In 2010, China saved the Turkmen government by giving it a $5 billion loan, in addition to its investments of over $10 billion in the Turkmen economy over the past few years. Beijing's motives were clear: it wanted Turkmenistan's natural gas. The Central Asia-China pipeline, which carries Turkmen natural gas across Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to China, was inaugurated in 2010. However, it only exported about 3.55 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2011 — even though the pipeline has a carrying capacity of 40 bcm — due to the significant amount of time and resources it took to get natural gas production back up and running after the 2009 cutoff and to a series of pricing disputes with Beijing. In 2012, Turkmenistan's natural gas exports to China could reach 19-25 bcm, contributing to the growing Turkmen economy.
As Turkmenistan is starting to recover, it is also beginning to shift its regional relationships. Turkmenistan is currently embroiled in a spat with its western neighbor, Azerbaijan, over oil field rights in the Caspian Sea — an argument that led to an Azerbaijani border patrol boat stopping a Turkmen vessel in the disputed region. At the same time, Turkmenistan's eastern neighbor, Uzbekistan, has recently shown its desire to be more independent in the region by pulling out of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led military bloc. Turkmenistan — a country that is known for its isolationist policies and avoidance of alliances — knows that it cannot match either neighbor militarily. Because of this, Turkmenistan showed signs after both events that it was interested in reviving its ties with the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States air defense circle after a 17-year absence.
Turkmenistan has recently given other signs that it is interested in repairing its relationship with Russia. On Aug. 6, Berdimukhammedov said that Russia is Turkmenistan's most strategic partner. While this could simply be rhetoric, there are a few hints from Turkmenistan that could point to something more. On July 30, Turkmenistan agreed to allow Russian telecommunications provider MTS to return after it was ejected from the country in 2010. MTS was recently ejected from Uzbekistan in July, so this seems to be Ashgabat's signal to Moscow that Turkmenistan will be a more favorable partner in Central Asia.
After economic meetings between Russia and Turkmenistan on July 30-31, Russian natural gas firm Itera is reportedly being given larger deals in Turkmenistan involving energy licenses and natural gas trade. Itera has a long history with Turkmenistan, and strong links to Russian giants Gazprom and Rosneft. It would be beneficial for Turkmenistan to resume large exports of natural gas to Russia, who would then re-export them to Europe. This would allow Ashgabat to be less reliant on Chinese demand or on Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan for transportation to China. With Russia on the verge of breaking ground on the South Stream pipeline, which will transit natural gas from southern Russia to south-central Europe, Turkmenistan's proximity would make it a logical source of natural gas to help fill the new pipeline, should European demand call for increased supplies.
All of these moves by Ashgabat in such a short period of time are anomalous and noteworthy. Turkmenistan's foreign policy has traditionally been isolationist and non-committal toward larger powers in the region. Even though Turkmenistan sees the benefits of its relationship with China — natural gas flowing out and cash flowing in — it is concerned about Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, and knows that Beijing is not interested in helping Ashgabat fortify its defenses against its neighbors.
In its search for security assistance, Turkmenistan seems to be exploring a closer relationship with Russia, which has its own issues with Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. But Turkmenistan is not looking to become another one of Russia's pawns. Rather, it is seeking to create a balance between its ties to Russia and its ties to China in order to strengthen its own position in an increasingly complex region.