ASHGABAT -- Russian authorities have again stated their opposition to the construction of the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline (TCGP), which would run from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan.
If built, the 300km-long TCGP under the Caspian Sea would feed into the Southern Gas Corridor, which connects to Europe from Azerbaijan via Georgia and Turkey.
The underwater pipeline would allow Turkmenistan to annually send billions of cubic metres of gas to European markets, bypassing the Russian Gazprom pipeline system.
The prospect of losing the European market is prompting Russia to look for loopholes in documents that will allow it to block competition from Central Asia.
Most recently, on Friday (December 16), Alexander Bashkin, a Russian senator from Astrakhan province, pointed to environmental concerns as to why Russia would not agree to the construction of the pipeline.
Such concerns have been mostly irrelevant when Russia builds its own pipelines.
In an article for regional publication Ast-News.ru, Bashkin referred to the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea, which the five countries bordering the Caspian signed in 2018.
As part of the agreement, all five countries must grant their approval before environmentally sensitive projects may take place.
"Given the potential threat to the environmental safety of the Caspian Sea presented by the underwater section of the gas pipeline, Russia will be unable to consent to its construction," Bashkin wrote.
Bashkin made his remarks following a summit on December 14 in the Turkmen resort of Avaza among the presidents of Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Turkey.
At the meeting, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan noted that the Southern Gas Corridor -- which includes the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline and Trans-Adriatic Pipeline -- is key for Europe in the context of the economic sanctions imposed against Russia and the war Russia unleashed in Ukraine.
Caspian gas -- mainly from Azerbaijan -- is already being delivered along this corridor to southern Europe, but supply volumes are still insufficient to help the European Union (EU) achieve gas independence from Gazprom.
"We should now start working on transporting the Turkmen natural gas to the Western markets in a similar way," Erdoğan said, according to his website.
'I don't need it, but you can't have it either'
Russia has for decades been using different pretexts to hinder the export of Turkmenistan's gas to European markets through the Caspian Sea.
Prior to the signing of the 2018 convention, Moscow said that Turkmenistan could not build a gas pipeline until the legal status of the Caspian was determined.
The idea of laying a gas pipe across the Caspian has been circulating for more than 25 years, a professor at Yagshygeldi Kakayev International University of Oil and Gas in Ashgabat said on the condition of anonymity.
The effort has produced no results because Russia and Iran are constantly scuppering the project in different versions of its implementation, he said.
The problem is that Russia and Iran, which have gas reserves as large as Turkmenistan's, do not want to release Turkmen gas onto the European markets, where until recently Gazprom was the dominant supplier, he added.
Everyone stands to win from the TCGP -- except Russia, said the professor.
In 2015, Turkmenistan spent $2.5 billion of its own funds to build and turn on its 773km-long East-West Gas Pipeline.
The pipeline connects the Galkynysh (Rebirth) and Davletabad gas fields -- the largest in the world -- in the eastern part of the country to its Caspian coast in the west, and has a capacity of 30 billion cubic metres of gas per year.
If the TCGP were to come to fruition, Turkmenistan could earn considerable sums of hard currency, the professor said.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey could collect large transit fees for allowing the gas to pass through their territory, and European countries would receive a robust supply of gas and end their dependence on Russia, he added.
Russia is acting like someone who says, "I don't need it, but you can't have it either", said Agageldi Orazberdyyev, a spokesman for the Turkmen state-owned enterprise Turkmengaz, referring to Bashkin's remarks.
"Europe is sharply reducing its consumption of Russian gas and plans to stop consuming it altogether by 2027," he said.
"But Europe needs alternative supplies, and now, when a real possibility to build the [TCGP] has come along, Russia is again hindering its competitors on the global gas market, this time leaning on mundane bureaucracy and duplicity," Orazberdyyev said.
Russia out of options
An exceptional opportunity now exists to complete the TCGP, Ashgabat recognises.
Turkey and Azerbaijan are willing to start building a pipeline to transport Turkmen gas to European markets, and EU countries are willing to spend more than €200 billion to stop consuming Russian gas entirely by 2027.
Azerbaijan has also already confirmed on multiple occasions that it is willing to provide its own infrastructure to pump Turkmen gas into Europe.
Even with the TCGP's projected capacity of 30 billion cubic metres per year, Turkmen gas will not be able to satisfy all of Europe's needs if it does shun purchases of Russian gas, the professor from the International University of Oil and Gas said.
"But that's still a tremendous volume amid the direst economic times in the EU, high energy prices and the active search for alternative energy sources," he said.
Because of Russia's aggression against Ukraine and subsequent sanctions imposed by Western nations, Gazprom is losing options for supplying gas to Europe.
In particular, transit through Ukraine has dropped by more than 50% and transit through Poland has halted completely. Sanctions paralysed plans to start using the Russian-built Nord Stream 2 undersea pipeline, which was damaged along with its older companion pipeline Nord Stream 1 in a suspicious explosion in September.
Russia's self-destructive invasion of Ukraine has given Erdoğan unexpected ability to help Turkmenistan realise its ambition to export gas directly to Europe.
The uniqueness of the situation, according to Orazberdyyev of Turkmengaz, is that Erdoğan has shown his own desire to see Turkmen gas exported to Europe. If need be, he has the ability to influence Putin or even force him to do something.
The Turkish leader wants to make his country a hub not only for gas from Russia but from Central Asia, particularly Turkmen gas, said Orazberdyyev. If Russia stubbornly opposes construction of the TCGP, Erdoğan can impose an ultimatum by threatening to hinder Russian gas exports through the TurkStream pipeline.
TurkStream passes under the Black Sea from Anapa, Russia, to Kıyıköy, Turkey.
Since neither Nord Stream 1 nor 2 has operated since the unexplained September explosions, TurkStream is almost the only functioning route for Russian gas exports to Europe.
"Erdoğan is right: we need to start working on transporting Turkmen gas to Europe. For a quarter century we've been doing nothing but talking about this project, looking to Russia the whole time. Enough already," said the university professor.
"The war in Ukraine has exposed not only the Russian leadership's true aggressive nature but also its weakness," the professor said.
"That is why all the interested parties need to pool their efforts, take advantage of a rare opportunity and start building the gas pipeline across the Caspian."