Over one year into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, various analysts have argued that the conflict has weakened Moscow’s influence over the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. One of these republics, energy-rich Turkmenistan, has been treading carefully with its tightly-controlled media, often parroting Moscow’s talking points. However, the country is now better placed than at any time in its history to diversify its energy consumer base outside of Russia. Accessing Turkmenistan’s gas reserves will be challenging, but doing so could bring significant benefits to both Ashgabat and the West.
The Case of Turkmen Energy Connectivity
Turkmenistan is a relatively closed country, with a long history of working with Russia in the energy sphere. However, since the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian War, Ashgabat has sought new partners, including the European Union and the United States. The EU itself has been searching for new energy sources following Germany’s freeze on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
This presents an opportunity for Turkmenistan, which has positioned itself to benefit from East-West cooperation. It has sought to improve and open up its economy by increasing transparency, strengthening its legal system, and encouraging private-sector capital formation. Additionally, there is Turkmenistan’s position along with the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, better known as Middle Corridor. This loosely-defined trade route links China and the markets of East Asia with Europe, crossing the Central Asian steppe, the Caspian Sea, and the Caucasus. That this route bypasses Russia, currently under heavy sanctions because of the Russo-Ukranian War, means that Ashgabat benefits from a significant increase in its geopolitical importance.
There is even greater interest when it comes to energy geopolitics and logistics. Several regional countries, including Azerbaijan and Turkey, have sought to capitalize on the further development of an energy transport system from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan.
Key to this would be the establishment of a Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP), which would also bypass Russia and provide energy supplies to Europe. Turkmenistan has also shown an interest in constructing the TCP by participating in various Southern Gas Corridor Advisory Council ministerial meetings. Ashgabat sees the TCP project as an excellent chance to develop its domestic energy industry.
Additionally, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev, Turkmen president Serdar Berdimuhamedov, and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in 2022 to discuss the transportation of Turkmen gas to Europe. At the meeting, Erdogan highlighted that the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), a critical project carrying natural gas from Azerbaijan to Turkish markets and eventually to Europe, is operating at its total capacity of 32 billion cubic meters. The transportation of Turkmen gas to Turkey and Europe via the TANAP is the most convenient option currently available.
Further developing the TANAP and improving the connectivity of the Middle Corridor would greatly benefit the West. Even before the Russo-Ukrainian War, Europe has been searching for ways to diversify its energy sources. The EU acted on its ambitions by signing a deal with Azerbaijan in 2022 to double imports of natural gas by 2027. Azerbaijan could expand its ability to supply Europe with energy as Baku is cultivating closer relations with Turkmenistan. Connectivity with the TANAP would only further the EU’s energy security.
Pipelines will be critical because they are the only economically viable way to move natural gas in vast quantities, especially across the Caspian Sea. Turning natural gas into liquified natural gas is too costly for transport over such a short distance. Pipelines, meanwhile, have over time become more viable forms of transport. The Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, signed by Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkmenistan in 2018, significantly reduced barriers to pipeline construction.
There are, however, a few problems that impede successful trade cooperation with Turkmenistan. Domestic issues and China’s influence in Turkmenistan present risks for the United States and the EU. Infrastructure in Turkmenistan has historically been weak. Modernization and regulatory integration will also be a significant challenge, given the closed nature of Turkmenistan’s government and its close relations with Russia and China. Additionally, Turkmenistan’s underpaid and under-trained staff at border stations and related trade offices spur corruption and bribery.
Opening the Middle Corridor
Despite these challenges, Trans-Caspian corridor cooperation in a multipolar world—particularly amid the energy supply chain disruptions caused by the Russo-Ukrainian War—will become more critical.
China’s own political and economic stability depends on international trade, but its overland route through Russia (the Northern Corridor) and maritime passage through the Malacca Strait are prone to disruptions. In comparison, the Middle Corridor allows China to bypass these high-risk routes. Russia too would also benefit from the Middle Corridor, as it would provide new logistic opportunities despite the current disruptions to the Northern Corridor.
The Central Asian countries, however, would likely benefit the most from higher connectivity with the West and all major actors, including China and Russia. As a result, all powers—Russia, China, the EU, and the United States—have a reason for favorable attitudes toward such an initiative, which can provide a realistic opportunity for cooperation.
There are one or two issues. For example, consider Beijing’s view on Turkey’s involvement. The latter’s geographic location, and the fact that the Middle Corridor passes through its territory, make it an indispensable partner for the West in achieving Middle Corridor connectivity. China, however, is concerned about Turkey’s emphasis on Turkic integration, potentially aggravating separatism among ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang. This has caused tension in the past. Ankara would be wise to make the case that Middle Corridor cooperation is, first and foremost, a commercial venture with no political strings attached.
Another issue is potential bottlenecks due to differing legal, regulatory, and logistical capabilities. These, however, are more easily solved via sufficient investment and actor participation. In November 2022, for instance, the Azerbaijani, Georgian, Kazakh, and Turkish heads of transport and foreign ministries agreed to a $7.5 billion roadmap for bottleneck removal to facilitate the Middle Corridor from 2022 to 2027.
This endeavor could further benefit from private sector participation from the United States and the EU. Washington, with an open multilateral approach and emphasis on predictability, could incorporate cooperation on global supply chains into a working group. The Supply Chain Ministerial Forum, comprising the EU and the United States, among other partners, would be a logical place to start by including Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and China. This group could work to identify and mitigate bottlenecks and other obstacles affecting energy transport along the Middle Corridor.
Another way the West could help is by providing technical assistance since the digitization of multimodal data and document exchange will also be critical for predictability and reliability. However, such should not be propelled unilaterally and rely on any one partner’s technology. While China has been successful with the digitization of its BRI projects, Central Asian countries could be wary of relying solely on Chinese technology, with risks of surveillance. The United States and the EU are well-equipped to contribute to the digitization of trade routes and give Central Asian countries assurance that they do need to rely solely on tech from Beijing.
While risks and obstacles inhibit Middle Corridor connectivity and subsequent Turkmen gas flowing to Europe, the benefits could outweigh the costs. Through this cooperative project, China can address trade route issues that will persist, especially while the Russo-Ukrainian War disrupts supply routes. Given current geopolitical realities, there is no better time for the West, China, and Central Asian countries, including Turkmenistan, to develop Middle Corridor connectivity.
Alex Little is an MS graduate of Georgia Tech and specializes in Russian and Central Asian affairs.