Azerbaijan and Türkiye Nudge Turkmenistan Westward
Author: Haley Nelson
Dec 21, 2022
Having lost "its old comfort of selling Russian gas to Europe" after 2022, Turkmenistan has been confronted with the reality that it can no longer comfortably depend on Russia for its economic and security needs. In the wake of Europe’s energy crisis, several countries are attempting to have a part in redefining Turkmenistan’s foreign policy and interregional relationships so that it can look beyond Russia and establish new partnerships. As a means of undermining Turkish and European influence in Central Asia, the Kremlin has long capitalized on Turkmenistan's limited cooperation with the West. Therefore, the introduction of Western buyers and economic diversification are crucial to Turkmenistan's independence from Russia.
To further this objective, Türkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, and Turkmenistan’s President Serdar Berdimuhamedov met in Turkmenbashi on December 14 to look for alternative solutions to Turkmenistan's stranded gas reserves challenge. They discussed the potential development of an energy transport system from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan, and the states agreed to increase their cooperation by signing a series of documents on “Energy, transportation, trade, economy, customs, education, and culture.” With Europe slowly reducing Russian energy imports, the struggle for influence over Turkmenistan has ramped up, with this summit serving as a fitting example of this geopolitical tug-of-war.
The trilateral summit was held against the backdrop of the global energy crisis and recent efforts to bring Turkmenistan into regional projects. The countries agreed to “create new opportunities for cooperation in the field of transport connectivity.” With this, the countries further their goal of becoming a global energy hub, connecting the vast gas reserves of Turkmenistan to European markets through Azerbaijani and Turkish energy systems.
Erdoğan, prior to the summit, stated that the goals of the summit are to “increase the level of solidarity and reinforce our brotherhood to ensure that the 21st century is the century of the Turkic world...while taking steps to create a beltway of welfare, safety, and security.” With energy security as the most pressing matter on the agenda, he added: “We should now begin the works for transmitting the Turkmen natural gas to the Western markets. We are ready to cooperate with our Turkmen and Azerbaijani brothers in the Friendship Field in the Caspian Sea.”
To this end, the obstacle has always been Turkmenistan’s policy of isolation and its historic unwillingness to agree to projects that do not promise an exclusive jurisdiction over decision-making and framework building. “Turkmenistan is signaling that it won’t get out of bed for anything less than the decades-old idea of a 30 bcma pipeline. Building such a line, and more importantly arranging the onward transportation and sales in Turkey and EU, would be far more complicated than a simple connector,” wrote John Roberts, a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center and Julian Bowden, a former economist with BP.
It is likely Türkiye and Azerbaijan held this meeting with intentions to convince Turkmenistan of the merits of a more open and Western-leaning approach, through membership in the Organization of Turkic States (OTS), increased energy exports westward, and expanding infrastructure projects toward Europe. However, Turkmenistan still seems to be courting the Kremlin because it still refrained from OTS (Organization of Turkic States) membership, and little improvement was made on Turkmenistan’s gas exports.
The three countries made vague agreements to increase energy exports from Turkmenistan across the Caspian Sea, however no concrete agreement, which promised the immediate shipment of Turkmen gas to Azerbaijan, was signed. This is likely because Erdoğan and Aliyev prefer the cheaper interconnector pipeline option over the construction of an entirely new pipeline to Türkiye.
Erdoğan commented that the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) and the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) are both at full capacity, so, it has yet to be determined “whether to establish a new line or not.” Either way, the export of Turkmenistan’s gas through TANAP, or another pipeline, to Türkiye and Europe would be an “historic event.”
With Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz oil field nearing full production, oil and gas outputs are up by 5-6% this year. However, Europe's simultaneous efforts to reduce Russian energy imports demand higher gas provision than Azerbaijan can currently provide. Azerbaijan’s gas exports to Türkiye still remain lower than the 11.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) exported in 2020 as a result of only a partial renewal of the Shah Deniz Stage 1 contract. Next year, the EU has set forth plans to further reduce Russian gas imports, some predicting a potential shortfall of 30 billion cubic meters of gas in 2023. Therefore, the problem is still export capacity.
Turkmenistan’s position along with Middle-Corridor has granted it a significant increase in geopolitical importance. However, although China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Middle Corridor project are the primary infrastructure projects in the Caspian region, Turkmenistan's historical isolation has been a considerable obstacle to their development. Turkmenistan has maintained strict neutrality since gaining independence, preventing it from joining regional organizations, including the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or the OTS. However, dynamics have changed with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting energy crisis, and with Serdar Berdimuhamedov’s taking his father Gurbanguly’s place as President. In a new great game, Eastern and Western powers are vying for influence over Turkmenistan's energy-rich economy as they realize the potential of the Middle Corridor.
Erdoğan has promoted the idea of shipping Turkmenistan’s natural gas through the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) through the development of compression facilities, specialized tankers, and Floating Storage Regassification Units. However, this is an expensive process, costing about four-times as much as traditional pipeline usage. Moreover, Turkmenistan’s gas exports to Iran via Iranian pipelines have shown that Azerbaijan can reach Turkmenistan’s market through Iran, but this method comes with many political and economic ramifications partially stemming from the 3 bcma limit to Iranian pipeline capacity and growing tensions with Azerbaijan.
It is possible for Turkmenistan to reach European markets through the Tran-Caspian Connector Project, a 78-km pipeline linking the two countries' offshore facilities; however, Turkmenistan will not accept any project that does not guarantee at least 30 bcm of gas to Europe. Pipelines with Turkmenistan’s preferred capacity require a long transport route over several borders, adding new complications, while connectors can provide immediate support for Europe's energy crisis at much lower costs.
Türkiye is poised to become a major energy player in the region as it adapts to Europe’s rapid diversification efforts. However, it must diversify its own imports first before it can transition into an energy transit hub. Turkmenistan has enough supply to offset Europe’s loss of Russian gas, so it’s powerful enough to challenge Russia’s energy dominance. But even with an estimated 13.6 trillion cubic meters of gas in its reserves, without efficient transit to the Western Caspian, Europe cannot reach Turkmenistan’s gas fields. “Türkiye is an important hub in selling Turkmen gas to Europe,” as Erdoğan stated, and considering the current infrastructure limitations, Turkmenistan must cooperate with Türkiye and Azerbaijan to help it realize its energy potential. However, the narrow window for Turkmenistan’s political redefinition seems to be closing as the Kremlin’s influence over Turkmenistan’s gas is deeming it to be “fait accompli.”