On Monday, NATO began its annual Black Sea naval exercise. Sea Breeze ‘21 is underway with this year’s exercise being co-hosted by the US Sixth Fleet and the Ukrainian Navy. It is scheduled to run until 10 July and the multinational exercise will include forces from thirty-two nations. 5,000 troops, 32 ships, 40 aircraft, and 18 special operations and dive teams will be involved in the exercise and related operations. This makes Sea Breeze ’21 the largest installment of the annual, multinational exercise, which first began in 1997.
This year there is considerably more attention on the exercise given recent events in the Black Sea. Last week’s encounter between a British destroyer and Russian air and naval forces has raised tensions in the area. As anticipated, Russia will be monitoring the exercise closely and is likely to run a short-notice exercise in the area as well. In fact, Russian forces held snap naval and air exercise in the eastern Mediterranean on Friday, not long after the incident with HMS Defender. The eastern Med has become more congested with an increased number of Russian warships and aircraft operating in close proximity to Syria. Encounters between NATO and Russian forces have become almost routine of late.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his nation’s largest ever natural gas discovery today. It is a 328 billion cubic meter field in the Black Sea that could be part of a bigger reserve. Erdogan has hinted that the gas could start being extracted by 2023. The field, if as large as Turkey claims, will also give Ankara the advantage when the time comes to renegotiate its existing natural gas import agreements. Turkey presently relies on imports to cover almost all of its energy needs. Energy import bills have been a consistent drag on its currency for years. In 2019 Turkey paid out $41 Billion on energy imports, these payments putting a large dent in the nation’s currency reserves.
Most importantly, the find will have a positive effect on the Turkish economy down the line. The Turkish Lira is responding positively to the news, a marked contrast from the unprecedented slide it has endured lately. It won’t last, however. Turkey’s economic troubles are too broad to be solved by a major natural gas find. Rising inflation, and interest rates, record unemployment, and a recession are some of the obstacles the Turkish economy is trying to overcome right now.
Erdogan also said today that Turkey will increase exploratory operations in the Mediterranean. There are presently ongoing territorial disputes with Greece and Cyprus concerning Turkish operations in contested waters. Last week’s collision between Turkish, and Greek warships seems to have cooled tensions for the time being, and forced all of the involved parties to take a deep breath.
Lebanon has captured the attention of the international community with the Beirut port explosion in early August and subsequent renewed anti-government protests across the nation. Official corruption has been a way of life in Lebanon for decades. Only now does it seem that the proverbial chicken is coming home to roost. The government resigned earlier this week as backlash against the political class has reached new heights. There are many questions emerging now about Lebanon’s political future. How Hezbollah will figure into the mixture is one of the more significant ones. Although many Lebanese like the idea of political change coming to their country, Hezbollah support remains considerable among the people.
Early next week the verdict on the 2005 killing of former Lebanese premier Rafic Hariri will come down from the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). The verdict had been scheduled to come earlier in the month but the port explosion in Beirut brought on a postponement. The verdict, regardless of which way it goes, could spark fresh violence in Lebanon between Hezbollah, and Hariri supporters. Given the present political climate such clashes will be counterproductive for Hezbollah to say the least. This reality could be the reasoning behind Hezbollah’s claim that it will ignore the Hariri verdict when it is handed down.
What Hezbollah says and does are generally two entirely different things, as the world has learned. The world will be watching the verdict carefully as well. For the first time in decades Lebanon could be on the verge of genuine political change. It would be an absolute tragedy if the Hariri verdict, and Hezbollah were somehow able to derail that chance.
Amid a high level of tension in the Mediterranean brought on by Turkey’s deal with the Libyan government demarking their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) Greece and Italy signed an agreement establishing an EEZ for the two nations in the Ionian Sea. The agreement was signed today by the Greek and Italian foreign ministers, making official the demarcation of maritime zones which has been pending since 1977. While its fair to say the agreement has been a long time coming, recent Turkish moves in the Mediterranean are responsible for pushing demarcation to the front burner. The agreement will have considerable ramifications for the area but it is, at heart, a hedge against Turkish hegemonic ambitions in the natural resource-rich Eastern Med region.
This may not be the only EEZ agreement Greece signs this month. Athens is in negotiations with multiple neighboring states to reach similar agreements. Again, keeping Turkey in check is the primary motivation fueling these moves. In fact, sources in the Greek Foreign Ministry have hinted that an agreement with Egypt could be signed as early as next week. If Greece and Egypt complete a deal it will be benefit Cairo’s continuing campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, which has received significant funding from Turkey.
It has become possible that the war in Libya has the potential to drag on for an extended period of time with no clear winner. If this comes about it allows Turkey to maintain its foothold in Libya, meaning the EEZ agreement between Ankara and Tripoli will take effect, and be enforced. The rest of the Mediterranean is waking up to this possibility. Italy and Greece are already making moves and now it is a question of who will move next. Israel and Cyprus are also major players in this game. They will be heard from sooner or later.
Yesterday in Washington the House of Representatives voted to end the thirty-two year old US arms embargo on Cyprus. The move came as part of the annual defense authorization bill, which has already made it through the Senate. Later in the afternoon the House passed a compromise foreign aid package that increases security aid for Cyprus, and censures Turkey for its oil, and natural gas exploration activities off the coast of Cyprus. The Turkish foreign ministry responded with a statement warning that the US move “will have no outcome other than hampering efforts towards a settlement on the island and creating a dangerous escalation.” US-Turkish relations are at their lowest point in years and threaten to deteriorate further as a result of Turkey’s activities in Libya, Cyprus, and in the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean.
The settlement mentioned in the foreign ministry’s statement refers to the fact Cyprus has been a divided island since 1974 when Turkey invaded in response to a coup backed by the Greek government. Cyprus has been gaining international attention recently as oil, and gas exploration off its coast threatens to bring about a new crisis. Turkey has been at odds with Greece, Cyprus, and Israel since signing an agreement with Libya that claims extensive areas of sea between the two nations for Turkey. This deal violates international law, and undercuts claims made by Greece, and Cyprus. On Monday, a Turkish UAV landed in northern Cyprus, known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. This comes after an Israeli research vessel was intercepted in Cypriot waters by Turkish warships and escorted out of the area.
The deal between Turkey and Libya has raised tensions in the region. If the Libyan government collapses it will be interesting to see how Ankara responds, and how it will affect the oil and natural gas scramble now going on in the Eastern Med.