CPC - Caspian Policy Center


russia’s central asian decline

Russia’s Central Asian Decline

Author: Haley Nelson

Mar 2, 2023

Image source: Shutterstock

On February 15, Alexei Miller, CEO of Russia’s state-owned gas company, Gazprom, arrived in Turkmenistan’s main refining city, Turkmenbashi, to discuss the desire of the Russian state to fortify its Central Asian position. Turkmenistan’s President Serdar Berdimuhamedov sat across from Miller to discuss potential energy projects, the development of long-term cooperation, and the modernization of Turkmenistan’s oil and gas enterprise. However, no official documents were signed. As part of an extensive list of visits from Russian officials to Central Asia in recent months, Russia is signaling a strong effort to maintain a hierarchical position in the region, as it loses credibility from its war in Ukraine, and as its economic prowess wanes with the effects of global sanctions.  These efforts can also be seen through the lens of Russia’s ensuring that it does not lose further ground in Central Asia to China.

Although a few economic transactions have materialized out of these meetings, Russia’s attempts have been unsuccessful in upending China’s long-game strategy in the region. Russia’s drive to persuade Central Asian states back into its sphere of influence are beginning to visibly falter, and the recent symbolic visits from Gazprom representatives throughout Central Asia have had minimal significance. The Kremlin’s attempts to maintain control over Central Asia are being overshadowed by China’s economic sway, and Russia is left to either compete with Beijing’s growing power or to find ways to cooperate with it.

Turkmenistan did not waver in its decision to double its gas exports to China in October, 2022, and Russia’s reputation as the authoritative regional hegemon is likely to blame. For two decades, Moscow has sought to bind Central Asian countries closer to it through organizations like the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) or Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and through opportunistic interventions, such as its involvement in the ‘Bloody January’ revolts. However, it’s effortful attempts to keep Central Asia in line have not been inconsequential; Moscow deploying 2,500 CSTO troops to Kazakhstan to help quell the violent protests in January 2022 did not, in the end, bring Astana closer into Moscow’s fold.  In fact, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has made clear in Putin’s presence that Kazakhstan opposes Putin’s attempt to annex parts of Ukraine.

Turkmenistan has not supplied significant amounts of natural gas to Russia for many years, and for Turkmenistan, China is its top trade partner, not Russia. So, it is worth noting that Russia is again making at least a nominal effort to convince Turkmenistan to increase trade relations. Miller’s visit to Turkmenistan recalls bygone times when Gazprom, through its purchases, was the dominant force in the Turkmen economy, and it signals the Kremlin's hopes to retain influence in Turkmenistan's gas sales.

In fact, according to a Russian Telegram channel, the top priority in Miller’s visit was to convey Russia’s disapproval of any Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) agreement. This source indicated that Russia would block any attempt to construct this pipeline, and instead, it was suggested that Turkmenistan should transport gas through Iran and Türkiye, making it possible for Turkmenistan to become “a full member of the gas analogue of OPEC, which is being created by Russia and Iran and to which Qatar intends to join.”

This specific pipeline, the TCP, would undercut Russian interests as it would allow a more streamlined approach to the transport of Turkmenistani gas to Europe, meaning it could potentially benefit Europe while bypassing Russia. After being transferred to the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) pipeline in Türkiye, it would offer both Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan increased access to European markets, thereby mitigating Russia’s energy warfare tactics. The TCP has been a stated Turkmen goal for the past three decades, and although it has never moved past initial feasibility studies, Russia and Iran have long opposed any progress.  Russia in particular cites alleged environmental risks in the Caspian Sea -- although thousands of kilometers of oil and gas production pipelines already are emplaced in the Caspian. Russian and Iranian objections are far less about the environment than about energy competition and geopolitics.

However, although the TCP would long have been beneficial to Turkiye and Europe, it’s unlikely that Western companies will invest in Turkmenistan. Not only are exploration prospects questionable, but it is unclear why companies would be willing to spend billions without strong investment guarantees. As Turkmenistan has been unwilling to grant investors equity shares in its massive gas fields, the cost of upstream and transport infrastructure would provide little to no benefit to involved parties. That said, China has been willing to dispense billions of dollars in loans and payments to gain a stronghold in the Turkmen oil and gas industry, begging the question: What does Russia bring to the table in their recent talks? Moscow will persist in trying to influence Ashgabat, but its efforts will fail to erode China's position. Russia's legacy ties to Turkmenistan, along with its geostrategic might, will help it maintain a certain degree of influence in Turkmenistan -- and its threats may credibly discourage a TCP -- but it will have to propose tangible and substantial investments for any enhanced influence. 

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