With the future delivery route of Turkmenistan's supplies of natural gas at stake, some analysts are predicting that Russia is turning up the heat. Using language not heard since the Russia-Georgia conflict of 2008, a number of influential Russian spokesman are calling for force to prevent the construction of the Trans Caspian Pipeline (TCP).
The TCP has been in discussion for years. It would connect the eastern and western coasts of the Caspian Sea, thereby allowing Turkmen gas to feed the Nabucco pipeline.
The European Union has declared the TCP to be a matter of community interest. In September, the 27 members of the European Commission adopted a mandate to negotiate a legally-binding treaty among the EU, Azerbaijan and Turmenistan to build the pipeline. "Europe is now speaking with one voice," said EU Energy Commissioner Oettinger. "The trans-Caspian pipeline is a major project in the Southern Corridor to bring new sources of gas to Europe. We have the intention of achieving this as soon as possible," according to the Associated Press.
Russian reaction was immediate. Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said that only the five countries bordering on the Caspian had the right to settle isues regarding use of the inland body of water. He said any accidents on the proposed pipeline would impact all five littoral nations. "It is evident that laying down the trans-Caspian pipeline in a confined basin with high seismic activity and a tectonic seabed is exactly one of those questions," he said according to the same AP article. The ministry issued an official statement stating the European decision "ignores the current international, legal and geopolitical situation in the Caspian Basin," and warned that attempts to intervene would complicate the situation and negatively affect talks on the status of the Caspian Sea.
Azerbaijan, who would be the recipient of the gas piped through the TCP, decided to refrain from comment on the European initiative. Rovnag Abdullayev, president of the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic, said "The Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline Project is not ours. This is a project designed by Turkmenistan and the European Union. Based on the European Energy Charter, we are an open transit country and infrastructure, which they (the EU and Turkmenistan) are going to build, is a matter for the two parties."
Lately, what should be considered a diplomatic tussle over whether the Caspian is a small inland sea or a large lake has the smell of gunpowder about it. The head of the Russian "Fund for National Energy Security," Konstantin Simonov, hints at war when he said, "Only the experience of the August war in Georgia is deterring Ashgabat today," according to EurasiaNet. According to noted commentator on the Caspian, Vladimir Socor, Siminov was quite explicit: "Ashgabat understands that the situation would be the same as it was in Georgia in August 2008. Back then they promised to protect Georgia, some kind of guarantees. And how did that end...Does Turkmenistan want the same thing to happen in the Caspian?" Simonov also said that "using force is the only possible response if diplomacy fails to stop the trans-Caspian project." EurasiaNet also quotes Siminov: "the reaction can be very hard up to some sort of military conflict in the Caspian Sea. Is Turkmenistan ready for this? I have great doubts in this regard."
Socor also quotes Mikhail Aleksandrov, department chief at the Russian government-sponsored "Institute on the CIS Countries." Aleksandrov also drew upon the Georgian analogy: "Russia would have to act in the manner of its operation to compel Georgia to peace...It may even be through air strikes, if they do not understand any other way." The vice-chairman of the Duma, Russian Gas Society president Valery Yazev, noted that Turkmenistan has no military protection in the Caspian, and that it risks a "Libyan scenario" by joining the trans-Caspian project.
Turkmenistan has condemned such bellicose talk from its northern neighbor. The foreign ministry released a statement that said, "A normal, civilized process of collaboration between sovereign and equal parties on the energy market is taking place...This, however, causes an inappropriate response from certain officials and mass media in Russia." Turkmen President Berdymukhamedov said European-directed pipelines are "among the most important goals of Turkemnstan's energy policy," that such pipelines would be actively developed, and that he supported the building of the TCP, in principle.
What is at stake? Petro-wealth. In November 2011 the firm of Gaffney, Cline and Associates released the results of the second phase of its audit of Turkmen gas reserves. Turkmen Vice Premier Baymyrat Hojamuhammedov released the results: the country owns 71.21 billion tons of natural gas, 50% more than previously expected. The firm stated that the South Yolotan gas field is the world's second-largest, with an estimated total of 26.2 trillion cubic meters. The estimates were immediately disputed by Gazprom deputy CEO Medvedev, who said there was no serious study or research report to back up the audit results.
There are two sides to the dispute: Russia and Iran claim that the Caspian is actually a very large lake (a body of water from which there is no egress). If they are correct, then all the states around the lake have equal rights to the use of the water. By contrast, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan believe the water is an inland sea--in which case each state would control the waters off its coast. If the Russian/Iranian view is correct, then they have a veto over the construction of the TCP; if the Azerbaijani/Turkmen view is correct, then any two states can do what they want within their own territorial waters. The fifth littoral state, Kazakhstan, has stayed away from the conflict, but officials there say that Kazakhstan will not cooperate with the TCP until the Caspian legal status is resolved.
To strengthen their hand in the dispute, Iran and Russia agreed in September to set up a joint energy committee to expand cooperation between the two states, according to the Tehran Times. At the same time, they announced their opposition to the TCP due to environmental concerns, protection of marine resources and preventing pollution.
Such claims are considered ludicrous by people who have observed Russia's own practices. It has built its own pipelines in the Black Sea (Blue Stream) and the Baltic Sea (Nordstream) with little comment on the environment. In fact, all five littoral states have undertaken offshore exploration and development without seeking permission from the others, according to Robert M. Cutler.
Some legal experts believe that a pipeline can be constructed while the final status of the Caspian is still being negotiated. Jerome Pons, the Charge d'Affaires of the EU Delegation to Azerbaijan, told Today.Az that "The on-going negotiation on the legal status of the Caspian has not precluded the construction and operation of (other) oil and gas pipelines...In the Caspian Sea, the on-going negotiation between the littoral states over the last years on the legal status of the Caspian has in fact not precluded the construction and operation of oil and gas pipelines." Brigitte Bichler, senior project manager for Nabucco at the Austrian energy group OMV said the TCP was "legally feasible." This view was supported by US State Department advisor for Eurasian energy Daniel Stein, who said no country had "veto power" over a Turkmen-Azeri pipeline agreement, according to Reuters.
The country that may influence this dispute the most may be "none of the above." As China buys more gas from Turkmenistan, their influence over Turkmen pipeline planning will continue to grow. According to a Chinese diplomat, "Beijing does not want Turkmenistan to build a pipeline to the European Union, get a different gas price on the European market and then increase it for China...Beijing will do its best to make sure the Transcaspian pipeline project is not developed," according to Rianovosti.