The Geopolitics of Energy: Powder Keg in the Eastern Mediterranean

The Russian oil boycott has not only shaken the global economy, but also exposes how overdue the world is for a transition to cleaner energy. Three scholars report on impacts of the boycott and emphasize the need for multilateral solutions that don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.

Worker in a section of pipe along the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline

By Michelle Nicholasen

Third in a series of interviews on the impact of the Russian oil boycott on countries around the world. 

Worldwide cuts in Russian oil imports have sent a shockwave through the global economy, threatening a global recession, according to recent IMF forecasts. At the same time, the boycott is a blunt reminder that the world is desperate for a monumental energy transition to ease the climate crisis, and even the leading economies are not there yet.

But oil is here to stay, at least for the near future. Unlike a reduction in the supply of washing machines or computer chips, the need for energy security is a national imperative that can lead to some stark trade-offs. Throughout the modern era, the drive for unlimited fuel supply/oil has resulted in compromises in environmental health, human rights, ethics, and international peace. Today’s self-imposed oil shortage is forcing nations to find alternative sources of fuel and forge new relationships in a truly global market.

In part 3, political scientist Oya Dursun-Özkanca expands on Turkey as a multiregional crossroad for oil and gas production and distribution. However, Turkey’s relations with Cyprus, Greece, and France have been strained by territorial conflicts in the eastern Mediterranean.

To learn more about the ramifications of the Russian oil boycott, we asked three scholars about the impacts in the countries and regions they study: Marino Auffant on Saudi Arabia and the EU; Victor Seow on China; and Oya Dursun-Özkanca on Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean. The three interviews in this series are edited for length and clarity.

Q: How is the Russian oil embargo affecting Turkey?

Book cover for Turkey-West RelationsOYA DURSUN-OZKANCA: We have seen a growing partnership between Turkey and Russia ever since the coup attempt in Turkey in 2016. It came at a heavy cost with regard to Turkey's relations with the West, as I explain in detail in my recent book.

So, while it is easier for the US, UK, and Canada to stop importing Russian energy, it is not so easy for Turkey to do so, as it depends on Russia for 45 percent of its natural gas demand, and 17 percent of its oil demand. Therefore, the Turkish authorities announced that they are not going to be implementing any oil embargo on Russia.

Turkey's economy has already been in a deep recession in the last couple of years. We have also seen an undergoing currency crisis with the devaluation of the Turkish lira vis-a-vis major currencies. The country also has skyrocketing inflation—the official inflation rate is 65 percent and the unofficial inflation rate is 120 percent. The cost of living is getting more and more expensive. 

Against that economic background and the upcoming elections in 2023, we can say that the Turkish authorities are very cognizant of the electoral implications of implementing potential Russian oil boycotts, because Turkey and Russia are quite dependent on each other for trade and finances. 

Having said that, Turkey has been treading a fine line balancing its relations with Ukraine and Russia. The country does not want to be perceived as a pro-Russian NATO ally, especially in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Hence, it tries to position itself neutrally, with a slight tilt toward Ukraine, while at the same welcoming the wealth of the Russian oligarchs.

European countries are trying to decrease their dependency on Russia on energy issues. This provides a significant window of opportunity for Turkey to position itself as a central player in terms of helping connect alternative energy resources to Europe.

Because of its strategic location as a bridge between the Black Sea, Central Asia, Caucasus, and Europe, it is well placed to serve as a transport hub for energy. In fact, Turkey has already taken part in the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), which is part of the Southern Gas Corridor, a project that the European Union has developed to lessen its dependence on Russia. It started operationalization in December 2020 but is expected to deliver only about 6 percent of European energy consumption per year.

Black and white map of Southern Gas Corridor

Q: Let's talk about the purported relationship between energy and types of governments. Do you buy the argument that the oil industry in particular lends itself to authoritarian tendencies?

OYA DURSUN-OZKANCA: As a comparative politics specialist, I can elaborate on the oil curse argument, which is quite prominent in the literature, and holds that oil-rich countries have authoritarian tendencies. 

For instance, Michael Ross's Oil Curse book is a good representative of this body of literature. Often, it is the governments that benefit from oil revenues. And these governments tend to be the least democratic ones. The governments can keep themselves in power and maintain their power using oil revenues.

This certainly takes away from the political and economic participation of citizens. Governments don't have to collect taxes, and thus don't have the accountability that the democratic governments have toward their citizens. They don't have to pay attention to their people. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and Libya come to mind. There are other countries in Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Latin America that fall into that categorization as well—such as Venezuela, for instance, or Colombia.

It is also important to acknowledge that oil prices have democratic implications as well. As we have all experienced, rising oil prices are reflected in the rise of commodity prices elsewhere, because of the implications on transportation costs, which means that democratic governments are going to feel the heat from their citizenry, in terms of responding to demands of keeping inflation down.

This is going to be very obvious as we approach the midterm elections in November in the United States. We are probably going to see the Biden Administration and the Democrats taking a hit, because of the rise in the oil prices and rising prices of commodities overall.

Q: Could you explain to us this complex set of tensions between Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean, a region that has emerged as a critical area of contention over oil?

OYA DURSUN-OZKANCA: The eastern Mediterranean is close to the world's most politically unstable region. It is at an intersection of Asia, Africa, and Europe. Because there are ongoing disputes in terms of maritime boundaries and hydrocarbon explorations in disputed territories, coupled with the civil wars in the Middle East, it is possible to make a case that the eastern Mediterranean is now becoming a powder keg—a title that belonged to the Balkans in the 1990s.

So ever since the 2011 discovery of offshore hydrocarbons in Cyprus, an island country off Turkey’s southern coast, the geostrategic competition has significantly increased in the region. And the unresolved Cyprus problem is a major contributor to the increasingly ambitious foreign policy of Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean.

In 2012, when Turkey first started drilling in the eastern Mediterranean, it initially aimed to put pressure on the government of the Republic of Cyprus with regard to reaching a negotiated settlement with the Turkish Cypriots for sharing the profits from the island’s natural resources.

Since then, Turkey has intermittently engaged in hydrocarbon explorations in the region, drawing heavy criticism for its gunboat diplomacy and display of military power at sea.

Back in December 2018, Cyprus and Egypt came to an agreement and declared the construction of a pipeline connecting Egypt's liquefied natural gas facilities to Cyprus's Aphrodite field.

Then in January 2019, the East Mediterranean Gas Forum was created between seven countries: Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. Later on, they admitted France. It is now an eight-member international organization that is dedicated to the creation of gas markets in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey is kept outside of the new organization.

Since then, there have been new natural gas discoveries in offshore Cyprus, and additional hydrocarbon discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean. Against that background, we have seen the Libyan Civil War getting more and more heated, and Turkey has signed a security and maritime delimitation agreement with the Libyan Government of National Accord in November 2019. This meant the contestation of the exclusive economic zones (where the US and other coastal nations have jurisdiction over natural resources) and continental shelves in the region.

The agreement has been a game-changer in the eastern Mediterranean. It had a spoiler effect for the regional hydrocarbon exploration efforts, because major corporations were no longer interested in going into the contested regions and exploring additional resources. The presence of the Turkish Navy discouraged those companies from engaging in hydrocarbon explorations in the region. It further discouraged collaboration between members of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum.

Furthermore, in the summer of 2020, very important incidents took place, which brought NATO allies to the brink of a hot conflict—specifically between Turkey and Greece and between Turkey and France. Thankfully, first Germany and then NATO intervened with its deconfliction mechanism, in order to make sure that there are diplomatic exchanges between the NATO allies that would help them refrain from the use of force in these heated waters of the eastern Mediterranean.

Embed from Getty Images


Q: What’s the potential for producing renewable energy in Turkey and the Mediterranean?

OYA DURSUN-OZKANCA: Well, Turkey is lagging behind the rest of Europe in terms of the transition into renewable energy resources. The Turkish government just ratified the Paris Accords last year in October.

But there is really no significant concrete roadmap toward making the transition in decarbonizing the economy with renewable energy resources. Turkey has very consistent levels of sunlight, about 7.5 hours a day throughout the year, which would make it a very good candidate for using solar energy.

But it is, at this moment in time, really falling behind comparable countries in terms of its efficient use of solar energy. And like Marino has expressed, the storage of electricity becomes a very difficult point—which makes it not preferable at this point in time due to lack of technological advancements in that area.

Q: In terms of final thoughts, as the world shifts to cleaner technologies, what is the most important lesson that you derive from your research?

OYA DURSUN-OZKANCA: From my research perspective, I think that the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent energy security crisis are best tackled through international cooperation between like-minded states.

Increased collaboration will come in handy in the short term due to the pressure of finding alternative energy suppliers, which emerges as an important issue globally.

The Turkish authorities are similarly cognizant of the fact that it is important to collaborate and mend relations with the neighboring countries in the region, something that has more or less not been happening since the Arab Spring. But over the last several months, we see a 180-degree reversal of this foreign policy trajectory. Turkey has recently been seeking to mend its relations with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Israel.

You see the realization on the part of the Turkish authorities that they will need to come to a working agreement, just for practical or pragmatic purposes, for energy security, if not for increasing its leverage vis-a-vis the European Union.

Cooperation between nations is central to breaking up the dependency on fossil fuels, and to come up with a new technology that will break this dependency. Once again, international collaboration emerges as significant. For instance, the European Union is already doing it with its Repower EU Initiative, which seeks to conserve energy, diversify energy resources, cut dependence on Russian energy, and find alternative renewable energy resources. Another good example is the collaboration between Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, and Denmark, which just signed an agreement to increase their production of wind energy. Because of their proximity to the North Sea, they can easily do that. This effectively illustrates that collaboration is going to be central to moving forward.


Read more in The Geopolitics of Energy series

Contributor Bio

Headshot of Oya Dursun-OzkancaOya Dursun-Özkanca was a 2021–2022 Visiting Scholar with the Weatherhead Scholars Program at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. She is a professor of political science at the School of Public Service and College Professor of International Studies (Endowed Chair) at Elizabethtown College. Her recent book, Turkey–West Relations: The Politics of Intra-alliance Opposition, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2020.


  1. Worker in a section of pipe along the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) Project. Credit: TANAP, part of media gallery
  2. The Southern Gas Corridor’s route from Azerbaijan to Europe includes the South Caucasus Pipeline, the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline, and the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline. Its purpose is to reduce Europe’s dependency on Russian natural gas, and its supply will be sourced from the Caspian Sea. Published May 12, 2015. Color and contrast of map adjusted to improve accessibility. Credit: ©Trans Adriatic Pipeline AG, all rights reserved
  3. Turkey, Greece and the dash for gas. FT energy editor David Sheppard uses maps of the eastern Mediterranean to explain why there is such interest in gas deposits. The Turkish exploration vessels searching for them are not using conventional drilling platforms while the possible hydrocarbon bounty has become a catalyst bringing long-running tensions back to the surface in the region, Sep 8, 2020. Credit: Financial Times, YouTube
  4. Turkey's Oruc Reis seismic vessel, escorted by Turkish navy, is seen offshores of Eastern Mediterranean on August 20, 2020. Credit: Turkish National Defense Ministry/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
  5. REPowerEU is the European Commission’s plan to end dependency on Russian fossil fuel imports. REPowerEU is a plan for saving energy, producing clean energy, and diversifying our energy supplies. It is backed by financial and legal measures to build the new energy infrastructure and system that Europe needs. Credit: © European Union, 2022 (copyright statement)