Turkey’s Pipeline Politics in Central Asia

Nikola Mikovic

Image courtesy of Adem Altan / AFP

Central Asia and the South Caucasus have long been within Russia’s geopolitical orbit. But as the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine stumbles on, Turkey is looking to take advantage by increasing its influence in the strategically important regions.

It’s no secret Ankara views Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as countries that belong to the Turkic world – an idea that former Turkish President Abdullah Gul once formulated as “One nation, six states.” Yet cultural ties are not what drives his successor, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now. Today, it’s all about energy.

Turkey’s ties to Turkmenistan are particularly important. Despite not being a member of the Organization of Turkic States – an influential regional grouping of Turkic-speaking countries – Turkmenistan plays a key role in Ankara’s Central Asia strategy. As Erdogan put it bluntly last month, “I hope that Turkmen gas will soon begin to flow to Turkey through the Caspian Sea.”

Despite being one of the world’s most isolated regimes, Turkmenistan ranks fourth globally for natural gas reserves after Russia, Iran, and Qatar. Although China is the main buyer of Turkmen gas at the moment, Ankara aims to start purchasing energy from the former Soviet republic to help turn Turkey into a regional gas hub.

Here’s how that would work: By investing in the political and economic conditions needed to import large volumes of natural gas from Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkmenistan, Turkey could redirect energy to Europe and become an intermediary in gas sales.

While the Kremlin supports this idea in principle – especially given that it can no longer supply Europe with natural gas via the Nord Stream pipelines – Turkey’s energy strategy has drawn some Russian opposition. Most notable is Senator Alexander Bashkin, who wrote recently that Moscow would not allow construction of the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan, an essential part of any future linkage to Turkey. Bashkin blamed environmental concerns for his stance, but the geopolitical subtext was clear.

Still, even if the Kremlin shared Bashkin’s view, it’s unlikely that Moscow has the means to push Turkey off course. Bogged down in Ukraine, Russia is unable to dictate to other countries, and especially not to Turkey.

Hypothetically, Moscow could offer its own gas pipelines to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan for exporting gas to Europe. But given Russia’s isolation in the global arena, and the fact that President Vladimir Putin has turned his country into a pariah-state, it’s doubtful that the former Soviet Central Asian republics would be willing to do business with the Kremlin.

Thus, Ankara will almost certainly continue expanding energy ties with Turkmenistan, without fear of Russian retaliation.

Turkey is already purchasing energy elsewhere in the region; Ankara is among the main buyers of Azerbaijan’s natural gas. But because Azerbaijan’s resources are limited, Ankara still sees Turkmenistan as the linchpin in its geo-economic strategy.

While energy and economic interests are driving Turkey’s strategy in the post-Soviet space, Erdogan will undoubtedly continue emphasizing the importance of pan-Turkism, given that most Turkic nations share historical, ethnic, and cultural ties with Turkey. Pan-Turkism helps Turkey further its ambitious goals in the Eurasian heartland – namely, to compete with Russia and China in the countries surrounding the Caspian Sea.

Turkey was the first country in the world to recognize the independence of the former Soviet Central Asian republics in the 1990s. Ever since, Turkey has maintained close ties to the region, engaging in economic and educational projects, and enhancing its military cooperation.

Turkey is also making inroads in Kyrgyzstan, opening mosques and schools and strengthening its energy collaboration. While Kyrgyzstan remains Russia’s ally in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and is a member of the Russian-led Eurasian Union (EAEU), the Kremlin is struggling to preserve its cultural influence in the country.

In neighboring Kazakhstan – another Russian ally in the CSTO and the EAEU – Turkey has plans to invest around $2 billion, mostly in light industry. Ankara’s economic presence in the oil-rich Central Asian nation is modest; trade between Ankara and Astana was just over $5.3 billion in 2021, while the trade turnover between Kazakhstan and Russia topped $11.6 billion during the first six months of 2022.

More recently, however, Kazakhstan has shown signs of distancing itself from Russia as it looks to diversify its foreign policy. To take advantage, Ankara should move to become a transit point for Kazakh oil and rare earth metals bound for the European Union, and to create an energy corridor connecting Turkey and Central Asia.

Turkey’s timing could be perfect. Kazakhstan is expected to approve a draft agreement on a transport corridor that would connect China with the EU through Kazakhstan and Turkey. The Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, better known as the Middle Corridor, would bypass Russia and position Turkey as an important transit country.

It will take time to build all these corridors and pipelines. As Turkey waits for its energy strategy to materialize, expect its leaders to use every tool at their disposal to achieve the economic and energy goals they covet in Central Asia.

Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”