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Russia-Ukraine war: Conflict boosts hopes for East Mediterranean energy, experts say

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Russia's invasion will change the structure of the European and Middle Eastern energy markets
The Tungsten Explorer drilling ship off the coast of the Cypriot town of Oroklini in the gulf of Larnaca, on 21 July 2020 (AFP)
By Sean Mathews in Athens, Greece

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has given a new boost to long-running efforts of Eastern Mediterranean states to tap into regional gas reserves amid concerns over energy security in Europe, experts have said.

On Tuesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid travelled to Athens to meet with his Greek and Cypriot counterparts, Nikos Dendias and Ioannis Kasoulides.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine will "change the structure of the European and Middle Eastern energy market," Lapid told his Greek counterpart, adding that it offers "opportunities which we must examine together".

In a statement issued later alongside Greece's Dendias and Cyprus's Kasoulides, Lapid addressed the opportunities afforded by western efforts to reduce their dependency on Russian gas.

"There are risks here, but there are also opportunities," he said.

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Antonia Dimou, director of the Middle East and Persian Gulf unit at the Athens-based Institute for Security and Defence Analyses, told MEE that "energy is the dominant issue that will now impact alignments within the Eastern Mediterranean region, given the war in Ukraine".

Over the past decade, Greece, Israel and Cyprus have partnered on economic and security issues, with leaders regularly engaging in high-level trilateral summits.

The countries' militaries frequently conduct joint exercises together and Israel has inked major defence deals with Athens. Israeli visitors have also become an important market for Cypriot and Greek tourism-dependent economies.

In 2016, the three countries signed a $6bn plan to ship Israeli and Egyptian gas to mainland Europe via a 1,180-mile pipeline running through Greece and Cyprus. But the project languished over concerns about its economic feasibility and festering maritime tensions with Turkey.

Earlier this year, in pulling its support for the EastMed pipeline, the Biden administration cited environmental and economic concerns, along with what it considered to be the project’s contribution to heightened tensions in the region.

Panayotis Tsakonas, head of the security programme at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), told MEE that the conflict in Ukraine had rekindled interest in the project.

"There is a kind of reconsideration on how exactly to deal with the East Med pipeline, with the Europeans and Americans looking for alternatives to Russian gas," he said.

New opportunities

Europe depends on Russia for roughly 40 percent of its natural gas needs. Within one year the EU aims to cut its dependence on Russian gas by two-thirds. That has left the bloc scrambling for supply in an already tight market.

Israeli Energy Minister Karin Elharar said the country had received a request from the EU to supply it with natural gas. According to the Israeli Ministry of Energy, the country could provide Europe with 10 percent of the gas it currently buys from Russia.

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Last month, the CEO of Chevron, the company which operates Israel’s Tamar and Leviathan gas fields in the Mediterranean, said that an Eastern Mediterranean gas pipeline could offer the EU an alternative to Russian supplies.

Dimou said that in the short term the countries were looking at "practical steps" that would allow Israeli gas to be shipped to Europe.

Israel already pipes its gas to Egypt for liquefaction at the country's LNG facilities in Idku and Damietta, and Egypt's cash strapped government is eager to increase the export of LNG through plants that have spare capacity.    

"It would be both politically and technically easier for Israel to pipe its gas to Egypt's liquefied LNG plants for conversion and then export to Europe," she said.

Greece has also expanded its own infrastructure. Besides its LNG terminal on Revithousa island off the coast of Attica, it is building a new floating terminal in the northern city of Alexandroupoli.

'Quiet and easy'

 The renewed focus on energy security comes as Eastern Mediterranean rivals have also been coming together after years of heightened tensions in the region. Last month Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, with much fanfare.

The trip raised concerns in Athens and Nicosia about their carefully constructed alliance with Israel. The three countries, along with Egypt, have moved closer together because of their shared concern over Turkey’s muscular foreign policy in the region.

Before visiting Ankara, Herzog travelled to both Athens and Nicosia to reassure leaders there about the alliance.

"Politics is symbolism and the fact that Herzog visited Greece and Cyprus before Turkey shows the importance of our ties," Constantinos Filis, executive director at the Institute of International Relations at Athens Panteion University, told MEE. 

"The Israelis will not change their policies with Greece and Cyprus because of rapprochement with Turkey," he added. 

In a surprise move, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis held rare talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul just a few days after Herzog's visit. The two countries have been locked in long running feuds over maritime borders, migration, and the sovereignty of the Aegean islands.

On Sunday, Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu heralded the thaw in relations, stating, "We can say that the channels of dialogue with Greece are more open today than ever before."

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Analysts say the rapprochement is another indication of how the conflict in Ukraine has rippled across the Eastern Mediterranean. "The cry from the international community right now is for cooperation," Tsakonas told MEE.

He said the US and Europe had no interest in seeing tensions in the region go back to the fever pitch of 2020 when Greek and Turkish warships were colliding. "They want to keep things quiet and easy," he added.

Turkey has also set its sights on a potential energy deal with Israel. A Turkish-Israeli pipeline estimated to cost $1.5bn has long been floated as a more viable alternative to the EastMed line.

However, analysts have expressed scepticism about the feasibility of that plan, as it would likely have to cross through the contested waters of Cyprus, which is divided between the official Republic of Cyprus in the south and a breakaway Turkish north, recognized only by Ankara. 

"Without a political settlement on the island, such a project would be extremely difficult," Filis told MEE.

Still, some analysts say that with war now raging in Europe the time could be ripe for compromises after years of tensions have prevented countries in the region from tapping into their natural resources. 

"We have four players, [Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Turkey] who all want to eat this delicious pie. But if one of them is left out, then no one gets to eat it," Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, an expert on Turkey-Israeli relations with the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told MEE.

The trick, Cohen said, is to find a "common denominator that shares the pie."

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