ASHGABAT -- Russian officials are scrambling to come up with yet another reason to hinder the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline, a proposed undersea pipeline between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.
The main goal of the project is to transport natural gas from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to Turkey and Europe, bypassing both Russia and Iran.
Fearing competition in the gas market, the Russian and Iranian regimes have long opposed the supply of Turkmen gas to Azerbaijan and then to southern Europe via the TANAP (Trans Anatolian) and TAP (Trans-Adriatic) gas pipelines.
TANAP was completed last year. Meanwhile, TAP's construction is nearing 90% completion, according to the TAP website.
In the past, Moscow and Tehran cited the lack of a legal framework for sharing the Caspian Sea as a reason to block the project.
However, last August, the five littoral Caspian nations -- Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan -- inked the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea in Aktau, Kazakhstan.
Switching to environmental pretext
With Turkmenistan now intensifying talks on exporting gas to Europe without having to go through Russia's pipeline network, Moscow has suddenly discovered environmental concerns that never disturbed it before.
Its position on the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline project "remains unchanged", said Russian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Mikhail Bocharnikov, in a July 4 interview with the Azerbaijani newspaper Caspian Energy.
"First of all, we must comply with ... our obligations under international agreements on environmental protection and preservation," Bocharnikov said.
"The hypothetical and far-from-obvious benefits for certain economic players must not prevail over the long-term interests of the population of the Caspian littoral states and prospects for preservation of the water area's ecosystem," he added.
Bocharnikov's words "caused perplexity among the country [Turkmenistan]'s leadership", said a source close to the Turkmen government.
Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry and the oil and gas industry see the interview as another attempt by Moscow to "throw a monkey wrench into the works" and prevent Turkmenistan from building a gas pipeline through the Caspian Sea, according to the source.
Ashgabat has yet to respond to the ambassador's comments.
"When [Russia] builds the Nord Stream and TurkStream gas pipelines, it does not mention ecology or the environment," said a director at Turkmengaz, Turkmenistan's state-owned gas producer, who wished to remain anonymous.
"As soon as Turkmenistan begins to promote the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline, Russia immediately, through the ambassador or other representatives, expresses its 'unchanged position' on preserving the ecosystem of the sea," the director said.
"The double standards are obvious," he said.
Nevertheless, Moscow's efforts to hinder the pipeline "will be in vain", he said.
Turkmenistan already has accomplished considerable work on exporting gas to the west, according to the director.
Turkmenistan already has built on its own and put into operation a 773km-long domestic gas pipeline, the East-West, at a cost of $2.5 billion (8.8 billion TMT) to ensure that the potential Trans-Caspian gas pipeline will work at maximum capacity, he said.
"It has allowed us to pump gas from the large Galkynysh and Dovletabad gas fields in the east of the country to the shore of the Caspian Sea, where the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline will originate," the director said.
The Kremlin's concern for the Caspian ecosystem is a ruse, and its true goal is to prevent Turkmenistan from diversifying its gas routes towards Europe, where it wants to remain the monopolist, according to the director.
"If Russia thinks that Turkmenistan is not able to ensure the environmental safety of the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline project, then it is mistaken," said a Turkmen government official involved in running the energy industry who wished to remain unnamed.
"He [Bocharnikov] should know that Turkmenistan, which has already implemented a few mega-projects worth several billion dollars over the past 10 years, will find the means to protect the environmental reliability of the underwater gas pipeline," he said.
Moscow's fears "that Turkmenistan may bring its gas through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey to the European market and increase competition there" account for its "baseless statements" about the future pipeline's perils, added the official.
The project to build a gas pipeline under the Caspian Sea has the support of the European Union, whose countries do not want to be in constant energy dependence on Russia, he added.
Work on the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline will continue despite Russian opposition as it will boost the development not only of Turkmenistan but of many countries in the Caucasus and the rest of Europe, he said.