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Will Turkey ever become a Russian gas hub?

Seda Sezer Bilen
March 22, 2023

After Vladimir Putin suggested Turkey could be a hub for Russian gas deliveries, the idea ignited enthusiasm in Turkey. But technical and political challenges may undermine Erdogan's energy ambitions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a ceremony to launch the TurkStream gas pipeline
Turkey's ambition of becoming a natural gas hub relies heavily on the personal bond shared between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip ErdoganImage: Alexei Druzhinin/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/ITAR-TASS/IMAGO

Russia was the world's largest gas exporter until February 24, when Moscow invaded Ukraine, shaking global energy markets and forcing Europe to end its dependence on Russian fossil fuels.

Europe imposed sanctions on Russia, which Turkey has refused to apply. Since the war began, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought to play a mediating role in the conflict, supplying weapons to Kyiv while maintaining close relations with President Vladimir Putin.

In response, Putin proposed in October to make Turkey a hub for Russian gas deliveries as an alternative supply route to Europe — a plan backed by Erdogan. But what Putin has in mind is not clear, so far.

Bringing Turkey closer into 'Moscow's orbit'

Both presidents are going through difficult times. After 20 years in power, Erdogan faces the toughest challenge of his political life in the upcoming elections on May 14.

Erdogan's re-election bid was already proving to be arduous amid record-high inflation and an economic slowdown. A devastating earthquake that hit Turkey in February, killing almost 50,000 people, has only made it harder for the Turkish leader. The quake caused damage worth more than $103 billion (€96.11 billion), or approximately 9% of the country's expected national income this year.

Putin has his own set of challenges at hand, including the war in Ukraine and tough economic sanctions hitting the Russian economy.

"Putin is dangling for Turkey the 'carrot' of becoming a gas hub to bring Turkey closer to Moscow's orbit — similarly to what Putin had tried to do with Germany and Nord Stream," said energy expert Agnia Grigas, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a US think tank.

"Putin has traditionally used personal relationships, natural gas deals and arguably corruption to establish closer diplomatic relations with European and Eurasian countries, so Turkey is no exception," she told DW.

Turkey: Navigating Russian sanctions

Technical headwinds

Despite promising rhetoric by the leaders of both countries, there are technical concerns about the plan for Turkey to become a Russian gas hub.

"The idea behind Putin's statements seems to send more Russian pipeline gas to Turkey, and that gas could then be re-exported to Europe," Anne-Sophie Corbeau, a global research scholar at Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy, told DW.

"The issue is that there is not enough pipeline capacity to do that," she added.

Two active natural gas pipeline systems carry gas from Russia to Turkey. The biggest of these, TurkStream is designed to carry 31.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year and supplies gas to both Europe and Turkey via two pipelines.

The second pipeline system, BlueStream, has an annual capacity of 16 bcm and covers Turkey's domestic gas demand.

Both systems are currently heavily congested and adding one or more pipelines will take years, energy analysts say.

Russian gas is currently exempt from sanctions because so many European nations are reliant on it. However, EU states have been desperately seeking to reduce this dependency. So if Turkey becomes an energy hub that includes Russian gas, Western leaders are concerned Europe could end up importing the very Russian gas it is trying to move away from. 

A gas pipeline belonging to the TurkStream gas delivery system
Turkey imported 58.7 bcm of natural gas in 2021, with 44.9% coming from RussiaImage: SWR

Can Turkey become a gas hub?

Considering Erdogan's well-known long-standing goal of making Turkey one of the world's leading energy trading centers, could Turkey and Russia pull this off?

"Despite the TurkStream pipeline project, Turkey does not have the potential to become a gas hub for Europe as the EU countries and Russia's near abroad countries are seeking diversification away from Russian energy sources," said energy expert Grigas.

"Likewise, most EU countries are prioritizing alternative supplies of gas such as from the Caspian, Norway, North Africa and further afield such as the United States and Qatar via LNG," she said, referring to liquefied natural gas. 

With oil and gas scarce, Turkey relies heavily on gas imports from Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran, as well as LNG imports from the United States, Egypt, Qatar, Nigeria and Algeria.

LNG imports have reached 14.1 bcm, accounting for 24% of total imports, according to data from the Turkish Ministry of Energy. Turkey has doubled its LNG imports since 2013, data shows.

In order for Turkey to become a gas hub and supply Europe "the only possibility that I could see is that Turkey imports more Russian pipeline gas [once the pipeline capacity has been built]. Therefore it needs less LNG and this LNG is then free to supply other European markets," Corbeau said.

"I don't think Europe wants to be more dependent on Russian gas coming through another place," she noted.

A map showing the gas pipelines coming out of Russia and supplying Europe

Bumpy road ahead

Turkey's strategic position in the Black Sea, its control over the Bosphorus, and its status as a NATO member make it a valuable partner for Moscow in the current geopolitical situation. But Putin's idea of turning Turkey into a Russian gas hub could make Ankara more dependent on Moscow, analysts warn.

"You have to remember that the relationship between Erdogan and Putin has not always been great if you recall what happened in 2015," said Corbeau, referring to the downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkish forces in Syria.

Even though the relationship was officially restored in 2016, the two countries have remained on opposite sides in recent conflicts such as Libya and Syria. 

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic attend a ceremony marking the formal launch of the TurkStream pipeline which carries Russian natural gas to southern Europe through Turkey
Despite progress in energy policy, many players in the region remain at loggerheads with Putin on regional conflictsImage: Reuters/U. Bektas

Corbeau thinks Erdogan is playing an "interesting game between Ukraine and Russia," wondering if anyone would "bet that the relationship between Russia and Turkey — in particular their presidents — would be good for a long time."

"It's not really down to the relationship between two countries but the relationship between two presidents. At the end of the day it's all about Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan," she added.

There is one more piece of the puzzle. Turkey will go to the ballot box on May 14, which could be a game changer, said Grigas and could spell the end to the "cozy personal relationship between Putin and Erdogan," resulting in changes to Turkey's energy and foreign policy.

Turkey had planned to hold a natural gas summit in Istanbul this year, bringing together gas suppliers and Europe's consumer countries. The event, which was initially planned for February and was postponed to March 22 due to the earthquake, has been pushed back indefinitely, according to local media reports.

The Kremlin said on Monday that work to create a gas hub in Turkey was "a complex project that would require time to come to fruition."

"It is clear that this is quite complicated work, it is a rather complex project which, unfortunately, cannot be implemented without time shifts, without technical or other problems," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

"Such situations are inevitable in relation to the Turkish hub. We will follow it, we will continue to work with our Turkish partners."

Edited by: Ashutosh Pandey