The United States and the European Union have taken renewed interest in constructing a pipeline to take natural gas from Turkmenistan across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan and westward to Europe. The move is motivated by a desire to further decrease Europe's dependence on Russian gas in the wake of Moscow's newly assertive foreign policy posture, but regional analysts say the pipeline could also increase tensions around the Caspian.
European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic visited Ashgabat this week for talks with energy ministers of Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan. He told Reuters that the EU expects to start receiving gas from Turkmenistan by 2019.
"[W]e discussed all aspects referring to the trans-Caspian pipeline," Sefcovic said. "We made a big step in the strategic direction... Now there is a political decision that Turkmenistan will become part of this project and will feed the European direction."
The possibility of a trans-Caspian pipeline has been long discussed but has been hindered by a number of obstacles, not least of which is the opposition of Russia, which stands to lose market share in Europe were the pipeline to be built. Russia is the single-largest supplier of gas to Europe, holding about 30 percent of the market share (and far more in some Eastern European countries). And the volatility in Moscow has renewed efforts in Brussels and Washington to reduce that dependency.
"In light of recent geopolitical events, when gas supplies by [state Russian gas company] Gazprom began to be used for political pressure, this dependence has become quite painful," wrote Azerbaijani news site Trend.az in a commentary this week. "Europe got tired of the fact that at every opportunity Russia tries to scare it by 'shutting off the gas.' ... So right now there is every reason to believe that the EU will finally take real and drastic steps to get rid of its gas dependence on Russia."
Official Russian reaction to the renewed push for a trans-Caspian pipeline has been relatively muted. But in the past Russian officials have strenuously opposed the pipeline, on the grounds that since the legal status of the sea is still unresolved no major construction should be undertaken. Some Russians even have implied that they would use military force to prevent a pipeline from being built. And an article from late April in Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta ginned up the threat of the pipeline project, suggesting that Turkmenistan was seeking to get American troops to protect it.
"Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan say that since the pipeline will go through their national sectors in the Caspian Sea the decision is up to them. However, Russia cites the uncertainty over the legal status of the sea and environmental issues as reason why it will not let this happen," wrote Azerbaijani newspaper Baki Xabar in a report this week, "Europe is waiting for an answer from Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan: Tense situation is forming in Caspian" (via BBC Monitoring). "In parallel, Russia is constantly building up its Caspian navy, often conducts military drills and indicates to the littoral states, as well as to other countries that have interests in the region, that it does not wish to withdraw from its position there."
Russia, of course, has its hands full at the moment. And while it continues to build up its Caspian Flotilla, the priority for now is clearly the Black Sea Fleet, and Moscow has redirected some of the new ships that previously had been slated for the Caspian to the Black Sea. Does Moscow have the wherewithal to react to this new challenge? Will these talks be used by Baku and Ashgabat as a bargaining chip for future concessions? Stay tuned.