How Ukraine's war could pave the way for a new Eastern Mediterranean

4 min read
12 April, 2022

When Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine, politicians in the Eastern Mediterranean feared what impact the war could have on their strategically important yet sensitive region.

As a result, diplomatic moves have intensified. Turkey has been central to this, especially with the visit of Israel’s president to Ankara, which many observers saw as a turning point in the region.

Turkish-Israeli relations had come to a halt after the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010 and have been strained over Turkey’s vocal support for the Palestinian cause internationally.

In the years since, Ankara has not viewed any geopolitical advantages in renormalising relations with Israel. But that reading has now fundamentally changed.

Since Joe Biden's victory in US elections Turkey has adopted a new regional policy, rebuilding its regional alliances along two parallel lines.

"Recent diplomatic moves involving Turkey, Israel, and others confirm that we may well be heading towards a new Eastern Mediterranean"

The military track

Ankara has stepped up its military operations and reconstructed its role to have a deeper influence in the region.

In Libya, Turkey has supported the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and now backs the interim Government of National Unity, establishing itself as a key power in the country.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s role in the Nagorno-Karabakh war has enabled it to play a mediatory role in the Azerbaijan-Armenia peace process. Ankara has also intensified its military presence in northern Iraq, northern Syria, and Somalia.

Live Story

The diplomatic track

Turkey has also begun diplomatic talks with Egypt which have restored relations between the two countries and made progress on maritime border issues and Libya.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry also opened important channels of communication with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel, which resulted in the visit of Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed to Ankara and Erdogan's visit to Abu Dhabi, resulting in important economic and political agreements.

With Turkey’s new diplomatic strategy paving the way for Israeli President Isaac Herzog's visit to Ankara, politicians in Athens felt the need to re-evaluate relations with Turkey. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited Istanbul shortly afterwards.

The humanitarian situation in Ukraine and Mariupol, in particular, was a focus of the talks, with the city home to a Muslim Tatar minority and a large Greek minority.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis at Vahdettin Mansion, in Istanbul, Turkey on 13 March 2022. [Mustafa Kamaci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

Energy exploration projects in the Eastern Mediterranean have also taken on more significance as a result of the Ukraine war, potentially providing a hefty return for both countries whose economies have been affected by increased energy prices and reduced tourism.

Greece is also keen to reduce its dependence on Russian gas by increasing imports from Azerbaijan via the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP).

With energy now a global concern, the West, and especially Europe, are searching for natural gas sources to free them from dependence on Russian imports.

In the east, the search for energy imports that will not face US sanctions is ongoing and politicians in the Eastern Mediterranean could sense an opportunity to get the EastMed pipeline project back on track.

"With energy now a global concern, the West, and especially Europe, are searching for natural gas sources to free them from dependence on Russian imports"

A new EastMed project?

In January 2020, leaders from Israel, Cyprus, and Greece signed the EastMed project but since then there has been no real action to put it into practice, with reports of its cost reaching $7 billion. The withdrawal of US support in January was a decisive blow.

Now, however, there is serious discussion about it, albeit in slightly different ways.

In Israel and Turkey, economists have begun to talk about the possibility of increasing production of the Leviathan gas field to about 21 billion cubic meters per year and the construction of a pipeline from the Israeli coast to Turkey, which in turn will connect to the TANAP pipeline to Greece.

From there it could be transported to Italy, France, and Germany. The cost of the project does not exceed one billion dollars and could be completed in less than two years.

In Athens, meanwhile, there is renewed talk of the need for US and European support for the original EastMed project, given the possibility that Greek deposits could become one more source of natural gas if the relevant investments proceed.

Mitsotakis's visit to Turkey and the resulting positive atmosphere came as part of an attempt by Athens to listen to Ankara's views.

Live Story

This positivity is supported by the statements of both sides after the meeting of the Turkish Minister of Defence Hulusi Akar with his Greek counterpart, in which the importance of regional economic development was stressed.

Interests are always the compass of politics and as the war rages on in Ukraine politicians in the region have begun reshuffling their cards.

This could pave the way for a new period of calm in the Eastern Mediterranean, whose energy resources have a hungry market for exports.

It may also mean a temporary solution to the Cyprus issue and relative calm in the Aegean Sea and the exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Recent diplomatic moves involving Turkey, Israel, and others confirm that we may well be heading towards a new Eastern Mediterranean.

Eva J. Koulouriotis is a political analyst specialising in the Middle East.

Follow her on Twitter: @evacool_