Giorgos Kentas

Associated Professor of International Politics and Governance, Department of Politics and Governance, University of Nicosia

Realpolitik is a concept coined in 19th century to describe politics as they really are; politics unmasked from any ideological or moral beliefs that may veil reality; politics as a system of interests, power, coercion, bargaining and exchange. Realpolitik was associated with the way in which national revolutions were coerced by Empires and Great Powers of the time, the emergence of nationalism leading to the unification of Germany and Italy, and the years ultimately fueling the causal mechanisms that drove European powers to the First World War. Hence, Realpolitik is thought to be a way of explaining politics and a way of pursuing politics in a rather blunt and almost cynical way.

In the field of international politics, Realpolitik is understood as the eternal impact of power on politics and the sources states seek for defending and/or imposing their interests. In that account, Realpolitik is mostly associated with Classical Realism, a school of thought that was mainly cultivated by the works of Edward Hallett Carr, Hans Morgenthau and Robert Gilpin, among others. Obviously, Realism is a more systematic approach to world politics than the rather simplistic way in which Realpolitik followers approach politics, but it is fair to say that the former, when thought from the actual way world politics is pursued, is a system of principles based on power politics, asymmetry, self-interest, anarchy, alliance politics, contingency and violent change.


The omnipresent Realpolitik in Europe

In traditional world politics analysis, there seems to be a differentiation in conceptualizing and/or categorizing regional and global politics. While in the aftermath of the Second World War international politics departed from a Eurocentric analysis, Europe would still be the most important region. What matters to observe in the context of this account is that the prevalent view that Western Europe has gradually overcome Realpolitik to advance a more principled and institutional political realm is highly problematic. As Joseph Grieco, a leading Realist, rightly contended in late 1980s, European politics were still governed by traditional nation-state concerns, such as the fact that, in any relationship, states consider the power position of one another, as well as they pay a lot of attention in the way in which cooperation gains are distributed. This is the so-called relative-gains problem, a stabling block that European cooperation, in the form of regional economic and political integration, could have never evaded. Even after the so-called re-unification of Europe in the 1990s and early 2000s, there is little to argue against the fact that states in Europe are primarily concerned with national interest and they still compete for power and influence, without however resorting to the use (or the threat to use) of physical force against one another.

That short-lived (mis)perception of everlasting peace, security, growth and wealth in Europe ended sadly in the early stages of 2010s with the spark of a huge wave of economic crisis and the asymmetric dissemination of its implications across EU member states. The confidence in the project of European integration was shaken for good. In addition to internal institutional uncertainty and confidence crisis, Europe came across the resurgence of Russia as a regional great power with a global agenda. The crisis in Ukraine drove the EU-Russian relationship to the lowest point in the post-Cold War era.

Even though Russia was portraited as a source of concern and instability in Europe – some even talked for a new enemy to be contained – Realpolitik was such a strong instinct that ultimately shaped perceptions and choices among the largest European states. Among other things, Russia is an indispensable European energy partner and this cannot be ignored. EU energy security is heavily dependent on Russian natural gas (and to a lower degree oil) supply across member states. There is some talk about diversifying energy sources, as well as seek alternative markets, but the reality suggests that the so-called Russian ‘energy dependency’ is on a steady rise. Large European states seem not to worry about that, since this is not an one way dependency relationship, but a rather convenient interdependency.

Apparently, Realpolitik drives the choices and reveals a visible asymmetry in interests and preferences among European states. Not all EU member states, for instance, see Russia as an enemy, or a potential one. European states that host large Russian minorities, as well as small European states that depend on Russian energy supply way above 50% of there overall energy consumption, seem to worry more than large states, such as Germany, France and  Italy. The latter three happily enlarge and extend energy collaboration with Russia.

In 2019, for instance, Gazprom supplied the French market with a total of 5.8 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas, an increase of 5.6% from 2018. France also advances a long-term Franco-Russian cooperation in the field of nuclear energy. Germany is the largest importer of Russian natural gas. In 2018, Germany imported way beyond 35% of all Russian natural gas exported to Western European markets (including Turkey). In that year, Germany imported 58.5 bcm of natural gas. The second largest importer was Turkey with 23.96 bcm, followed by Italy with 22.77 bcm, the UK with 14.26 bcm and France with 12.92 bcm. With a large pipeline network and the prominently remarkable Nord Stream, as well as the two new and quite vital under-construction sub-see pipelines of Nord Stream 2 and TurkStream, Russia strengthens its position as Europe’s largest natural gas supplier.

Energy seems to be the new currency of Realpolitik bargaining in Europe in the 21st century. This seems to be a relatively more peaceful means for pursuing political and economic stability among states that non-Realpolitik accounts would see them striving to contain or even eliminate one another. Still, the ‘energy currency’ is an equally cynical method of political exchange, analogous with the kind of exchanges that prevailed in the 19th century. At the end of the day however, the Realpolitik of energy security seems to be the primary component of the new holy or unholy Euro-Russian political order.


Realpolitik in Eastern Mediterranean

Energy is the principal currency of Realpolitik in many other regions of the world for quite a few decades now. That was evidently visible in Middle-East and North Africa (MENA) throughout the 20th century. A meticulous researcher will easily discern many other regions and countries where Realpolitik was fueled by petrodollars. Oil and Gas companies and the markets that determine their profits emerged as the most reliable partners of states in pursuing Realpolitik across and beyond MENA, in the oil-rich countries in Latin America and Africa. Taking all that into consideration, it should not come as a surprise that, wherever energy resources are discovered, there is a strong appetite for Realpolitik.

In the early 21st century, Eastern Mediterranean emerged as a region with a strong potential in hydrocarbons. Levant basin, the largest part that underlays Eastern Mediterranean seabed, seems to be reach in natural gas, and possibly oil. A research by the United States Geological Survey in 2010 estimates that there could be more than 122 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas in the Levant basin. Geological surveys in the last decade seem to be very encouraging. Energy companies with global enterprises, such as Noble Energy, ExxonMobil, ENI and Total, have already invested some millions of dollars in drilling in the deep waters of the Levant basin. Some considerable quantities of natural gas are already discovered in the seas of three countries, Israel, Egypt and Cyprus. More drilling projects are on the way. Israel and Egypt also managed to develop and monetize some of their off-shore natural gas fields.

With the discovery and fast development of the giant Zohr field, Egypt, not only closed a huge gap of its domestic energy shortages, but mostly it will be able to return to LNG exports in the coming months. Israel has the second largest proven natural gas reserves in Eastern Mediterranean, behind Egypt. Production from the Tamar field alone shifted the country’s energy fuel mix. Natural gas accounts for some 30% of Israel’s fuel consumption. With the development of the country’s largest off-shore natural gas field, Leviathan, Israel shall improve its energy security and advance a more ecologically friendly economy.

Israel also has a very strong potential for natural gas exports. Multi-billion export deals with Egypt and Jordan may commence before the end of 2019. Exports to both destinations are certainly challenging, still the chances of going ahead are higher than to be put on halt. Israel considers some other export options in terms of sub-sea pipelines and LNG, options which shall not be pursued here.

Cyprus is an oil-dependent country. Its primary fuel mix consist of less than 6% of renewables, a tiny margin of coal and 94% of oil. In 2011, Noble Energy, a Texas-based American company, discovered Aphrodite field off-shore Cyprus, estimated between 5 and 8 tcf. This is the only verified natural gas field in an area which is part of Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone, known as the “study area”. After the third licensing round in 2016 and a couple of failed off-shore drilling attempts by the Italian ENI and the French Total, the American ExxonMobil (working with Qatar Petroleum) announced in February 2019 one of the world’s biggest natural gas discoveries in a couple of years’ time. That discovery was estimated to be more or less the same as one reserved in the Aphrodite field (i.e. 5-8 tcf). However, the new natural gas field, known as the Glaucus field, combined with the Aphrodite field, contain way smaller reserves than the Israeli fields Tamar (10.8 tcf) and Leviathan (21.9 tcf) or a fraction of the Egyptian Zohr field (estimated at 30 tcf).

In 2018, Cyprus completed an agreement with Egypt for a sub-sea pipeline connecting Aphrodite field with LNG plants of the latter. That is the only viable project for Cyprus to join the ranks of natural gas exporting countries before 2020. Unless more natural gas resources are discovered, Cyprus has very limited export choices and it may need to continue the discussion on some joint monetizing projects with neighboring countries. A couple of these projects, such as an LNG plant and a pipeline connecting Israeli and Cypriot natural gas fields with Greece and other European markets are under consideration.

Beyond the business and economic facets of hydrocarbons or the so-called political economy of natural gas in Eastern Mediterranean, there are some other things to consider, mostly the geopolitics of oil and gas in the region. Realpolitik suggests that geopolitics are molded by the interests of the strongest. Israel, being a strong country with an equally strong status-quo mindset, is certainly capable of defending its interests and pursue the development of its off-shore resources with confidence. Equally Egypt, also having a strong status-quo mindset, is capable of doing the same. Even though Egypt is under pressure by domestic factors and pockets of instability, it may have an advantage over Israel in achieving a faster development and monetization of its own off-shore resources. Whereas in Israel the development, monetization and export of the country’s off-shore resources come under political debate, legislative initiatives and even sometimes litigation, the Egyptian government is more effective in making and implementing this kind of decisions. This is evident when one compares the pace of development of Egypt’s Zohr field with Israel’s Leviathan field. An interesting instance for comparing democratic and non-democratic decision-making in the energy sector.

Israel and Egypt experience and strongly support a rather long – still not convenient and palatable for all local fractions – peace that is based on mutual security and lately on common energy interests. Realpolitik is prominently more preferable than other choices for these two countries. Their strong desire to maintain a viable status-quo in Eastern Mediterranean that would facilitate hydrocarbon projects seems to be a valuable public good. The same status quo desire is shared by quite a few countries who demonstrate willingness to collaborate in that direction. The delimitation of exclusive economic zones between a few of them (Cyprus and Egypt, Israel and Cyprus, Lebanon and Cyprus) is just one indication of the degree that the countries concerned appreciate status-quo and stability.

A second dynamic that is driven by the desire to establish and maintain a viable status-quo in Eastern Mediterranean is demonstrated by the so-called trilateral meetings between Cyprus, Greece and Egypt, Cyprus, Greece and Israel, Cyprus, Greece and Lebanon, just to name but a few of them. A third dimension that emanates from the joint status-quo mentality is the persuasion of joint energy projects and trade deals, some of them have already been named in the previous section. What is maybe also interesting to see is that bilateral and trilateral collaborations have a spill-over effect in many political, economic, financial and cultural domains of the countries involved. But not only that. A strong yearn for a viable status quo in Eastern Mediterranean brinks together countries that would hardly agree on a status quo on the land that separates them. It creates a new geopolitical trend that works on its own logic. The most vivid example is the formation of the East Med Gas Forum, a regional regime joined by Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian territories. This example demonstrates a potential for institutionalizing cooperation in Eastern Mediterranean equally among friends and among competitors.

All these developments took the attention of policy-makers and members of Congress in Washington. The most recent initiatives entail the participation of the US in trilateral meetings between Cyprus, Greece and Israel and a bipartisan bill by Senators Bob Menendez and Marco Rubio. That bill seeks to lift a four decades long arms embargo to the republic of Cyprus, strengthen US security relationships with Cyprus and Greece, and enhance energy security in Eastern Mediterranean. US initiatives however have a strong bias towards supporting Israel and containing Russian presence in the region.

The mistake that the US makes in this case is that it targets Russia, a country that has a different agenda for Syria than the US has. At the same time however, Moscow is supportive of all energy initiatives in the region. The global appetite for natural gas is growing and according to the most recent report by the International Energy Agency, new discoveries are very much welcomed for addressing these growing needs. Russia has no reason to see Eastern Mediterranean natural gas in a competitive manner. Some explanation was already given in the previous section. Russia has already signed long-term contracts and embarked in new natural gas projects that would stretch its production capacity to its very limit. European and Asian industries would need much more gas than the current producing countries would be able to provide. Eastern Mediterranean gas is not an alternative source, but mostly a new emerging source which is much needed in the global economy.

Taking all together, there is only one serious challenge in pursuing energy security and hydrocarbon development in Eastern Mediterranean. That challenge emanates from the revisionist and in some cases offensive and aggressive policies of Turkey in the region. Cyprus is at the focal point of these policies, though their implication extent much beyond Cyprus. Turkey pursues hegemony in Eastern Mediterranean. Under hegemony there cannot be any kind of status quo among neighboring countries, but the order the hegemon would prefer to establish.

Ankara does not want to join the existing status quo regime in Eastern Mediterranean but to spell out the terms for a new regime to be tailored around its interests. Turkey questions all bilateral agreements that let into the delimitation of exclusive economic zones, puts forth a number of unreasonable claims, and would like to determine the route of exports from the region.

Erdogan’s authoritarian regime drove Turkey into the club of illiberal, undemocratic and rogue countries. This is the first time in the post-Ottoman Empire era when Eastern Mediterranean countries come across such a revolutionary actor, in terms of the taxonomy made by Martin Wight in 1990s. More and more actors in world politics realize that Turkey is a destabilizing agent in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean. At the same time however, a number of large and influential countries still have a strong appetite for the Turkish market in terms of direct investment, trade and other business. In addition, Turkey plays a key role in the humanitarian/refugee crisis in Syria, something that gives Erdogan some negotiation leverage over political bargaining with many global actors, especially with the European Union. The latter is under severe political pressure by a highly skeptical and growingly anti-immigration public.

Realpolitik is not an one-way policy. It may equally accommodate and oppose ambitious troublemakers. The big question for Eastern Mediterranean actors is whether Turkey may be accommodated in the energy game. Turkey is too big to ignore, but, at the same time, too ambitious to trust. As things stand at the moment, Realpolitik in Eastern Mediterranean shall continue to yield results among the like-minded pro-status quo countries. But at the same time, unless Turkey is contained from exerting its influence allover Cyprus’ waters, Nicosia will grow as the weakest link of the new emerging energy regime in Eastern Mediterranean and it will be gradually ignored from grand energy planning.

One of the most interesting issues to address is whether a political agreement in Cyprus over the longstanding and inconvenient division that Turkey imposed on the island in 1974 would make any difference. At the moment Turkey unilaterally extends the military occupation of Cyprus to cover the territorial waters and other sea waters which are under the sovereign control of the government of Cyprus. Will a political solution change that?  Much will depend on the content of such a settlement. Turkey aims to impose a hegemonic regime in Cyprus, even in the context of a political arrangement. A hegemonic regime that would give Turkey the principal role in determining the energy program of Cyprus and assign to Ankara the leading role in negotiating with other regional actors the terms of any joint energy programs that would involve the island. In that regard, the current imbalance of power between Cyprus and Turkey consents no reasonable hopes for an arrangement that would allow Cyprus to function as a normal sovereign and independent country. The alternative is regional and other actors to offer substantial assistance and support to Cyprus to pursue its energy program and thus remain a key member of regional arrangements. This however would hardly materialize unless Cyprus shows some more vivid interest in enhancing its self-help capabilities.



Energy seems to be a very strong and effective currency in driving Realpolitik in Europe and  Eastern Mediterranean. This realm is primed to pertain for the foreseeable future. In that regard, Russia will be a necessary – even for some an inconvenient – partner in guaranteeing the energy security in Europe. At the same time, Eastern Mediterranean emerges as a new source for energy security in the region, as well as a promising source of natural gas for Middle-Eastern countries, Europe and Asia. Natural gas discoveries in Eastern Mediterranean is supported by a strong desire to maintain a stable and viable status quo in the sea, independent of historic or more contemporary differences among the countries involved. That promising development is questioned by Turkey that advances some revisionist policies, supported by an offensive military posture.

Cyprus is exposed more than any other Eastern Mediterranean country to Ankara’s superior military power. Without serious external assistance and support, Cyprus will have a difficult time in defending its territorial waters and pursue its off-shore energy program. The rest of the countries in the region deal with a dilemma, i.e. whether Turkey needs to be included in energy programs or kept in a safe distance. Much depends on the dynamics of natural gas markets and its ‘supply and demand’ curve. Oil and gas companies have a strong say over the monetization circle of natural gas projects, but geopolitics was never indifferent to Realpolitik choices.