Superpowers Are Vying For Power In This New Oil & Gas Frontier
(Oilprice.com – Vanand Meliksetian – August 29, 2019)
The Eastern Mediterranean has become a hotbed for tensions between regional and great powers due to the discovery of major energy deposits. The littoral states could potentially earn billions in gas exports while at the same time ensuring a level of energy security, which is rare to the region. However, the on-going activities create a level of complexity, which is an opportunity for countries such as the U.S. and Russia to exert influence.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned of “revisionist powers like Iran, Russia, and China trying to take major footholds in the East and West.” The U.S. wishes to create an alliance of countries connected through multilateral interdependence. The backbone of the coalition is to be formed by Greece, Cyprus, and Israel.
The most critical driver for Washington’s assertiveness is Russia’s resurgence as a major force which can project power in the wider region. Moscow’s relatively successful policy in the Middle East and its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean through its military intervention in Syria are making the U.S. wary of Russian influence.
Greece, Cyprus, and Israel, in the meantime, have renewed political and economic cooperation due to the potential of energy wealth and shared interests. Political backing from the U.S. was not decisive, but it did bolster the countries’ intention to collaborate. Bi-partisan support, for example, recently secured the ‘Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act’, which is already called the 3+1 cooperation initiative.
With the new legislation, Congress acknowledges its wish to reshape the U.S. strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean. According to Senator Bob Menendez, “the United States has significant national security interests in the Eastern Mediterranean bolstered by strong and expanding relationships with Greece, Israel, and Cyprus. The cooperation in energy security among these countries in recent years has paved the way for cooperation on a broad, regional security, economic, and energy agenda.” 
Additionally, the U.S. Senate has amended the National Defence Authorization Act to strengthen military ties with Cyprus. The amendment effectively lifts a decades-long arms embargo. However, the legislation also requires continued efforts by Cyprus to continue reforming anti-money laundering legislation and break a 2016 agreement to grant Russian vessels access to Cypriot ports. Due to the ambiguous nature of the amendment, President Nicos Anastasiades was not overly enthusiastic concerning the new developments as it would affect the “independence and sovereignty of the Republic of Cyprus.”
Russia’s interests, on the other hand, are more mixed with relatively good cultural, economic, or political ties with the littoral states. Moscow’s state-owned Rosneft, for example, owns a 30 percent stake in Egypt’s giant Zohr gas field, is connected to Cyprus and Greece through the Orthodox church, and cooperates with Turkey in Syria.
Comparable to Washington’s strategy in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean, the Kremlin is not investing all its energy and effort in a single preferred outcome. Instead, Russian companies have invested in Lebanon and are poised to become a dominant force in post-war Syria, while also supporting Turkey’s activities in the region.
Recently, Energy Minister Alexander Novak expressed the willingness of Russian companies to cooperate with Turkey on oil and gas exploration activities. Novak’s statement is a stark change in position where Moscow previously urged Ankara to show restraint concerning the use of military force in the Eastern Mediterranean.
In contrast to the U.S., Russia is not guided by a fixed strategy to adjust the geopolitical and energy landscape to its needs. Moscow lacks the resources and long-term political investment to reap the rewards of a network of allies in the way Washington can. Russia, however, maintains a ‘flexible’ strategy, comparable to its Middle East activities, where military and economic deals, alternated with diplomacy are used to seize opportunities.
The U.S.’ advantage is its ability to steer developments, while Russia can reap the rewards of the mistakes and choices of other parties. Washington, however, cannot adapt quickly to new situations as it is invested in a limited number of outcomes compared to the Kremlin. Moscow’s disadvantage is its inability to create opportunities of its own, thus being dependent on the decisions of others.
[Article also appeared at oilprice.com/Geopolitics/Europe/Superpowers-Are-Vying-For-Power-In-This-New-Oil-Gas-Frontier.html]
[featured images are file photos from other occasions]