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Natural Gas in Central Asia: an intricate conundrum

The energy crisis triggered by the Russia-Ukraine conflict has enhanced the potential impact of Central Asian gas reserves in potentially contributing to EU’s energy security by diversification.
Source: NDCF elaboration on a GIS map. Blue dash-line: proposed Kazakhstan-Russia-Uzbekistan “tripartite gas union”.
On the 14th of December Turkmenistan (which holds the world’s fourth largest gas reserves) hosted a tripartite meeting with Azerbaijan and Turkey in Awaza, where the Heads of State discussed on the “evergreen” project to deliver Turkmen natural gas through Azerbaijan and Turkey territories in order to reach the EU. Turkey’s President Erdogan attended the event and publicly supported the idea to include Turkmenistan in this westward corridor of energy export, however highlighting that the mechanism needs to be studied further. 
As a matter of fact, considering the existing geopolitical hindrances to the realization of an underwater pipeline aimed at linking the two shores of the Caspian basin (Russia – as one of the five littoral states – permanently opposed to this project), Turkish officials have backed the option to carry Turkmen gas across the Caspian in the liquefied form using tankers from Turkmenbashi port (and its complex of hydrocarbon refineries) to Baku: after a regasification process, Turkmen gas would be delivered through the Trans Anatolian gas pipeline (TANAP) crossing Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey before to reach EU markets (S. Hacaoglu and F. Kozok, Erdogan to Float Turkmen Gas Supply Idea in Talks Next Week, Bloomberg, December 9, 2022).
On the one hand, the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, signed on 2018, specifies the right of the states to lay pipelines and cables on the seabed of the Caspian Sea across adjacent sectors, without having to seek consent from littoral states unaffected by the project (a position traditionally backed by both Turkmen and Azerbaijani governments): however, Article 14(3) recognizes that each state is entitled to carry out environmental assessment on the implementation of subsea projects, and If any such project is found incompatible with international environmental standards, the state or states involved should not go ahead with it, so giving Russia the possibility to interfere (Mariana Liakopolou and Fabio Indeo, The Agreement on the Dostluk Field and the Outlook for Caspian Energy Security, Energy Security Program Research Study No.2, NATO Association of Canada, 2021).
Turkmenistan’s participation in a west-oriented energy corridor represents an option strategically profitable for all involved actors. Ashgabat could diversify its exports, reducing the reliance on Chinese markets and infrastructures as well as containing Russian ambitions to restore its role as energy partner for Turkmenistan, while Azerbaijan and Turkey could further legitimize their position as reliable and strategic energy partners for the EU allowing, as transit countries, the full implementation of the Southern Energy Corridor, within which TANAP (currently fuelled only with Azerbaijani gas) represents the key backbone.
Even if Central Asian countries and Azerbaijan are attempting to undertake autonomous energy policies disconnected by Moscow, Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet energy scenario has not completely vanished, thus complicating future evolution. In July Azerbaijan committed itself to increase natural gas exports to EU in the coming years – which depends on the capacity to increase national production and to attract international investments for the realization of new infrastructures – but at the same time Baku has restarted to import volumes of Russian gas to meet domestic demand. In November, Putin discussed with Kazakh President Tokayev the possibility to create a “tripartite gas union” also comprising Uzbekistan, conceived to compensate with Russian imports the chronic energy shortages: even if both countries hold significant gas reserves, they have been forced to reduce energy exports to China satisfy domestic demand. At present Astana and Tashkent have coolly reacted to this proposal, fearing that political implications and strategic ambitions prevail on commercial considerations: indeed, the plan to create a unified gas market in the Eurasian Economic Union space is a goal that Putin has never abandoned (“Russia presses ahead with gas union lobbying despite Kazakh, Uzbek coolness”, Eurasianet, December 9, 2022).

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