The Caspian Region’s Reactions to the Current Russo-Ukrainian War, a Series: Turkmenistan
Author: Caspian Policy Center
Nov 2, 2022
As a result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Turkmenistan's potential role as a transport hub could lessen Russia's economic leverage and provide Europe with an alternative transport route. However, Turkmenistan hasn't yet created the necessary infrastructure to reduce the importance of competing transport routes, including the Middle Corridor. Additionally, Turkmenistan’s historic lack of regional engagement and its international reputation as an authoritarian regime make Turkmenistan unattractive to investors and logistic companies. Therefore, Turkmenistan's regional role and its geopolitical significance have been largely unaffected by Russia's war in Ukraine. And, in fact, Turkmenistan’s historic policy of neutrality may have adversely affected its relations west of the Caspian.
The Russia-Ukraine war demands increased railway capacity and a bypass of Russian oil and gas pipelines; Turkmenistan's transport routes, however, may be less important as Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan improve their relations with the West. This is because, historically, landlocked positioning greatly increases transport costs and delivery time since there are several aspects that affect shipping efficiency. A suitable infrastructure that promotes regional connectivity, established political and economic ties with neighbors that limit tariff complications, and sufficient technology to reduce logistic costs must be taken into account. Although Turkmenistan’s Caspian port of Turkmenbashi reportedly has the capacity to play a vital role in the Southern Gas Corridor -- which passes through China, to Central Asia, and on through the Caucasus to European markets -- its low-speed, single-line railways cannot compete with the efficiency, and the low-cost ports, of the Middle Corridor that passes across the Caspian Sea from Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan.
Turkmenistan's trade with China, Iran, and Russia has substantially increased since the war began, demonstrating its lack of commitment to European strategy. This was highlighted on August 16, when Turkmenistan's Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov announced plans to join the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), established by Russia, Iran, and India. Meredov stated that Turkmenistan will continue to work with Russia in areas of transportation: railway, automobile, air, and marine. And he added that Turkmenistan has excellent potential to increase cooperation within the North-South Corridor. With its increased gas reserves, Western adversaries have nearly monopolized Turkmenistan’s energy industry.
On August 29th, Turkmenistan’s President Serdar Berdimuhamedov met with Gazprom chief executive Alexei Miller in Ashgabat to discuss potential increased cooperation through “fundamental modernization of the national fuel and energy complex, the active introduction of advanced technologies and innovative developments, and the increase in the efficiency of the mining and processing sectors.” In addition to discussing prospects of their future relations, they discussed “issues related to the purchase of Turkmen gas by the Russian holding company under the current contract and the expansion of cooperation in this area on a long-term basis.”
Although Turkmenistan could have taken advantage of the Ukrainian crisis by capturing some of the Middle Corridor's import-export volumes, data suggests Turkmenistan has continuously been plagued by its competitors, and despite the war, Turkmenistan's alternative transport role has remained secondary. European adversaries have continued to monopolize its position as a transport hub, thereby limiting its ability to strengthen western relations in the future.
In contrast, Turkmenistan's security policy has not been compliant with Russian aggression. Traditionally, Turkmenistan has maintained a tight security relationship with Russia; solidified by a joint security cooperation agreement ratified in 2020. However, the war has prompted a shift in foreign policy, and Turkmenistan has moved toward increased security relations with Europe and the United States. Earlier this year in April, Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it will send aid, including medicinal supplies and textiles, to the Ukrainian people based on “the traditions of humanism of the Turkmen people.” And additionally, showcasing Turkmenistan’s foreign policy shift, on September 25 Meredov met with Montana National Guard Major General John P. Hronek, to discuss “the resumption of the Partnership Program between the U.S. Central Commend, the U.S. National Guard Bureau, and the Ministry of Defense of Turkmenistan.”
While not make dramatic changes, Turkmenistan under President Serdar Berdimukhamedov is beginning to shed its historic isolationism, and that can be only positive for the Caspian Region during Russia’s war in Ukraine.