Walter Russell Mead’s excellent blog recently discussed the conflicts over massive natural gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean:
Naturally, the race to get the gas has reinvigorated old arguments (Cyprus-Turkey) and added fuel to newer disagreements (Israel-Turkey). Israel and Cyprus have been fastest off the blocks, agreeing on their common maritime border in 2010 and contracting exploration work to Noble Energy. Turkey, on the other hand, has been slow to react and increasingly confrontational, holding naval exercises and trying to prevent Cyprus from accessing gas that Turkey says belong to Northern Cyprus, which only Ankara recognizes as a country. The confrontation also threatens to further destabilize Israeli relations with Turkey, which appeared to be on the uptick this week when an Israeli delegation arrived in Turkey’s quake-hit Van Province with aid supplies; “You are our true friends” said Van’s vice governor.
The gas reserves in the Levant Basin may be large enough to make Cyprus self-sufficient in energy and turn Israel into a major gas exporter for the next several decades. That, and Israel’s new tilt toward Greece as a way of countering the cold wind in its relations with Turkey, is opening a new era in Israel-Cyprus relations. Netanyahu is on his way to Nicosia this week (the first ever visit of an Israeli PM to the island), and Israel is expected to formally ask to station fighter jets at a southern Cypriot airbase.
Oh joy. Another reason for conflict in a region of the world that counts conflict and strife as its most important export.
Unmentioned in Mead’s post is Russia, the country which has a huge economic stake in the development of a major gas resource right next to its major western European customers. Eastern Mediterranean supplies would be far closer to Europe (especially big consumers like Italy) than Russia, and these supplies wouldn’t be subject to the Russian-Ukrainian Punch and Judy routine every winter, or the vicissitudes of Russian domestic considerations. Meaning that if these resources were developed to their full potential, Gazprom (OTCPK:OGZPY) (and Russia) would suffer substantially. Very substantially.
Which gives Russia a tremendous incentive to foment instability in the region. Not like that is very hard, either.
It has two major levers in this endeavor. The first is Cyprus, which is deeply enmeshed with Russia financially and politically. Russia has been Greek Cyprus’s financial savior, extending it substantial amounts of credit to keep the country from plunging into Greece-like catastrophe. Even more importantly, Cyprus is the destination or conduit of dirty Russian money, and the location of choice for Russians setting up dodgy shell companies. (Oh, how entertaining it would be if Cyprus were the target of an invasion by an army of forensic accountants!) (Also recall that the SVR agent who was the money man for the Anna Chapman spy ring miraculously disappeared in Cyprus after being arrested there.)
The second is . . . Syria. I do not suggest that this is the only reason for Russian intransigence in Syria: That behavior is overdetermined. But stoking conflict in Syria, or standing in the way of resolution of conflict, does promote Russian interests in the gas business. Indeed, the economic stakes here are far greater than the oft-cited Russian commercial interests in Syria: Some rather shambolic business and infrastructure projects, and arms sales (which appear never to be paid for, at least fully).