28.03.2024 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

Could a trans-Caspian pipeline become a reality?

Could a trans-Caspian pipeline become a reality?

Turkey, currently strengthening its position in the international arena, is seeking to bring about a multipolar world, with itself as the leader of the Turkic pole. As part of its Turan project, Ankara is now focusing its attention on the southeastern area of the post-Soviet space. Technically, it could be said that the relevant international pan-Turkic structure already exists, in the form of the Organization of Turkic States (OTS), which was preceded by such institutions as the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) and the Turkic Commonwealth.

Turkey’s diplomatic goals include the expansion of Turkic geopolitical and geo-economic initiatives through the formation of integrated military, political and economic structures, in particular, a Turan Army and a Turkic Common Market. In furtherance of these goals Turkey is working on a wide range of initiatives, including cooperation with the OTS member and observer states on trade and economic, energy, transportation and communication, military and military-technical projects.

The development of the OTS, with Turkey at the core of the project, follows the principle once voiced by former President of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev in relation to his country’s strategic alliance with Turkey: “One Nation – Two States.” This partnership has achieved a high level of mutual cooperation in various key areas (trade, energy, transit routes, military cooperation and humanitarian projects). The military success of the Turkish-Azerbaijani alliance in the second Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020-2023 provided an the impetus for Turkey’s breakthrough into the historical Turan space, and served as a catalyst for the formation of the OTS and the restatement of Heydar Aliyev’s principle as “One Nation, six states” and its extension to the rest of the Turkic (or OTS) states (i.e., Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan). Perhaps, in the future, Hungary, and (if it is recognized by the International community, or by the current OTS member states and their allies) Northern Cyprus may join the body.

Naturally, any durable political alliance needs to be based on a solid foundation and have an effective mechanism for economic integration. For this purpose, Turkey, which is not particularly rich in strategic mineral resources such as oil, gas, uranium, gold, etc., makes very effective use of its strategic geographical position at the junction of three continents (Asia, Africa and Europe), with all the economic benefits which that position entails. Turkey has implemented transportation routes enabling Azerbaijan to export its oil and gas to European countries while bypassing Russia, and as a result since the second half of the 2000s it has acquired a new significance in the system of global economic relations and began to play a role in the EU’s energy security policy. With the start of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine and a whole series of anti-Russian sanctions by the Collective West, led by the United States, the importance of Turkey as a transit route for the European market has increased even further.

And, since the fall of 2022, Turkey has been the center of Russia’s “gas hub” mega-project. But so far, negotiations on this project’s implementation are still continuing, with a number of legal and financial issues still being worked out and discussed. Meanwhile, Ankara is angling – and is likely to obtain – more attractive conditions from Moscow, in particular the supply of gas at lower prices, the right to operate as a partner in the sale of gas to world markets, and the involvement of new exporters from Turkic states (in particular, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) in the Turkish gas hub.

Turkey is successfully developing energy ties with Azerbaijan and has created a whole system of transportation infrastructure (gas and oil pipelines) as part of the South Caucasus and Trans-Anatolian corridor. Moreover, the cooperation between Russia and Azerbaijan does not exclude, but rather complements, mutually beneficial cooperation between Turkey and Azerbaijan on the gas hub project. However, many questions remain about Turkey’s access to the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea for the purpose of transporting Turkmen and Kazakh, and in the future Uzbek, gas.

The fact is that, of the above Turkic CIS countries, Turkmenistan is the leader in terms of proven gas reserves, with more than 20 trillion cubic meters, or almost 10% of global reserves. When this figure is added to the proven reserves of Azerbaijan (2.8 trillion cubic meters, or 1.8% of global reserves), Kazakhstan (2.7 trillion cubic meters, or 1.7 of global reserves) and Uzbekistan (1.8 trillion cubic meters, or 0.89% of global reserves) these countries account for a total of 14.4% of the world’s gas reserves. The international competition for access to the gas resources of Turkmenistan and the other Turkic nations gives Turkey a strategic advantage both in terms of influence on Europe and post-Soviet Central Asia, and in terms of diversification, by making it less dependent on Russia for energy (primarily gas) supplies.

After all, if its access to Azerbaijan’s largest gas field, Shah Deniz, will enable Turkey to gain considerable financial dividends from its transit and political influence on the EU, how much greater advantage will it gain from access to the Galkynysh field, Turkmenistan’s main onshore gas field? After all, what is 1.8% of the world’s gas reserves, compared to 14.4%? Moreover, Turkey’s role as the transit supplier of Central Asian gas to Europe serves to boost the implementation of the Turan program.

According to Batyr Amanov, Turkmenistan’s Deputy Prime Minister for Oil and Gas, and Head of the state gas company Turkmengaz, “Turkmenistan is one of the largest players in the world energy market, due to its favorable geopolitical position, the dynamic development of its national economy and its rich hydrocarbon deposits.” The Galkynysh field is one of the most significant gas fields both in Turkmenistan and worldwide. As a result of the discovery of this and a number of other large gas fields, Turkmenistan is now fourth in the world in terms of proven natural gas reserves.

At present, Turkmenistan exports most of its gas to China. Ashgabat, of course, has an interest in diversifying its exports and supplying gas to the European market, which is the richest in financial terms, while being poor in terms of mineral resources. And, as a result of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis and the sanctions against Russia, the share of Russian gas exported to Europe has fallen sharply. Given the energy needs of this potentially large market, there is clearly a demand for the export of Turkmen gas to the EU, and Ashgabat, Ankara and Brussels have all shown interest in such supply. Turkey is also trying to promote more effective and mutually beneficial relations between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, as both countries are interested in the European market, but neither is able to supply its gas to Europe without outside help, and both countries are dependent on their ally Turkey, with its key geographic location. Turkey’s other important reason for wishing to see a rapprochement between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan is, of course, the Turan project, i.e. the integration of Turkic nations on the basis of mutually beneficial economic projects, and led by Turkey.

Until the end of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war, Ashgabat took a neutral stance in relation to Turkey’s Turan policy and did not participate in its integration projects. Since 2021, Turkmenistan, along with Hungary and Northern Cyprus, has been an observer in the OTS. In January 2021, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan reached an agreement on the joint development of the Dostlug offshore gas field thus giving new relevance to the question of the supply of Turkmen gas to the west. According to Azerbaijani expert Ilham Shaban, the development of the Dostlug field, whose reserves are estimated at 60 million tons of oil and 100 billion cubic meters of gas, would justify a return to the discussions on the construction of a gas pipeline along the Caspian Sea bed.

In mid-December 2022, the president of Turkmenistan, Serdar Berdimuhamedow met with his counterparts from Turkey and Azerbaijan, Recep Erdoğan and Ilham Aliyev, held in Türkmenbaşy. The presidents signed a number of agreements, including an Interagency Memorandum of Understanding on the Development of Energy Cooperation. The three countries also formed a working group on cooperation on the supply of Turkmen gas to Europe via Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. Before his flight to Türkmenbaşy, Recep Erdoğan said that he aimed to enable the transit of Turkmen gas to Turkey via the Caspian Sea and then onwards to Europe.

At that time, Ilham Shaban, the head of the Azerbaijani Oil Research Center, was skeptical about the prospects of such a project. In an interview with Sputnik Azerbaijan, he said: “Officially Ashgabat states that it supports the idea of diversifying its hydrocarbons exports and supplying the western market. This is good, but it is nothing new, because Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the father of the current president of Turkmenistan, first made an announcement to this effect back in March 2007.”

It is clear that Baku has an interest in increasing the importance of Azerbaijan as a transit partner in the Caspian region, and also in the implementation of the Turkish Turan project, but on the other hand, the maritime border disagreements between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, which affect the apportionment of ownership of and responsibility for the offshore gas field have not yet been fully resolved. In addition, Baku is unlikely to be able to compete with Ashgabat, with its far greater reserves, in terms of gas exports.

But two years later, Turkmenistan began to change its stance and show more interest in Turkey’s plans. In February 2024, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the former President who now serves as Chairman of the People’s Council (Halk Maslahaty) made an official visit to Turkey, during which he took part in the Anatolian Diplomatic Forum, congratulated Turkish President Recep Erdoğan on his 70th birthday and held talks with him. After reaching agreement on various issues, the two presidents signed a declaration of intention on cooperation between Turkmenistan and Turkey in the field of hydrocarbon resources, and Turkmenistan’s state gas company Turkmengaz signed a memorandum on natural gas with the Turkish Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow said that strengthening strategic relations with Turkey is one of the priorities in Turkmenistan’s foreign policy. In response, Erdoğan said that it was necessary to intensify efforts to increase bilateral trade to the level of $5 billion per annum.

According to Nikkei Asia, after signing the agreement, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow said that gas from Turkmenistan could flow to Turkey and Europe via two possible routes, either via the Caspian Sea and Azerbaijan (as soon as Ashgabat and Baku have reached an agreement on their maritime border), or via Iran’s pipeline infrastructure, once the necessary agreement has been concluded. He noted that Turkmenistan’s Galkynysh field contains 27 trillion cubic meters of gas.

In view of the size of this field the Uzbek news website Daryo believes it would be expedient to build a trans-Caspian undersea gas pipeline to carry Turkmen gas to Azerbaijan, from where it would continue through Turkey to Europe. In particular, a 300-km pipeline across the Caspian Sea could connect Turkmenistan with the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), through which Azerbaijan supplies gas to Europe via Turkey. If realized, this project would significantly increase the competitiveness of the SGC and the potential of the planned gas hub in Eastern Thrace (Turkey). The working groups of the two countries are also studying the option of selling Turkmen gas to Turkey, and transporting it via Iran. In the interests of diversifying its sales, in addition to supplying Europe Ashgabat is also promoting its plans for a gas pipeline to South Asia. Currently China is the main importer of Turkmen gas, followed by Russia and Uzbekistan.

As the newspaper Neutral Turkmenistan reports, while in Antalya, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow announced a representative summit to be held later in 2024 in honor of the 300th anniversary of the birth of the great Turkmen poet Makhtumkuli Fraghi. It is possible that this forum will see Turkmenistan’s admission as a member of the OTS. Thus, we are seeing a rapprochement between Ankara and Ashgabat, and the issue of the transit of Turkmen gas through Azerbaijan and Turkey to Europe is becoming crucial to this process.

Recep Ercin, head of the Turkish Society of Economic Journalists, notes Turkey’s increasing role in the supply of gas to world markets via Russian and Azerbaijani gas pipelines (the Blue Stream, TurkStream, trans-Anatolian and trans-Adriatic pipelines). Ankara has ambitions to become not merely a transit country, but also a hub where gas prices will be determined. Accordingly, Ercin believes, Turkey is considering a future role as a supplier of gas not only from Russia and Azerbaijan, but also from the Mediterranean Sea and Central Asia. This will give it the opportunity – and the right – not only to become a hub for the supply of gas to world markets, but also, by creating a gas exchange and thus helping to shape prices, a hub for gas sales. “Thus the Turkish pipeline company BOTAŞ would become a global trading company like Russia’s Gazprom,” he adds.

As we have seen, Turkey is aiming to implement a major geo-economic project: the construction of a trans-Caspian gas pipeline to provide it with long-term access to gas from the Turkmenistan and other Central Asian countries. However, this Turkish initiative may meet with opposition from the two key Caspian countries, Russia and Iran, which have the largest gas reserves in the world, and which are both parties to the Convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea, signed in Aktau, Kazakhstan, in August 2018. This Convention prohibits the laying of pipelines on the Caspian Sea bed without a preliminary environmental impact assessment.


Alexander SVARANTS – Doctor of Political Sciences, Professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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