By Maria Giannakopoulou
A breath before the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic, the crucial nuclear energy plant for President Erdogan in the Mediterranean city of Akkuyu seems to have taken the second place, given that the spotlight is on the war in Ukraine and the subsequent economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the West.
What is Russia’s role in Turkey’s nuclear ambitions of ownership? Should Erdogan scale back his expectations, taking into consideration the ongoing war?
On May 12, 2010, more than a decade ago, the foundations of Russian-Turkish transnational cooperation in the field of nuclear energy were laid with the signing of an economic agreement between Turkey and Russia’s state-owned nuclear power company Rosatom.
However, the construction of the factory is only now beginning to take shape. It is worth noting that this project is perhaps the largest Russian investment in the energy sector abroad, if one considers that Russia holds 99% of the share capital.
Turkey’s ambition to build a nuclear facility dates back to 1960. However, during the second half of 20th century the country was not really on solid footing, in order to have the nuclear vision put into effect, due to the dire economic situation and internal political turmoil . Under the prism of Turkey’s economic insufficiency and ever-growing embroilment with cross-border confrontations, it goes without saying that Turkey would not be able to develop a self-sufficient nuclear project. Admittedly, the long lasting (but perhaps superficial) bromance between Presidents Putin and Erdogan forged an alternative path for the technological modernization of Turkey.
It is also worth-mentioning that Russian-Turkish relations over the centuries, although have been presented as divergent and conflicting in terms of territorial sovereignty around Caucasus and Middle East region , throughout the Post-Cold era they keep on being in-line, with economic exchanges, balancing political and economic interests.
Despite the dismemberment of the Soviet Giant, Russia remained the major force in the area, which strengthened the inclination of Turkish leaders to prioritize close economic and trade ties with Russia. Although the Turkey-Russia relationship could be described as financially co-dependent mostly for the Turkish side, Turkey has seen its dream to develop nuclear expertise turning into reality thanks to the willingness of the company Rosatom to invest in Turkish territory in the framework of increasing Russia’s energy exports. According to the Turkish government the Akkuyu nuclear plant envisages the emergence of Turkey as an economically and energetically progressive state entity on the international chessboard. Additionally, apart from the rejuvenation of Turkey’s international prestige, Akkuyu’s capability to produce 35 billion kilowatt per year, thanks to the construction of four pressurized water reactors, will provide an adequate electricity grid covering the demand of the fast growing population and industrial activity.
Moreover, It is a fact that Erdogan’s ever-lasting lust to gain a spot among the protagonists of international community is a driving force for the implementation of policies within the country, which often exceed the size and steeliness of the Turkish economy and social acceptance. It is worth noting that Russia’s contribution is not limited to financial capital but also goes up to the level of dissemination of nuclear knowledge. Precisely, approximately 150 Turkish students have lately graduated from Russian Institute of Nuclear Physics. Apparently, although Turkey seems having developed a relationship of dependency on Russia in the short-term, in the long-run we could estimate the vision of creating a domestic scientific workforce.
Is it peaceful energy?
Turkey’s interest in establishing NNP has created suspicions over the scenario of an imminent nuclear arsenal. Undoubtedly, sustainable development interpreted by less gas addiction, even though it could not be described as a pretext, it is certainly not an end in itself. During and immediately after the end of the Cold War, Turkey was faced with the rapid development of a nuclear arsenal in its eastern neighbourhood. Countries such as Iran, Russia and Israel have embarked on an ongoing state-of-the-art equipment race, leaving Turkey far behind. However, being the stronghold of NATO in those crucial moments in world history, Turkey enjoyed the protection provided by the Western alliance and the NATO umbrella, while faithfully following the legacy left by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
In recent years, especially after 2019, the statements of the Turkish President address and reflect the West’s unwillingness to accept his goal to join the ranks of nuclear powers. The inclusion of nuclear weapons in Recep Tayip Erdogan’s rhetoric, on the one hand, intensifies the concerns of his rivals over Turkey’s nuclear choice, and on the other hand, confirms the position that nuclear facilities are inextricably linked to their prospective military use.
The development of nuclear arsenals during the Cold War was based on the concept of nuclear deterrence according to the school of realism and rational deterrence, which leads to world peace and stability. Indeed, Turkey is a member of the most important intergovernmental conventions for the annihilation of the creation and propagation of nuclear weapons , such as the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). Even so, the atomic weapon suspicions when it comes to the acquisition of a nuclear option could lead to a breakout capability in the event of a future conflict in the area. The International community and neighbouring states should not turn a blind eye to the aforementioned position given, firstly Turkey’s non-pacifist strategic culture and secondly the seismogenesis of the Turkish territory.
The growing Russian-Turkish coalition has frequently received fierce criticism by NATO and European partners at a verbal level, but without any further serious escalation against Turkey. In 2019 Turkey strengthened its air defence with the Russian S-400 despite Washington’s objections. As a repercussion, America took the initiative to exclude Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet development program, a considerable percentage of which was planned to be manufactured and imported in Turkey.
However, the Russian-Turkish nuclear alliance has received little attention from the West and especially from the State Department. When it comes to Europe, its support towards Turkey’s decarbonisation strategy is officially declared emerging from common interests towards improved energy security. Turkey has a key role in European energy transition, as it constitutes the most important transit route between Europe and Caspian basin – Middle East region. Furthermore, Turkey’s ambitions towards green growth seem to be put pedal to metal by EBRD with a financial boost of approximately 500 million euros according to Arthur Pogosyan, deputy head of Turkey in EBRD.
Despite the ongoing war in Ukraine and the international isolation of Russia, Turkey’s ambition to complete the nuclear plan on time is not really threatened. Admittedly, the state-owned nuclear power company Rosatom is not a part of the exhaustive list of sanctions imposed by U.S.A. and Europe. Sanctions have been imposed mostly on Russian banks such as Sberbank, linked to loans provided for the construction of Akkuyu Plant. It is currently unknown how resilient the Russian banks are.
Apart from Turkey, Russia tried to expand its nuclear influence in Middle East countries with growing energy demand such as Jordan, Egypt and the UAE during the last decade. Taking into consideration the regional challenges emerging from civil wars raging in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, it must be noted that nuclear reactors are prone to becoming major targets in warfare. Under these circumstances, scenarios of radiological outflows should keep inter-governmental coalitions such as International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) alert.
On balance, despite the broader reciprocal antagonistic intercourse, Turkey insists on keeping communication channels with Russia open and seeking prospects for amelioration on a bilateral basis. This is clearly illustrated by Turkey’s persistence to sustain its leadership role as a mediator between Moscow and Kiev, even though no significant progress has been made. Turkey’s strategy in this case is killing two birds with one stone. On the one hand, Turkey is maintaining good relations with Ukraine, a significant importer when it comes to arm industry exports while trying to restore its reputation among its West- NATO allies. On the other hand, economic ties with Russia and mostly Russia’s engagement in Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant leave Erdogan no other option but to implement Realpolitik in hope of saving Turkey’s big-ticket project.
1. Bechev D.” Turkey’s energy relations with Russia: How should the West respond?” , Middle East Institute, 10/03/2021.
Available at: https://www.mei.edu/publications/turkeys-energy-relations-russia-how-should-west-respond
2. Cimbala S. J., “Nuclear Proliferation in the Twenty-First Century: Realism, Rationality, or Uncertainty?” , Strategic Studies Quarterly , SPRING 2017, Vol. 11, No. 1 (SPRING 2017), pp. 129- 146 Published by: Air University Press
Available at: http://www.jstor.com/stable/26271593
3. Hickey S., Malkawi S., Khalil A.“Nuclear power in the Middle East: Financing and geopolitics in the state nuclear power programs of Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates”, Arab Institute for Security Studies, P.O. Box 141939
4. Koseoglu S.” Turkey’s nuclear power dilemma”, Aljazeera, 10/03/2021.
Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/10/turkeys-nuclear-dilemma
5. Ukşal O.& Mikail E.H. “The energy context of Turkish-Russian relations: is it cooperation or competition?”, 2021 IOP Conf. Ser.: Earth Environ. Sci. 937 042045
Available at: The energy context of Turkish-Russian relations: is it cooperation or competition? – IOPscience