Russia Again Seeks to Quash the Trans-Caspian Pipeline

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 85

Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, President of Turkmenistan (Source: RIA Novosti)

The Azeri-Turkish agreements of late 2011 have opened up real possibilities for effecting positive gains in the European and trans-Caspian energy equation. These agreements arranging for the transport of Azeri gas to Turkey and beyond create for the first time both a dedicated pipeline to bring Azeri gas to Europe through the Trans-Anatolian pipeline (TANAP) and a dedicated infrastructure for this pipeline. Moreover, by becoming a secure gas provider, Azerbaijan has opened up real possibilities for the creation of a trans-Caspian pipeline (TCP) to bring Kazakh and Turkmen gas to Europe. For this latter alternative to materialize, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan would have to sign a bilateral accord linking that gas to a new trans-Caspian pipeline and then to the TANAP. To facilitate this agreement, the European Union has been mediating bilateral talks between Ashgabat and Baku (Asia Times Online, March 29). And SOCAR, Azerbaijan’s gas company, has announced its willingness to play transit role in facilitating a trans-Caspian pipeline (Interfax, April 4).

Although there are many obstacles remaining to the launching of a trans-Caspian pipeline, some of which are discussed below, it appears that the idea is gaining traction. Ukraine has announced its willingness to participate in this project provided that a link is included that would supply gas to a liquefied natural gas terminal in Kulevi, Georgia that would then provide a basis for shipping the LNG to a projected Ukrainian LNG terminal on the Black Sea. Ukraine is prepared to invest 790 million Euros if this condition is approved. But it is only possible if an agreement can be reached with Turkmenistan to supply the needed amounts to justify the cost of this project and the LNG terminal in Ukraine, which is estimated to cost 1.6 Billion Euros (Kommersant-Ukraine, April 5). Similarly SOCAR has indicted that the TANAP might be expanded from its initial planned volume of 18-16 billion cubic meters (bcm) annually to as much as 60 bcm/year. Turkmenistan has apparently indicated a willingness to contribute up to 40 bcm annually, but first it and the EU must come to an agreement before SOCAR can serve as the vital transit link (Asia Times Online, April 18). Turkmenistan appears to be accelerating its movements toward creating the requisite pipeline and infrastructure at home to facilitate this outcome (Asia Times Online, April 18).

Thus, if a trans-Caspian dimension is added to the TNAP as well as a branch to Ukraine, Moscow’s ability to threaten both Kyiv and Ashgabat would be significantly reduced, as would Russia’s gas leverage over those countries and Eastern Europe. Therefore it is hardly surprising that Moscow has again made clear its determination to block a trans-Caspian pipeline. On October 19, 2011, Turkmenistan’s Foreign Ministry blasted Russia’s politicized objections to it participating in a TCP, stating that such a pipeline was a vital economic interest for Turkmenistan. The Foreign Ministry rebuked Moscow for “distorting the essence and gist of Turkmenistan’s energy policy” and announced that discussions with Europe would continue (Interfax, October 19, 2011). On November 15, 2011, Valery Yazev, Vice-Speaker of the Russian Duma and head of the Russian Gas Society, openly threatened Ashgabat, hinting that Russia was prepared to incite an “Arab Spring” in Turkmenistan, which would open the door to a foreign intervention, if Ashgabat did not renounce its “neutrality” and independent sovereign foreign policy, including its desire to align with Nabucco (Interfax, November 15, 2011). Naturally Turkmenistan has strongly protested such threats. Other Russian analysts and officials warned that if Turkmenistan adheres to the EU’s planned Southern Corridor for energy transshipments to Europe that bypass Russia, Moscow would have no choice but to do to Turkmenistan what it did to Georgia in 2008 (Asia Times Online, December 2, 2011).

Since then Moscow’s opposition to this project has only grown more public. Gazprom and the Russian government now argue that since legal delimitation of the Caspian Sea has not been reached yet, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan have no right to make trans-Caspian gas shipment arrangements (Kommersant-Ukraine, April 5). Therefore, any TCP along these lines would violate international law (Interfax, March 28). Foreign Minister Lavrov also stresses that no decisions about any trans-Caspian pipeline can be made without the consent of all the littoral states; the EU’s role there is also totally unacceptable (Interfax, April 4). Thus, Moscow has reverted to an argument it used in the 1990s – no exploration of the Caspian can take place unless all the littoral states agree to it. Moscow had earlier abandoned that argument although Iran has used it to block any accord on the sea’s status. It is clear, however, that Moscow is wheeling out its heavy artillery to block this pipeline. Lavrov has demanded that the EU “respect” the littoral states’ views (i.e. Russia’s views) on using the Caspian Sea and its resources (Interfax, April 3).

Given the huge and ongoing Russian buildup of military forces in the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea noticed by the Russian press, Russian threats against Turkmenistan and in the Caucasus, as well as Moscow’s strong diplomatic offensive in the Balkans, it is entirely possible that Turkmenistan might decide not to go forward with this project (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, December 15, 2011). Moreover, there are many issues of financing, ownership of the energy in question, and the route of any trans-Caspian pipeline that must be resolved before any concrete project begins. Nevertheless, the TANAP project may have broken the logjam that Nabucco could not. And if the EU and US provide sufficient cover and support to the idea, it is just possible that a trams-Caspian pipeline may go forward to the benefit of all the non-Russian suppliers and consumers. That is a geopolitical goal worth supporting.