Natural Gas: Fuel for Russian Control

A student guest post, this time on the geopolitics of natural gas in helping Russia maintain their hold on the region (a topic I posted on earlier this year).


On February 13 of this year, Ukraine and Turkmenistan signed a tentative natural- gas deal. Ukraine turned to Turkmenistan for gas supply after Russia demanded $7 billion from Ukraine for not meeting the purchasing quota of the contract. Despite formerly selling gas to Ukraine, the new negotiations have sparked tension with Russia, and have brought to light just how deeply Russia attempts to control Turkmenistan and the region.

Gazprom’s projected Trans-Caspian gas pipeline. You can read more about this at http://www.gazprom.com/about/production/central-asia/

In response to the Ukraine- Turkmenistan deal, Russia stated that it would not allow Turkmenistan to sell to Ukraine. Gazprom, Russia’s main natural gas and oil company cites contracts stating that all of the gas Turkmenistan could supply is already promised to Russia. Moreover, the pipelines that Turkmenistan would use to transport the gas are owned by Russia, thus requiring their permission to be used. These excuses by the Russian government appear as simply a way to get more money for their natural gas companies and oligarchs, despite how much revenue Russia earns from states other than Ukraine.

To counter Russia’s strict crack down, Ukraine claims that Russia has to allow the trade agreement because of the recent Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) free trade agreement. The Ukrainian premier claims, “ The possibility of agreeing with Turkmenistan came about thanks to an agreement concerning a free-trade zone in the context of the Commonwealth of Independent States that envisions equal access for all parities to a gas pipeline transport agreement.” It is unclear whether Russia believes the trade agreement covers Turkmenistan’s gas supply.

The battle over the Ukrainian- Turkmen gas deal is still up in the air; however, the issue has brought to light Moscow’s deeply rooted control over Turkmenistan, in the name of protecting Russia’s self interest. A more in depth look at Russia’s stance in the deal argues that by losing its trade with Ukraine, Russia will consequently lose access to other natural gas importers in the West. Ukraine has expressed interest in selling the gas from Turkmenistan to European markets, thus decreasing European interest in Russian gas. Moreover, European markets, such as Norway, are also producing their own gas, or losing interest in gas due to renewable energy, therefore further decreasing interest in Gazprom’s exports.

By opening up to Ukraine, Russia fears that Turkmenistan will also be opening up to the West. There is already a strong movement towards development of a Trans- Caspian pipeline, which would allow trade to circumvent Russia and Iran. Russia cites environmental concerns as its reason for opposing the pipeline, but in reality Russia fears losing its control over the Central Asian region to the West. Russia’s fear may be grounded in truth as the U.S. and EU have indicated interest in pulling the region from Russia’s grip. The West hopes to do that through the Trans-Caspian pipeline and sales of natural gas.

The new Ukraine- Turkmenistan natural gas negotiations may not seem extremely important in isolation; however, the event uncovered the fundamental issue in the region: Russia’s control. Controlling the region is key to Russia’s survival with Great Power status as their domestic problems grow and as the fate of their energy sector is in question. More specifically, Russia has targeted Turkmenistan as a key state to be manipulated. Russia’s interest in Turkmenistan can be attributed to connecting with the authoritarian rule or maintaining access to Turkmenistan’s vast natural gas reserves. Whatever the reason may be Russia stands in the way from Turkmenistan opening to the West, and blocking the deal with Ukraine is the first step.

Natural gas sales may be Central Asia’s, and specifically Turkmenistan’s “out” from Russian control, but the questions remains if Turkmenistan will ever take that out.

References

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