On December 13, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India broke ground on the constructions of a new natural gas pipeline that will carry Turkmenistani gas eastward toward the other three partner countries (Tribuneindia.com, Tribune.com.pk, December 13; Timesca.com, December 14). The Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) pipeline project, in one form or another, has been on the books for twenty years, going back to an abortive effort by the Union Oil Company of California (Unocal) and the Taliban in 1995 to formulate it. Given its location and ability to alleviate many critical economic and energy problems in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, the TAPI pipeline has been the subject of enormous geopolitical rivalry and maneuvering throughout this period (see EDM, December 14, 2010; February 16, 2011).
Inasmuch as this pipeline has received steady political support from the United State because it would enable Turkmenistan to find another alternative to dependence on Russia for exporting its gas, Russia has been very skeptical about the project (“Central Asia, Afghanistan and the New Silk Road Conference Report,” The Jamestown Foundation, November 14, 2011). Yet, in mid-2010, Moscow cautiously came around to ostensibly support as well as promise to cooperate with the founding members on the TAPI project (Central Asia Newswire, October 25). But even then its offer was insufficient. Although Moscow apparently put forward four different possible frameworks for its participation, Ashgabat refused them all (Eurodialogue.eu, November 17, 2010). As a result, Russia is now promoting various alternatives to the TAPI pipeline. These new proposals are clearly aligned with recent developments in Russian foreign policy, specifically efforts to retain India’s friendship and support while increasingly reaching out to Pakistan. In particular, Moscow is offering the two traditional main weapons of its foreign policy—i.e., energy and arms sales.
Consequently, in September 2015, Russia proposed building a South–North natural gas pipeline in Pakistan. This Russian pipeline would extend almost 1,100 kilometers, from the port of Karachi northward to Lahore, and carry Iranian gas shipped to Pakistan across the Arabian Sea via liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers. The entire scheme would reportedly be based on swaps between Iran and Russia for the original gas (Peq.com.pk, December 2; Russia-insider.com, September 9). As such, however, this project directly contradicts the entire logic of the TAPI pipeline as well as the US strategic objective of blocking both Iran and Russia from dominating energy flows to South Asia. At the same time, Moscow is discussing with New Delhi the possibility of exporting 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) a year of gas to India through Iran by means of a swap or, alternatively, by transporting it via the TAPI pipeline (Russia Beyond the Headlines, December 4).
Thus, characteristically, Moscow is attempting to have its cake and eat it at the same time by entertaining simultaneous proposals to send gas through the TAPI pipeline or to circumvent it and thus minimize its potential. Undoubtedly, Moscow realizes that while the pipeline is now formally under construction, completion and operation are by no means certain since there are major questions connected with securing enough financing for it. And ensuring a stable and secure environment in Afghanistan also remains an issue of concern. Therefore, from Moscow’s standpoint, it is equally if not more useful to have an alternative ready to offer that would increase Russia’s influence in Pakistan as well as maintain its position in India. Especially in view of the urgent energy needs of both India and Pakistan and Moscow’s abiding desire to retain as much leverage as possible over Turkmenistan’s gas, this policy makes excellent sense for Russia, even if it directly contradicts both Turkmenistani and US interests and policies.
At the same time, the complex maneuverings over the TAPI pipeline are part of the great power rivalries over Central and South Asia: On one hand, Moscow, Washington and Beijing are competing vigorously for positions and influence over India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, while on the other hand, the Indo-Pakistani rivalry on the subcontinent and in Afghanistan also continues unabated. Clearly, a great deal—in addition to the provision of desperately needed energy—is riding on the TAPI pipeline for all concerned. But as long as doubt remains regarding whether this project can actually materialize, Moscow will have an incentive to either circumvent it or seek to gain leverage within it. Russia’s position as a major gas exporter to Asia and its overall influence in South and, to some degree, Central Asia are affected by this pipeline, which is as much a geopolitical as it is an energy project.
Therefore, Russia ultimately cannot afford to stand on the sidelines of the various energy and other geopolitical developments in Central and South Asia. But bearing this context in mind, the question then becomes: Exactly what can and will Moscow do in order to safeguard what appears to be an eroding position in both those regions? For now at least, the answer to this question remains elusive.