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Russia Casts Wide Net In Mediterranean

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M K Bhadrakumar. Asia Times

Post-Soviet Russia’s “de-ideologized return” to the Middle East in a matrix where all that is permanent are its interests and all else is ephemeral and negotiable is beginning to show results as the Tamar gas deal dramatically testifies.

There was a bygone era that ended a little over four years ago when it used to be said that the Kremlin used energy as a “geopolitical tool”. The threat perception propagated by cold warriors in the United States principally aimed at cautioning Europe against its rising energy dependency on Russian supplies.

Moscow was credited with the capacity to influence Western European policies with a hidden agenda to sabotage the trans-Atlantic partnership.

Meanwhile, unnoticed or unspoken, the geopolitics of energy has been transforming. The president in the White House, Barack Obama, has not wasted his breath over the Caspian energy rivalries. He has no special romance with Big Oil, unlike his predecessor in the Oval Office.

Ambassador Richard Morningstar, the United States special envoy on the Caspian, has quietly left the center stage and the “market” is slowly taking over. If Europe’s energy business with Russia holds uncertain prospects today, it is more due to economic reasons than a messianic drive to diversify its sources of imports.

The Bill Clinton era in the geopolitics of Caspian energy, which ran through the George W Bush presidency, imbued with a great sense of rivalry over Russia’s status as an energy powerhouse, is giving way. That is one of the messages to be pulled out from the announcement on Tuesday in Moscow that a subsidiary of the Russian energy giant Gazprom has signed a 20-year deal with Levant LNG Marketing Corp. for Israel’s Tamar offshore gas field in the Mediterranean. […]

It is no big secret that the Levant’s conflict politics intersect with global energy strategies. Israel wouldn’t want its export opportunities limited by Russia since Tamar and Leviathan offer a one-in-a-million chance for it to cultivate friendships and break out of its isolation. But the Tamar deal shows that Israel can be very pragmatic if the right mix of quid pro quo is forthcoming from Moscow.

What that Russian quid pro could be, time will tell. The Israeli government is yet to give approval to the Gazprom’s Tamar deal. Meanwhile, Israeli press has reported that the criteria for foreign investment in the Leviathan gas field – qualifications in natural gas development, liquefied natural gas processing, etc. – suspiciously suggest that Gazprom is set to take a stake in the project.

A rough estimation would be that Israel would need more than $10 billion worth of export infrastructure alone. No wonder, rumors of a Gazprom acquisition refuse to die down.

To be sure, the Israelis will bargain an optimal deal, and that will most certainly include political elements. Israel has made no bones about its keenness to whittle down Russia’s strategic ties with Iran, especially its arms sales. Israel would hope that Russia facilitates a smooth enough “regime change” in Syria for a shift that doesn’t destabilize the region to its disadvantage.

On balance, however, it seems increasingly difficult to keep Russia out of the energy reserves of the Eastern Mediterranean, especially if the plan is to construct a liquefaction facility in Cyprus that would process and export the gas received from Israeli Leviathan and Cypriote Aphrodite – which is what Noble Energy has called for.

Russia’s biggest advantage is that it is uniquely placed navigate its way around in the choppy waters of the Eastern Mediterranean, which is strewn with disputes over maritime borders and exclusive economic zones – involving Greece and Turkey, Israel and Lebanon, Cyprus and Turkey, and lately Syria and Turkey.

Post-Soviet Russia’s “de-ideologized return” to the Middle East in a matrix where all that is permanent are its interests and all else is ephemeral and negotiable is beginning to show results as the Tamar deal dramatically testifies. After all, it is no small matter to foster friendships with Israel on the one hand and Iran, Syria and Lebanon on the other, with Cyprus and Greece on the one hand and Turkey on the other – and make almost all of them feel special about their Russia connection.

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