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Author Topic: Russia-Georgia, Turkey, Caucasus, Central Asia  (Read 27913 times)
Crafty_Dog
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« Reply #100 on: March 11, 2015, 09:43:36 AM »



As Russian forces consolidate their gains in Ukraine over the flat protests of Western leaders, the specter of Russian revanchism is keeping much of Eastern Europe on edge. But lumbering tanks and legions of insta-separatists aren’t the only concern. Ukraine isn’t Russia’s only target.

Perhaps most alarming are the warning signs going off in Georgia, a steadfast Euro-Atlantic partner where a pro-Western political consensus has long been a foreign-policy calling card. A long-standing opponent of Russian military adventurism, Georgia sought escape velocity from Russian regional dominance by courting membership in Euro-Atlantic structures and earned a reputation as an enthusiastic and credible Western partner. But

    Western quiescence in the face of Russian territorial aggression is starting to have an effect.

Western quiescence in the face of Russian territorial aggression is starting to have an effect. After decades of acrimony in which Georgians have watched Russian proxies occupy 20 percent of their territory and ethnically cleanse some 300,000 of their compatriots, certain groups are starting to ask if maintaining close ties to the West is worth all the loss. Increasingly, Georgians are beginning to think that it isn’t.

The groups spearheading Russian influence operations in Georgia fly beneath the international radar under the cloak of local-language media and the oft-repeated surety of pro-Western sentiment. But they can be seen protesting in Tbilisi streets, preaching in Georgian churches, and holding improbably well-funded campaign rallies ahead of elections. The evidence shows that Russian influence in Georgia is growing stronger. (In the photo, a Stalin impersonator poses at a memorial service for the Soviet dictator in his Georgian hometown of Gori.)

But at Washington roundtables and in private conversations, Western officials and experts tend to downplay the possibility of Russian-exported propaganda taking root in Georgia. The root of this complacency is tied to regular polling from the U.S.-funded International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) that has consistently showed public support for Euro-Atlantic integration at between 60 and 70 percent. Successive governments have relied on this popular approval to justify their Western-facing foreign-policy agendas.

So support for Euro-Atlantic integration is broad. But is it deep? Those who have spent time with ordinary Georgians say the reality, as is often the case, is far more complex.

There, in a scene in the popular Georgian soap opera Chemi Tsolis Dakalebi (My Wife’s Best Friends), revelers at a wedding reception are interrupted by an announcement that Georgia has just been awarded a long-coveted “MAP” (membership action plan), a prelude to NATO membership. The announcement shocks the crowd into a stunned silence, which then gives way to raucous cheers. One character, while clapping and celebrating along with the others, turns to another partygoer and asks: “What’s a MAP?”

While the scene colorfully illuminates NATO’s outsized social, and even civilizational, pull among Georgians, it also suggests a harsher truth: that Georgian society’s Western moorings may be more emotive than well-informed. The headline numbers from public opinion polls don’t tell the whole story. Look deeper into the data, and the picture is much more worrisome.

According to an NDI poll last August, integration with the West was at best a tertiary issue for Georgians. Instead, “kitchen table” issues dominated respondents’ concerns, with worries about jobs (63 percent) and poverty (32 percent) eclipsing other issues. NATO and EU integration came in far behind at 10th and 17th, respectively. And of 21 issues polled, Georgians picked NATO and EU membership as the top issues the government spent too much time discussing.

But most concerning, buried deep in the survey results, were signs of growing support for joining the Eurasian Union, a Moscow-led EU “alternative.” A full 20 percent favored the idea of Georgian membership. This percentage has risen steadily from 11 percent in late 2013 to 16 percent in mid-2014. Who are these Georgians who would surrender their country’s sovereignty to the same power that keeps a steely grip on Georgian territory and carves other neighboring states with impunity?

Part of the answer can be found in a budding segment of the nongovernmental sector, consisting of innocuously named pro-Russian groups like the “Eurasian Institute,” “Eurasian Choice,” and “The Earth Is Our Home.” Many of these organizations pop in and out of existence as needed — the “Peace Committee of Georgia” one week, something else the next — but they are often tied to the same group of pro-Russian ideologues and policy entrepreneurs who make regular pilgrimages to Moscow and, according to Georgian officials in the ruling party and the opposition, almost certainly receive Kremlin funding. Their common message isn’t high-church Russian apologia or Soviet nostalgia, but rather “Eurasianism” and “Orthodox civilization” — Kremlin shorthand for Putinism. Appeals to Georgian social conservatism, economic vulnerability, and lingering anger over past government abuses are winning converts within a population increasingly impatient with Georgia’s unrequited love affair with the West.

In mid-2014, Eurasianist groups made headlines for their raucous opposition to an anti-discrimination bill making its way through the Georgian parliament. Their opposition centered on language in the bill banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, which opponents claimed was tantamount to promoting non-heterosexual lifestyles. But they didn’t come to the protests alone — accompanying the pro-Russian activists were unmistakably garbed clerics from the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The church, too, was nonplussed over the anti-discrimination bill and called for language protecting sexual minorities to be ejected. One of the oldest existing Christian churches in the world, the Georgian Orthodox Church is both a touchstone for Georgian nationalism and reliably polls as the most trusted institution in the country. But the church’s common cause with the Eurasianists was not limited to tactical alliances over anti-gay rhetoric. Although nominally in favor of Georgian membership in the European Union, influential factions within the Orthodox hierarchy openly stoke religious nationalism and express admiration for Russia.

Today, church representatives are increasingly seen as a vanguard for reactionary activity. In mid-2013, clergy members were on the front lines of a horrifying anti-gay pogrom in central Tbilisi. Church officials have justified protests against and attacks on Georgian Muslims. And church leaders have called the West “worse than Russia,” sometimes describing the 2008 Russian invasion as a kind of heavenly intervention against Western integration. Such language is echoed by Georgia’s Eurasianist NGOs.

The growing profile of pro-Russian organizations and the sharpening anti-Western stance of the church is converging with a third leg in an emerging pro-Russian triad: the revitalization of anti-Western political parties.

    Since the 2012 change in power, pro-Russian politicians have risen from the darkest margins of Georgian political life into an increasingly viable political force.

Since the 2012 change in power, pro-Russian politicians have risen from the darkest margins of Georgian political life into an increasingly viable political force.

Onetime pro-Western advocate turned pro-Russian political agitator Nino Burjanadze has fashioned a political coalition aimed squarely at breaking Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic consensus. In presidential and local elections in 2013 and 2014, respectively, Burjanadze managed to get about 10 percent of the vote, armed with Eurasianist rhetoric and fueled by massive influxes of what was likely Russian money. And the rapidly growing Alliance of Patriots — a populist party with anti-Western leanings, which recently held a major rally in Tbilisi — won almost 5 percent in June 2014. If these numbers hold, parliamentary elections in 2016 could very well yield a very differently oriented Georgian government. A 15 percent result would be more than enough to send pro-Russian deputies into parliament in force, shattering cross-partisan foreign-policy unity and potentially playing kingmakers in coalition talks.

Irakli Alasania, Georgia’s former defense minister, has Russia on his mind. “There are very active pro-Russia groups and thousands of protesters who are against Western integration,” he told me recently, referring to the Alliance of Patriots rally. He expressed worry that the current government is downplaying a growing Russian threat. With his own Free Democrats now part of the parliamentary opposition, the ruling Georgian Dream coalition’s ranks of solidly pro-Western parties has noticeably thinned, and the leverage of socially conservative, protectionist factions within the coalition has increased.

But this is probably only the beginning. If trends hold, Georgia’s foreign-policy consensus — long taken for granted in the West — could begin to unravel in earnest. Although Georgian Dream, to its credit, has managed to skate the knife’s edge between geopolitical pragmatism and Euro-Atlantic enthusiasm, it is increasingly losing popularity among once-hopeful voters. As things stand, parliament in 2016 looks like it will be very different from today’s parliament. The pro-Western opposition United National Movement will likely see its 51 seats slashed by half or more. In its place is likely to be a collection of openly anti-Western deputies from Burjanadze’s coalition and the Alliance of Patriots. If it stays together, Georgian Dream may well remain the largest parliamentary bloc, but the introduction of large anti-Western groupings into parliament could compel it to dilute, or even abandon, its pro-Western policies out of political necessity.

This trajectory ought to be a cause for deep concern. Even a Georgia that tried to split its orientation between the West and Moscow would likely sink into the quicksand of Russian dominance, as have each of the other paragons of this strategy — Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Kazakhstan. This result would mean the consolidation of Russian geostrategic supremacy over the Caucasus and, with it, a complete Russian monopoly over trans-Eurasian energy and trade flows.

    There are ways the West could throw a much-needed lifeline to Georgian liberals.

There are ways the West could throw a much-needed lifeline to Georgian liberals. While the association agreement with the European Union signed last June is surely a welcome symbol, and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area has great future potential, the real prize for most ordinary Georgians is the prospect of visa-free travel to the EU. If this is introduced this year, as widely hoped, this could be a real boon for Western credibility. And if not outright NATO membership, other strong gestures, such as U.S. major non-NATO ally status, would be a relatively painless upgrade that would enshrine what is essentially the status quo while recognizing Georgia’s long-outsized dedication and contributions to the Euro-Atlantic space.

What is clear is that the days of taking Georgia’s pro-Western consensus for granted are quickly coming to a close. Russian influence is resurgent across its periphery, from Eastern Europe to the Caucasus to Central Asia, and Georgia remains a long-coveted prize. It may have taken successive military interventions, information warfare, and influence operations, but Moscow looks to be turning a corner in its bid to regain Georgia — both by hook and by crook.
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Crafty_Dog
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« Reply #101 on: April 12, 2015, 01:32:10 PM »

 Why Russia Will Send More Troops to Central Asia
Analysis
April 11, 2015 | 12:59 GMT
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Russian soldiers take part in the August 2014 Indestructible Brotherhood joint military exercises at the Ala-Too training ground in Kyrgyzstan. (VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Russia is making a concerted effort to increase its military and security presence throughout Central Asia, just not for the reasons it would have you think. Though the Kremlin is concerned with the threat of spillover violence from Islamist militancy in Afghanistan — its purported motive for deploying more troops — it is far more alarmed by what it sees as Chinese and Western encroachment into lands over which it has long held sway. It is this concern that will shape Moscow's behavior in Central Asia in the years to come.
Analysis

Central Asia has played an important role in the projection of Russian military power since the Russian Empire's expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries. During this period, Russia established military outposts as it competed with the British Empire for influence in the region. By the mid-19th century, Russia had brought modern-day Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan into its empire. In the early 20th century, the countries were incorporated into the Soviet Union.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia retained a military presence in Central Asia and played a major role in regional conflicts, such as the 1992-1997 Tajik civil war. Today Russia still has military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Kazakhstan is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military bloc dominated by Moscow. And while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are not members of the bloc, they do have important security and military ties with Russia through arms purchases.

Concerns of Militancy

Russia's long-standing influence in Central Asian military affairs frames several of the country's recent moves. On April 2, the base commander of Russia's 201st military base in Tajikistan said Russia would increase the number of troops stationed there from 5,900 to 9,000 over the next five years and add more military equipment through 2020. Then on April 3 an unnamed source in the General Staff of the Russian armed forces told Kommersant that Russia was prepared to grant Tajikistan $1.2 billion in military aid over the next few years. Russian military specialists were reportedly dispatched to Turkmenistan's border with Afghanistan on March 24 as well. Turkmen officials have yet to confirm this, but local media report that Ashgabat requested Russian assistance to protect the Afghan border.

Officially, these developments are tied to growing concern over violence spilling over from Afghanistan into Central Asia. It is a legitimate fear for many Central Asian governments as NATO and the United States draw down their forces in Afghanistan. Regional governments have voiced discomfort with the increased militant presence in northern Afghanistan, including the Taliban and the Islamic State.

Russia has echoed this fear. Russian President Vladimir Putin's special representative for Afghanistan alleged that Islamic State fighters in the north are training thousands of militants near the Tajikistan and Turkmenistan borders. Collective Security Treaty Organization summits have focused on the issue, and Tajikistan urged the bloc to do more to counter the threat at the April 1-2 Dushanbe summit.

Despite a definite uptick in militant attacks in northern Afghanistan, no concrete evidence has emerged of attacks over the border in Central Asian states. Central Asia's last major wave of regionwide militancy was 1999-2001, when the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan conducted attacks in the Fergana Valley in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The U.S. intervention in Afghanistan following 9/11, however, wiped out much of the group. Surviving elements then dispersed throughout the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area.

Since then, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan have seen some attacks by Islamist militants. But many were related to political dynamics, not the movement in Afghanistan. A spillover of Afghan militancy is possible, but so far the threat is minimal.
More Pertinent Factors

Because Islamist spillover from northern Afghanistan is still a relatively minor threat, Russia's push into Central Asia may have other motivations. Moscow is engaged in a tense standoff with the West over Ukraine, just one theater in the competition for influence along the former Soviet periphery. Central Asia is another key region in this contest. The region possesses sizable oil and natural gas resources that are attractive to the European Union as it seeks to diversify energy supplies and end its dependence on Russia. Europe has already pursued Turkmenistan to join the Trans-Caspian pipeline project.

The United States has also been active in Central Asia, particularly from a security standpoint. The United States no longer uses Central Asian military bases that had been logistical centers for operations in Afghanistan, such as the Kant Air Base in Kyrgyzstan or the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base in Uzbekistan. These bases, however, have left a regional legacy. Washington maintains some security operations that include counternarcotics training with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The United States has also expressed interest in increasing its commitment. The commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Lloyd Austin, said the United States was willing to provide military equipment and technology to support Turkmenistan's efforts to secure its border with Afghanistan. The United States also announced in January that it would grant over 200 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles to Uzbekistan previously used in the U.S. Northern Distribution Network in Afghanistan. Such gestures point to a U.S. desire to develop more cooperative security relationships with Central Asian states.

Moscow's military and security expansion efforts stem partly from its concern about these gestures. But Russia has not limited itself to deploying military personnel. Moscow has expanded the scope and membership of its Eurasian Union to include broader cooperation on issues including border controls. Kazakhstan is already a member, and Kyrgyzstan will soon join. Russia increased the number of exercises held by Collective Security Treaty Organization members. It also called on Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to cooperate more with the security bloc, though both have been hesitant.

However, Moscow's ability to solidify its position in Central Asia will be limited. Russia has a weak economy. Already, many Central Asian migrants who once worked in Russia have left, causing a decline in Russian remittances to the region. The West, and particularly the United States, will continue to have influence in the region. China, too, will continue to make economic and energy inroads.

Meanwhile, instability in the region will probably increase. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan both have potential succession crises in the offing. Moreover, demographic growth and competition over water resources are likely to threaten the region's security. Russia will see its position in Central Asia tested in the coming years. Islamist militancy is just one concern among many for Moscow and Central Asian governments.
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Crafty_Dog
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« Reply #102 on: May 24, 2015, 09:35:25 PM »

I have posted many times on this matter of the geopolitical significance of central Asia gas and how Russia needed it in order to control Europe:


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Russia Carries On With Turkish Stream Pipeline
Analysis
May 22, 2015 | 16:10 GMT

Russian energy company Gazprom has made it clear that it intends to move forward with the construction of the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline as quickly as possible, whether or not the project can overcome political obstacles in Europe. Earlier in May, Gazprom notified a subsidiary of Italian energy firm Saipem that it could begin laying pipes for the planned 63 billion-cubic-meter pipeline in the Black Sea and also resumed a contract with Germany's Europipe for 150,000 metric tons of pipe for the project. Russia said it plans to start constructing the underwater portion of the pipeline in June.

Gazprom has already told Europe that it plans to cease using its current export route through Ukraine in 2019 and shift those natural gas supplies to the Turkish Stream pipeline. But the Europeans believe Russia will not follow through with its plans if Europe does not build the infrastructure necessary to deliver gas from Turkey to the markets currently serviced by the Ukrainian route. Meanwhile Russia has invested enough and has sufficient supplies available to at least begin construction on the first of Turkish Stream's four parallel pipelines, each with a capacity of about 16 billion cubic meters. Russia is banking on Europe caving in by the time Gazprom is ready to start constructing the other pipelines. Even if Europe does not compromise in the medium term, Gazprom can use a smaller version of Turkish Stream to supply the small but growing Turkish natural gas market.

Analysis

One of Russia's tools for influence in Europe is its status as the dominant producer of natural gas and oil for the Continent. Moscow also uses its pipeline networks to exert influence over transit states such as Belarus and Ukraine as well as European countries further downstream.

For much of the 2000s, Russia's primary export route into Europe was a main line through Ukraine that branched out as it headed west toward Austria, Italy, Germany and other major consumers. This meant that whenever Russia and Ukraine had a dispute that led to a cutoff of natural gas to Ukraine, as occurred in 2006 and 2009, it invariably impacted the supply of energy to the rest of Europe. To avoid repeating this scenario, Moscow mustered enough financial and political support to build the Nord Stream pipeline, which now delivers natural gas across the Baltic Sea directly to Germany, Gazprom's largest European customer.

South Stream was meant to be the southern route that would bypass Ukraine by delivering natural gas across the Black Sea directly to Bulgaria and then to Central and Southeastern Europe. The financial and political support for South Stream came more slowly than support for its northern counterpart, but by the end of 2013, South Stream had enough resources to begin awarding contracts for pipe-laying, pipe fabrication and other construction-related services. However, the crisis in Ukraine halted the project before all the contracts had been awarded, and what little political support it had in Southeastern Europe evaporated under strong political pressure from the European Commission and more dominant European countries. At the same time, Russia spiraled into another major financial crisis, leaving funding for such large projects in question. 

South Stream was canceled in December 2014. Almost immediately, it was replaced with the Turkish Stream plan, which is being designed to send the same amount of natural gas to Turkey as its ill-fated predecessor, almost directly across the border with Bulgaria. For Russia, Turkish Stream achieves the same goal as South Stream, but without the political constraints of transporting gas to EU member Bulgaria. And in return for its support of the new project, Turkey is hoping to get a 10.25 percent discount on its energy supply from Russia.
Turkish Stream

Russia is now using the contractors and subcontractors it enlisted for South Stream to accelerate the development of Turkish Stream. The contracts with Europipe and Saipem are just two of many that are likely to be migrated from the canceled project to its replacement. Gazprom is also likely prioritizing work on the first of the four planned parallel pipelines, each of which would carry about one-fourth of Turkish Stream's planned capacity. Gazprom hopes to have the first pipeline finished by December 2016.

Neither the Russian government nor Gazprom have the financing in place for the entire Turkish Stream project. Instead, they have opted to take a piecemeal approach. With oil and natural gas prices low, financing the later portions of Turkish Stream could be a challenge for Gazprom until Russia's economy improves.

Even before Russia envisioned Turkish Stream, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for Gazprom to concurrently finance both South Stream and another planned energy project, the Power of Siberia pipeline to China — the combined cost of which would exceed $100 billion. This was one of the main reasons Gazprom sought international financial partners for both projects. Russia has secured significant financing from China for the Power of Siberia project, though Gazprom has complained that China has been slow in delivering the money. Russia has also swapped the order in which it initally planned to construct the two pipelines to China, choosing to prioritize the Altai pipeline, which will transport natural gas from western Siberia to the border with China between Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Choosing to construct this shorter pipeline first gives Gazprom more flexibility in financing Turkish Stream given limited Western capital.

Getting foreign participation from Europe is even more difficult for the Turkish Stream project than it was for South Stream. Even if the West relaxes sanctions on Russia, business confidence in long-term contracts with Russia will remain relatively low, meaning that Russia must offer fairly high rates of return. Politically, Turkish Stream is highly unpopular in Europe. The Europeans are making every effort possible to develop alternatives, such as the Trans-Anatolian, Trans-Adriatic and Trans-Caspian pipelines, which could transport natural gas from Turkmenistan to Europe. Companies in Europe are throwing their support and finances behind some of these other projects.

A major worry for Moscow is that Russia will build Turkish Stream but have no means of transporting Europe's natural gas beyond the Turkish border. Right now, almost all of Europe's natural gas transportation infrastructure goes either from Northwestern Europe, bringing natural gas from the North Sea into Central and Southeastern Europe, or from Ukraine westward or southward. None of the infrastructure is designed to bring natural gas from the extreme southeast to other markets. In essence, Turkey and Bulgaria are at the end of Eurasia's natural gas supply chain networks. Moving natural gas to the north and west was a problem with South Stream as well, but Russia eventually found partners to extend the pipeline all the way into Central Europe. Because of the European Union's Third Energy Package, Gazprom cannot build and operate pipelines in Europe, so it must wait for the Europeans to develop the infrastructure. The Trans-Adriatic and Trans-Anatolian pipelines are designed to solve this problem for natural gas from the Caspian region, but the initial capacity for the Trans-Adriatic is exempt from Europe's open access rules, meaning Gazprom cannot use it anytime soon.
Differences Between Nord Stream and Turkish Stream

A similar process existed for the construction of the Nord Stream pipeline. Gazprom began awarding the construction contracts and building the pipeline well before Moscow and Berlin finalized the political agreement for the project and before Gazprom had hammered out the final details concerning the onshore distribution networks. However, there are two major differences between Nord Stream and Turkish Stream.

First, Germany is Europe's wealthiest economy, and its industrial base provided the money needed to finance and build the infrastructure for Nord Stream. There is no equivalent sponsor country for Turkish Stream. The biggest consumer in the immediate region is obviously Turkey, which currently gets half of its Russian natural gas through Ukraine — notably, close to the same amount it could get through one of Turkish Stream's four planned pipelines, about 15 billion cubic meters. Turkey would not need to build a lot of infrastructure, since Turkish Stream would tap into existing pipeline networks north of Istanbul that deliver natural gas southward via the Ukrainian route. Italy could gain from the project, but it is already tied into other networks and is not heavily reliant on Russian natural gas. Economic constraints on many of the countries in Southeastern Europe, including Turkey, limit the financial backing available for projects such as Turkish Stream. Russia's best hope is that Western Europe would provide loands or other menas to incentivize the construction of networks to link to the planned Russian pipeline, but doing so would undermine the Europeans' policy of support for Ukraine and is thus politically unpopular in the European Union.

Second, Nord Stream was built in an entirely different geopolitical environment. Germany has become relatively assertive in negotiations with the Kremlin over the future of Ukraine. Nord Stream was planned and built without this tension as a backdrop. Moreover, Brussels has a greater political imperative to protect Ukraine's integrity and prominence. Its role as a transit state is key, because if Russia disrupts natural gas supplies to Ukraine, the Europeans will get involved, making the consequences more daunting for Moscow. Nord Stream was also built during a time of high energy prices, meaning high returns on investments in energy projects. Now that oil and natural gas prices are low, similarly high returns are unlikely.

Building the entire Turkish Stream pipeline project will be a complicated and protracted process, and the project may never reach its full potential. However, Russia's approach reveals a nuanced, low-risk plan for the pipeline. The capacity of the first of four planned pipelines is roughly equivalent to all of the natural gas that Russia delivers to Turkey through Ukraine. Moreover, the pipeline network that carries supplies from Ukraine to Turkey is already filled to capacity. Turkey is one of Russia's most important natural gas markets in the long term, and its natural gas demand has more than doubled over the past 10 years. By the mid 2020s, Turkey's natural gas demand could amount to the entire volume carried by the first two legs of Turkish Stream, and it will almost certainly need the amount of natural gas carried by the first leg even sooner.

This means that moving forward with Turkish Stream serves dual purposes: If the Europeans build the necessary infrastructure for Russia to tap into, then Moscow will have no problem accelerating the rest of the project. If not, then the new pipeline will still allow Russia to expand its export potential to the rapidly growing Turkish energy market.
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Crafty_Dog
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« Reply #103 on: June 27, 2015, 06:12:03 PM »

 How Turkmenistan Can Alter the Russia-West Standoff
Geopolitical Diary
June 25, 2015 | 23:32 GMT
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On Thursday, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak expressed interest in potentially increasing Russia's natural gas imports from Turkmenistan. The same day, the Kazakh parliament ratified an agreement on the delineation of the Caspian Sea boundaries between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. While seemingly mundane and unrelated, these two events are interconnected and reflect Turkmenistan's potential to fundamentally alter an important element of the standoff between Russia and the West.

Turkmenistan's importance stems from two factors: its energy resources and its location. The country produces 77 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year and exports 44 bcm annually. Its natural gas reserves, an estimated 17.5 trillion cubic meters, are among the world's largest, making it a major global natural gas producer and exporter capable of becoming an even more important energy player down the road.

But it is Turkmenistan's location that has elevated the country in the standoff between Russia and the West. Situated astride the Caspian Sea and between major energy consumers to the east and the west, Turkmenistan has become a key component of the "Southern Corridor" energy route that the European Union has been giving increasing consideration to as a means of reducing Europe's dependence on Russian energy. This route, which would facilitate the transport of energy supplies from the Caspian region through the Caucasus and Turkey and onward to Europe, is explicitly meant to avoid Russia, both as a supplier and transit route for energy.

Until now, Azerbaijan has been the only meaningful contributor to the Southern Corridor, primarily through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and South Caucasus pipelines, which have been transporting oil and natural gas respectively for the past decade. But the volumes that Azerbaijan exports to Europe are relatively small, and even the slated expansion of production and exports from the Shah Deniz II natural gas field, which is set to come online in 2018, is expected to add only around 10 bcm of natural gas supplies to Europe. But if another legitimate natural gas producer — like Turkmenistan — were to add to the natural gas supplies from Azerbaijan, the possibility of real diversification from Russia would go up considerably.

This consideration spawned an intense European diplomatic offensive over the past few months in an effort to persuade Turkmenistan to contribute to the Southern Corridor. The European Union is particularly interested in the Trans-Caspian Pipeline, which would be a relatively short conduit connecting Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan along the Caspian Sea.

However, two major issues stand in Europe's way. One is the legal status of the Caspian Sea, with maritime boundaries in dispute among the littoral states of Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. It has been a thorny issue for decades, and numerous summits and meetings have led to little concrete movement toward a legal resolution. But recent developments, including today's bilateral ratification between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan over their border and statements by Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov that a "breakthrough" could be reached on the legal convention at the next Caspian summit in Astana in 2016, show that this issue may not be an obstacle for long.

The other, more difficult, issue is Russia itself. As it does in the rest of Central Asia, Moscow has political, social, economic and security influence over Ashgabat. Combined with Turkmenistan's self-imposed isolationism, centralized political system and wariness of Western involvement, Russia's leverage has made Ashgabat cautious when it comes to working with Europe, especially on strategic projects that threaten Russian interests and could provoke Moscow's ire.

But Turkmenistan is not willing to do Russia's bidding unconditionally. Ties between Ashgabat and Moscow have been strained since 2009, when a pipeline blast ruptured a major energy connection between the two countries. Previously, Turkmenistan had been sending more than 90 percent of its natural gas to Russia. But after that incident, Ashgabat sped up work on alternative pipeline projects, redirecting much of its exported natural gas to China. Though Turkmenistan is still reluctant to openly and officially commit to any Southern Corridor projects with Europe, Ashgabat has been more willing to discuss the matter and show that it is at least interested. Russia's pronouncement that it is open to increasing imports from Turkmenistan again is likely an acknowledgment that Ashgabat has other options — as well as that Turkmenistan's strategic importance has increased in light of Russia's weakened position and the West's more assertive actions in challenging Moscow in its near abroad.

Turkmenistan's decision to either remain aloof from Europe's attempts to diversify from Russian energy or to commit officially to participating in the Southern Corridor could have significant consequences. Ashgabat is likely to hold its cards close to its chest as long as it can, but watching for any indications of which direction Turkmenistan is leaning will be tremendously important to gauging the fate of the broader conflict between Russia and the West.
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