). To Turkey, this accord further solidifies the country’s claim to drilling rights within the Greek EEZ, and also grants them the rights to Libya’s EEZ. All of these issues have now come to a head with the proposed construction of an offshore/onshore natural gas pipeline, the Eastmed Pipeline.

Image 1: The above map shows the Exclusive Economic Zones in the East Mediterranean. The orange zone is the proposed Turkey-Libya maritime accord.

The Eastmed Pipeline was agreed upon in January 2020 by Greece, Cyprus, and a host of other nations (not including Turkey), known as the Eastmed Gas Forum. The Eastmed Pipeline, as proposed, would be a 1,900 km long pipeline carrying natural gas from the East Mediterranean to Europe through the countries of Greece and Italy. The pipeline, if built, would ensure that the Eastmed Gas Forum nations maintain energy independence, while allowing Europe to reduce their reliance on Russian energy sources. While Turkey has not agreed to the Eastmed Pipeline, they do not want to be left out of the benefits that such a pipeline could provide, such as increased profits and energy independence of their own. Even though Turkey  recently discovered an abundance of natural gas in the Black Sea, the amount of natural gas in the East Mediterranean is much larger. Depending on how much natural gas can be recovered from the Black Sea, Turkey’s current find could supply only 40% of the nation’s necessary reserves. Essentially, Turkey cannot afford to miss out on the opportunities the Eastmed Pipeline can offer. But this is not the only factor driving Turkey’s decision making. Besides energy independence, Turkey wishes to keep control of their self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). 

Since the partition of Cyprus in 1974, which created the internationally unrecognized TRNC, Turkey has claimed EEZ rights to the north and west of Cyprus. Now, since Cyprus is included in the pipeline project, it cannot drill for natural gas while Turkey continues to send their naval forces into the region. The accord between Turkey and Libya, as it stands now, cuts off the Meditarranian between the two countries (See Image 2), effectively stopping the pipeline before it reaches Europe. This would keep Europe reliant on Russian gas.

Image 2: The above image shows the area Turkey claims as their Exclusive Economic Zone. Green pins represent Greek islands within Turkey's claimed proclaimed EEZ.

It may seem as though the Eastmed Pipeline may be set back by the Turkey-Libyan accord, but all hope is not lost. At the beginning of August 2020, Greece and Egypt signed a maritime border agreement that would demarcate their respective EEZs to connect with one another, allowing expanded drilling rights in the area for Eastmed Pipeline nations. Since UN member states can create these agreements on their own, as long as it does not violate another nations EEZ, it is expected to be fully supported by the UN. As long as this new agreement between Greece and Egypt remains legal in the eyes of the UN, the Turkey-Libyan agreement will be rendered null, since it is not based on international law and encroaches on internationally recognized Greek waters. 

Although the new agreement between Greece and Egypt is expected to be internationally recognized and legal, Turkey is continuing to send its drilling and naval vessels into the waters around Cyprus and the area between Cyprus and the Greek island of Crete. Turkey recently sent the surveying vessel Oruç Reis, along with five warships around the Greek island of Kastellorizo. The Greek navy responded by shadowing the vessels and on August 12, two naval frigates from Greece and Turkey collided, resulting in minor damage and no reported injuries. While the Greek Ministry of National Defence maintains it was an accident due to weather conditions, Turkish President Erdogan responded by saying, “We said that if you attack our Oruç Reis you will pay a high price, and they got their first answer today”. No one is quite sure what the President meant by, “they got their first answer today,” but further provocation could come. As tensions continue to rise, the EU and United Nations are beginning to realize the importance of maintaining maritime law in the region. 

The East Meditarranean Sea is of great importance to the countries surrounding it for natural resources and shipping routes, but the United States is, rightfully, concerned with the more encompassing issue at hand: the fight against Russian influence. The US is not alone; other countries are joining the fight against Russian influence as well. Currently, the EU is considering sanctions against Turkey, and France has committed a small amount of forces to the region. The United States has also sent the USS Hershel Williams, an expeditionary sea base capable of launching amphibious operations, into the region. While the U.S. already has a military presence in the region, the overall strategy of wooing Greece, Cyprus, and Europe away from Russian influence is currently at stake. With sanctions already being drawn up by the United States to stop a new Russian gas pipeline to Germany, lifting the arms embargo in Cyprus, and the passing of the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019, the U.S. is focusing on the “re-alignment of alliances, wielding influence, and securing energy supply” for Europe as a whole. Tensions will continue to rise until a diplomatic solution is achieved, and supporting the EU and Greece in particular should remain a top priority for the United States. Allowing the regional powers of the Eastmed Gas Forum to exercise their rights in their respective EEZ’s will decrease the usage of Russian energy and in turn provide stability for the region. 

Fortress International is a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business

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