In an interview on May 30 with the Bulgarian edition of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s journal “International Relations,” Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov delivered a common Kremlin narrative to justify TurkStream, the new export gas pipeline that Gazprom is building under the Black Sea to western Turkey.
“The planned Turk Stream gas pipeline opens up broad opportunities for our joint efforts,” Lavrov said. “After it is extended to Bulgaria, the pipeline will enhance your country’s energy security.”
Lavrov’s claim is false.
Polygraph Video Fact Check by Nik Yarst
TurkStream will only deliver more Russian natural gas to a country that is already exclusively dependent on Russian gas. This new pipeline will not help diversify energy sources, which is a key factor in improving the energy security of Bulgaria and the Balkans.
Moreover, TurkStream is a diversionary pipeline that will only reroute gas volumes currently transmitted through the Trans-Balkan pipeline from Ukraine to Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Instead, Gazprom wants to use the Trans-Balkan pipeline in the reverse direction for the needs of the TurkStream’s second branch -- to transmit Russian natural gas from Turkey to southeast Europe, bypassing Ukraine.
Thus, TurkStream will not enhance Bulgaria’s energy security or that of the Balkans. Instead, it will deepen dependence on Russian gas and thereby undermine the region’s energy security.
A key concept in the European Union’s energy security strategy is the diversification of energy sources – i.e., ensuring that every member state has alternative sources of energy and thus does not depend exclusively on any single source.
Bulgaria depends exclusively on Russian gas supplies: 98.3 percent of its natural gas demand is delivered from Russia.
Bulgaria remains the European Union state most vulnerable to Russian gas supply interruptions: it depends exclusively on Russian gas deliveries through a single route, has limited connectivity with neighboring states and lacks sufficient gas storage capabilities.
Despite the lessons learned from the gas crises in 2006 and 2009, when Russia stopped gas flows via Ukraine, Bulgaria still has no alternative gas suppliers.
This will change once the Southern Gas Corridor from Azerbaijan is completed in 2020 and the construction of a de-gasification facility at the port of Alexandropoulos, Greece, brings larger volumes of liquified natural gas (LNG) to the region.
The New Russian Black Sea Route
Moscow is building TurkStream mainly to divert Russian natural gas transit from Ukraine and to compete with the Southern Gas Corridor. Once operational, the Russian Black Sea pipeline will make the Trans-Balkan Pipeline redundant. The Trans-Balkan pipeline currently transports about 16 billion cubic meters per year (bcm/y) of Russian gas via Ukraine and Romania to Bulgaria and Turkey.
TurkStream replaced the defunct 63 bcm/y South Stream pipeline project, which was suspended for violating EU competition rules and subsequently canceled by Russian President Vladimir Putin in December 2014.
The offshore section of TurkStream was completed in November 2018 and the pipeline is expected to become operational by the end of 2019.
According to Gazprom, its first section will supply natural gas to Turkish consumers, while the second string (TurkStream 2) will deliver gas to southern and southeastern Europe. Each section will have a throughput capacity of 15.75 billion cubic meters per year (bcm/y).
Last November, Gazprom decided to extend TurkStream 2 to Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovakia and Austria. The selected route largely replicates the path of the failed 63-bcm/y South Stream pipeline, but with a smaller capacity, earning it the nickname South Stream Lite.
Gazprom’s selection of the transit route through Bulgaria (instead of Greece) gave impetus to Sofia’s plan to build a Balkan Gas Hub that would mainly rely on Russian gas from TurkStream 2. While Bulgarian authorities say the hub would also handle gas volumes from Azerbaijani and LNG delivered to Greece, these volumes would be insignificant for a considerable time. So far, Bulgaria has signed a contract with Azerbaijan for the delivery of one billion cubic meters of natural gas from the Southern Gas Corridor.
But the Balkan Gas Hub project faces the challenge of receiving approval by the European Commission. If Brussels gives it a green light, TurkStream 2 would replace the Trans-Balkan pipeline in supplying Russian natural gas to the Balkans via Ukraine. In that case, the Trans-Balkan pipeline from Ukraine would be shut off and used in the reverse direction from south to north to transport gas from TurkStream. Near the Bulgarian city of Varna, the pipeline would be extended westward to Serbia, Hungary, Slovakia and eventually Austria.
The Real Alternative
Moscow’s TurkStream will also compete with the Southern Gas Corridor, which will provide non-Russian gas to the region. The corridor consists of three pipelines: the South Caucasus Pipeline (SCP) through Azerbaijan and Georgia, the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) through Turkey—both of which are already operational—and the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) through Greece and Albania to Italy, to be completed by 2020.
The Southern Gas Corridor will bring gas supply diversification to the Balkans for the first time in the history of gas export. It will be the only pipeline to the region carrying natural gas from an alternative source, Azerbaijan. This pipeline will be connected to Bulgaria’s gas network through the planned Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria, the construction of which started this year.
The further development of the Southern Gas Corridor could involve a broad energy infrastructure network linking Europe, the South Caucasus, Central Asia and the Persian Gulf, while excluding Russia.
While these developments will probably take years to materialize, the one billion cubic meters of Azerbaijani gas designated for Bulgaria is almost a third of the country’s current gas consumption and will thus significantly enhance its energy security. The presence of an alternative supplier would not only help reduce the country’s dependence on a single source of energy, but would also serve as leverage for negotiating a better price with Gazprom. Bulgaria still pays some of the highest gas prices in Europe. Prices agreed in 2012 have not been renegotiated even after the European Commission completed its probe of the Russian gas giant last year and ordered it to follow EU rules in long-term contracts.
Moscow’s TurkStream project competes with the Southern Gas Corridor, as both are targeting customers in Turkey and the Balkans. However, unlike the Southern Gas Corridor, which is a strategic priority of the European Union, TurkStream does not have Brussels’ blessing.
Moscow is now pressing Sofia for help in obtaining “guarantees” from the European Commission for TurkStream 2.
In his interview, Lavrov said: “Considering the unfortunate experience of the South Stream project, it is necessary to obtain solid guarantees from the European Commission that an arbitrary decision by Brussels will not undermine the current plans.”
Still, if Bulgaria fails to secure gas volumes from three different sources for its Balkan Gas Hub, both the hub project and TurkStream 2 could meet the fate of the South Stream pipeline. Brussels also requires that none of the three sources of gas should dominate the others in order to enhance the region’s energy security.