SIM Report: Geopolitical tensions over offshore energy exploration highlights longer-term maritime risk in the Eastern Mediterranean

sIM REport: Southern europe, issue 9

The discovery of significant hydrocarbon reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean was heralded by some observers as a potential turning point for relations between the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) and Greece on the one side and Turkey on the other. However, clear efforts from the RoC to exploit natural resources in the area and a strong commitment from key energy firms towards this process has triggered an adverse response from Ankara.

On 2 October, Turkey said that the presence of a research vessel in the Eastern Mediterranean on assignment for the RoC breached the rights of Turkish Cypriots and was a violation of Turkey’s maritime space. Turkish officials blamed tensions in the region on Greece and Cyprus for their ‘maximalist maritime jurisdiction area claims and unilateral acts that ignore Turkey’s and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ (TRNC) rights and interests.’ The TRNC is only recognised by Turkey.

A Navtex (or marine advisory) issued by the RoC, indicated that the Nautical Geo research ship conducted surveys in Cyprus’ EEZ along its southern coast from 27 September to 4 October. The vessel has been tasked by the Greek, RoC, and Israeli governments to map a sea route for the planned EastMed natural gas pipeline, which upon completion will connect offshore natural gas to mainland Greece. Days before Turkey’s statement of complaint, Greek foreign minister Nikos Dendias briefed his EU counterparts about the presence of Turkish naval ships closer than 10 nautical miles from Crete and expressed concern over the close proximity to the Nautical Geo. Despite this, Nautical Geo has moved eastwards and recently entered block 1, located in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

This is not the first time Turkey has used the threat of naval force to prevent energy-related exploration operations from taking place in Cyprus’s EEZ. In February 2018, the Turkish navy blockaded the Saipem 12000 drill ship, commissioned by Italian energy firm Eni, and prevented it from reaching its intended destination in the southeast of Cyprus.

While Turkey has remained adamant in preventing encroachment off the coast of TRNC-controlled northern Cyprus, the Turkish research vessel, Oruc Reis, continues to conduct seismic surveys in the area until 16 December. The arrival of Nautical Geo at Cyprus’s oil and gas Block 1, however, had been deemed a provocative move by Turkey. Indeed, Ankara had previously warned Greece and Cyprus that they were taking ‘steps that increase tensions.’ Furthermore, in what is likely going to cement this trend of antagonisms is a statement by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on 17 November. He said that Turkey would be acquiring a natural gas drilling vessel, which will be focusing its activities in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, expanding the country’s total drilling vessel fleet to four. For Erdoğan, allowing Greece and Cyprus to exploit resources in their continental shelf may isolate and ultimately weaken Turkey’s standing as a regional power. In line with this approach, further efforts to directly or indirectly prevent offshore exploration off the coast of Cyprus are likely.

For energy companies with interests in the area, this poses greater emerging political and security risks with operational considerations. On the EU level, Greece and Cyprus have repeatedly called fortougher sanctions against Turkey over its drilling activities without success. Until Turkey faces a stronger deterrent (such as EU sanctions), its behaviour and actions in the region are unlikely to change. Therefore, the current geopolitical dynamic in the Eastern Mediterranean will continue to be determined by what Greece and Cyprus view is consistent Turkish aggression but with both EU countries lacking the means to effectively respond to it beyond using diplomatic resources to gain more international attention on developments in the region.

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