On Thursday, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak expressed interest in potentially increasing Russia's natural gas imports from Turkmenistan. The same day, the Kazakh parliament ratified an agreement on the delineation of the Caspian Sea boundaries between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. While seemingly mundane and unrelated, these two events are interconnected and reflect Turkmenistan's potential to fundamentally alter an important element of the standoff between Russia and the West.
Turkmenistan's importance stems from two factors: its energy resources and its location. The country produces 77 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year and exports 44 bcm annually. Its natural gas reserves, an estimated 17.5 trillion cubic meters, are among the world's largest, making it a major global natural gas producer and exporter capable of becoming an even more important energy player down the road.
But it is Turkmenistan's location that has elevated the country in the standoff between Russia and the West. Situated astride the Caspian Sea and between major energy consumers to the east and the west, Turkmenistan has become a key component of the "Southern Corridor" energy route that the European Union has been giving increasing consideration to as a means of reducing Europe's dependence on Russian energy. This route, which would facilitate the transport of energy supplies from the Caspian region through the Caucasus and Turkey and onward to Europe, is explicitly meant to avoid Russia, both as a supplier and transit route for energy.
Until now, Azerbaijan has been the only meaningful contributor to the Southern Corridor, primarily through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and South Caucasus pipelines, which have been transporting oil and natural gas respectively for the past decade. But the volumes that Azerbaijan exports to Europe are relatively small, and even the slated expansion of production and exports from the Shah Deniz II natural gas field, which is set to come online in 2018, is expected to add only around 10 bcm of natural gas supplies to Europe. But if another legitimate natural gas producer — like Turkmenistan — were to add to the natural gas supplies from Azerbaijan, the possibility of real diversification from Russia would go up considerably.
This consideration spawned an intense European diplomatic offensive over the past few months in an effort to persuade Turkmenistan to contribute to the Southern Corridor. The European Union is particularly interested in the Trans-Caspian Pipeline, which would be a relatively short conduit connecting Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan along the Caspian Sea.
However, two major issues stand in Europe's way. One is the legal status of the Caspian Sea, with maritime boundaries in dispute among the littoral states of Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. It has been a thorny issue for decades, and numerous summits and meetings have led to little concrete movement toward a legal resolution. But recent developments, including today's bilateral ratification between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan over their border and statements by Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov that a "breakthrough" could be reached on the legal convention at the next Caspian summit in Astana in 2016, show that this issue may not be an obstacle for long.
The other, more difficult, issue is Russia itself. As it does in the rest of Central Asia, Moscow has political, social, economic and security influence over Ashgabat. Combined with Turkmenistan's self-imposed isolationism, centralized political system and wariness of Western involvement, Russia's leverage has made Ashgabat cautious when it comes to working with Europe, especially on strategic projects that threaten Russian interests and could provoke Moscow's ire.
But Turkmenistan is not willing to do Russia's bidding unconditionally. Ties between Ashgabat and Moscow have been strained since 2009, when a pipeline blast ruptured a major energy connection between the two countries. Previously, Turkmenistan had been sending more than 90 percent of its natural gas to Russia. But after that incident, Ashgabat sped up work on alternative pipeline projects, redirecting much of its exported natural gas to China. Though Turkmenistan is still reluctant to openly and officially commit to any Southern Corridor projects with Europe, Ashgabat has been more willing to discuss the matter and show that it is at least interested. Russia's pronouncement that it is open to increasing imports from Turkmenistan again is likely an acknowledgment that Ashgabat has other options — as well as that Turkmenistan's strategic importance has increased in light of Russia's weakened position and the West's more assertive actions in challenging Moscow in its near abroad.
Turkmenistan's decision to either remain aloof from Europe's attempts to diversify from Russian energy or to commit officially to participating in the Southern Corridor could have significant consequences. Ashgabat is likely to hold its cards close to its chest as long as it can, but watching for any indications of which direction Turkmenistan is leaning will be tremendously important to gauging the fate of the broader conflict between Russia and the West.