TURKMENISTAN EYES UKRAINE AND BELARUS FOR POTENTIAL GAS EXPORT
The presidents of Ukraine and Belarus, Viktor Yanukovych and Alexander Lukashenko, both visited Turkmenistan in April 2012. Whereas Ukraine is staunchly opposed to Moscow’s planned Eurasian Union and Belarus is part of a Union State with Russia, both countries are in fact interested in reducing their dependence on Russian gas, which Moscow uses not only for economic but also geopolitical domination. Turkmenistan’s government is in search for new means to deliver its gas to Europe directly rather than through Russia, and has proven responsive to the requests of its fellow post-Soviet states. However, it remains unlikely that Turkmen gas will reach European markets in the near future and China increasingly emerges as a primary alternative.
BACKGROUND: Kiev has actively sought new gas suppliers in all directions and Turkmenistan has increasingly emerged as a possible option. Ashkhabad, in turn, increasingly views Ukraine as a new opportunity for delivering gas to the European market outside Russia’s pipeline network. While Turkmenistan has one of the largest deposits of natural gas in the world, it still lacks efficient pipeline connections to its potential customers in the West. Nabucco and similar projects have long been viewed as the most feasible options, however, in light of several delays in Nabucco’s construction – due to the unwillingness of some European countries to participate in the project and competing Russian-sponsored pipeline projects – Ukraine has become a possible backup. Ukraine has also emerged as an important arms supplier for Turkmenistan, which fears the possibility of conflict with its Caspian Sea neighbors, especially Russia.
While it is clear that Ashkhabad, Kiev and Minsk have common interests, it is unlikely that they could accomplish much in the face of Russian opposition. Turkmenistan’s recent disagreements with Azerbaijan have further complicated the situation, encouraging Ashkhabad to plan for increased eastward exports to China.
Yet, the combined European disagreements over Nabucco and Moscow’s policies to prevent the construction of alternative pipelines have contributed to the reemergence of a gas partnership between Ashkhabad and Kiev. Consequently, Turkmenistan’s president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov visited Kiev in April 2012, where he discussed several plans with his Ukrainian counterparts. Some of these were related to the construction of a Trans-Caspian pipeline that would eventually deliver gas to Europe via Nabucco or similar projects designed to deliver gas directly rather than via Russia. In an attempt to resolve the disunity over Nabucco among EU members and the unwillingness of some potential European Nabucco participants to provide territory for pipeline construction, Kiev proposed that Ukraine, rather than Central and Southern Europe, should be the project’s geographical lynchpin.
IMPLICATIONS: In such a design, the pipeline should either be extended to the Black Sea or deliver part of the Trans-Caspian gas to Georgia where it could be liquefied and then brought to Ukraine across the Black Sea. The delivery of Turkmen gas would be reinforced by a similar project with Azerbaijan. Consequently, almost simultaneously with Yanukovych’s meeting with Turkmenistan president, the Chair of Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) Vladimir Litvinov visited Baku for a meeting with President Ilham Aliyev. The Ukrainian delegation proclaimed its interest in the Trans-Caspian project and especially in delivering Azerbaijani liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Ukraine. LNG could not only be consumed in Ukraine but also resold to Europe, thus reducing Azerbaijan’s dependence on Nabucco and similar projects. Ukraine emphasized that it supports Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and its sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh. This statement was made in spite of Kiev’s arms sales to Yerevan.
Ukraine’s desire to find alternative gas sources in Turkmenistan corresponds to similar strategies on the part of Belarus, which wishes to reduce its dependence on Russia. This desire was recently reinforced through Moscow’s ability to take control of Belarus’ major gas pipelines. This was the major reason for the invitation of Turkmenistan’s president to Minsk on April 27. Lukashenko praised him as a “personal friend” and emphasized a long history of cooperation between Turkmenistan and Belarus. Ashkhabad views Minsk not only as a potential customer but also as a player that could provide an additional entry point to the European market. Gas is the major, but not the only, point of discussion between Minsk, Kiev and Ashkhabad. While seeking a way to deliver gas to Europe, Ashkhabad is also anxious to diversify its supply of weapons and Yanukovych has pointed out that Ukraine with its developed military industry – a Soviet legacy – could be a great help. The same could be said about Belarus.
Still, Russia seeks a veto right over any scheme for delivering Turkmen gas to Europe, whether through the Russian pipeline network or under the Caspian Sea. Putin’s recent declaration of the Eurasian Union as Russia’s geopolitical priority and his tour of prospective Central Asian members to underscore the importance of their closer integration with Russia contained some signals in this regard. However, Moscow is unlikely to allow its position as the major gas supplier to Europe to be so easily challenged. The introduction of Turkmen gas on the European market could lead to a price decline on Russian gas and the importance of maintaining a high gas prices was underscored in Russia’s recent negotiations with China. In spite of a clear desire to build a strong relationship with Beijing and long talks about providing gas to China, Putin was unwilling to provide gas at reduced prices and the negotiations led nowhere.
Consequently, Ashkhabad’s best option at present is to increase its gas exports to China. While the delivery of Turkmen gas to Ukraine and on to Europe is unlikely, Azerbaijan presents a more likely option. Azerbaijan does not need pipelines across the Caspian seabed and already delivers gas to Georgia and Turkey, with possible extensions to Europe either by pipeline or tankers. Ukraine and/or Belarus could become possible ports of destination. It is hence unsurprising that Baku’s relationship with Moscow has soured. Baku recently demanded a much higher rent for the Russian radar station in Gabala, whereas Moscow is deploying a new missile carrying battleship on the Caspian Sea which could be used against Azerbaijan as well as against other countries in the area.
Moscow is not the only obstacle to Ashkhabad’s potential gas deliveries to Ukraine, Belarus and other European countries. Turkmenistan’s relationship with Azerbaijan recently took a turn for the worse when Baku accused Ashkhabad of attempting to take control over a gas field in the Caspian Sea over which Baku claims ownership. This adds to the unlikelihood of a future Ashkhabad-Kiev–Minsk deal, despite a genuine desire to cooperate on all sides.
CONCLUSIONS: The desire to find cheap gas has led both Kiev and Minsk to express a strong interest in Turkmenistan, and to some degree Azerbaijan, as alternative sources of gas. At the same time, Ashkhabad and Baku are looking for alternative routes to deliver gas to European markets and also want to diversify their arms suppliers. The recent conflict between Baku and Ashkhabad make the prospects for trans-Caspian pipelines a challenge. It is therefore unlikely that Turkmen gas will reach European markets in the near future. The prospects for Azerbaijani gas reaching Europe is considerably higher, as its geographical location makes it much less dependent on Russia’s good will. Combined, these factors increasingly make China the likely destination of increased quantities of gas export from Turkmenistan.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor of History, Indiana University at South Bend.