Caspian Sea states’ balancing act and the Ukrainian war

In responding to the Kremlin’s renewed offensive against Ukraine, the political regimes of Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, which share access to the Caspian Sea together with Russia, have chosen different tactics than seen in Europe. They are unprepared to voice either clear support for Ukraine or unequivocally condemn Russia’s aggression. A careful geopolitical balancing act has been choreographed. 

Russia’s ability to disrupt the common use of Caspian resources is a key reason why some Caspian Sea states are reluctant to challenge the Kremlin’s narrative on Ukraine.

For others, the events in Ukraine act as a ‘cold shower’ as Russia can replicate the tragic experience of Ukraine in the Caspian region by, if they decide to, misconstruing the policies of Caspian Sea states towards their respective Russian minorities as ‘discriminatory’. Unnecessarily provoking Moscow is therefore avoided.

Others have tried to seize the moment to enhance their relationship with Moscow or use the excessive concentration of Russian diplomatic and military energy towards Ukraine to pursue their own intra-regional geopolitical goals.

Balancing between a relationship with Russia its aggression against Ukraine

The Iranian leadership has absorbed the bottom-line of the Kremlin’s narrative, describing[↗] the situation in Ukraine as ‘rooted in NATO’s provocations.’ Nonetheless, Tehran has still supported a peace agreement over the continuation of hostilities. Such a peace agreement, however, would be one favourable to Russian interests, as it is unlikely whether it will manifest without clauses regarding the solidification of Russia’s presence in Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

Turkmenistan’s position regarding the war on Ukraine is practically invisible, despite the fact that many of its citizens are now internally displaced in Ukraine or had to flee the country. Turkmen authorities have limited[↗] coverage of Russian aggression against Ukraine in local media. During diplomatic exchanges over the 30-year anniversary of bilateral relations between Russia and Turkmenistan in April 2022, Russia welcomed[↗] Turkmenistan’s neutral position, and praised the effective coordination between the two countries on other issues, such as the withdrawal of the United States (US) from Afghanistan.

In the face of Russian aggression against Ukraine, the most nervous country in the Caspian Sea region is Kazakhstan, which has barely managed to overcome a combination[↗] of anti-government protests and concerted action by informal elites to replace Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the Kazakh President. The military assistance that Tokayev received from Russia, along with the other four other Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) nations, helped restore order, but also created a dangerous precedent for CSTO members where Russian military forces could be deployed should the population decide to defy local authorities.

Nevertheless, Kazakh authorities have not given up on their long-term national interests, which would be severely damaged by siding with Russia in its war on Ukraine. Nur-Sultan has offered[↗] its mediatory service to find a peaceful solution, referring to its previous diplomatic efforts in Syria. It did not recognise the independence of the separatist regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine after Russia declared them so on the 21st February. Even more outstandingly, Tokayev’s office has rejected[↗] any involvement of the Kazakh state in helping Russia circumvent sanctions, despite its membership in the Eurasian Economic Union and the recent, crucial, help provided by Moscow in quelling mass civil unrest in Kazakhstan.

Finally, but importantly, Azerbaijan’s behaviour has been a combination of Turkmen neutrality and Kazakh willingness to mediate a peace agreement, albeit with a slight lean towards the Ukrainian side. Facing its own territorial disputes with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, Baku has reiterated[↗] its support for international law that protects territorial integrity. Baku has also offered[↗] humanitarian aid to Ukraine and free fuel for Ukrainian ambulances and fire services from gas stations owned by the State Oil Company of the Azeri Republic, which is operational in Ukraine.

The Azeris see an opportunity[↗] to leverage the European Union’s (EU) growing need for non-Russian gas supplies to supply their own, and will be loath to let it go as it could provide significant capital and hopefully neutralise European attitudes regarding human rights deficiencies in Azerbaijan. Staying on the right side of the EU is thus now crucial to Baku’s interests.

At the same time, however, Azerbaijan needs Russia to tame Armenia’s position on the future of Nagorno-Karabakh. Being consumed by the situation on the Ukrainian front, the Kremlin is less agile in micromanaging the Yerevan-Baku dialogue, increasing the chances of another conflict erupting over the disputed territory. Russia is also an ally of Iran, which can destabilise Azerbaijan through stoking religious tensions.

Avoiding social distress and pledging more gas supply

The unintended consequences of the Russian war against Ukraine differ from country to country in the Caspian Sea region. On the one hand, there are the global disturbances caused by the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s cereal exports to international markets, causing shortages and price increases.

In the face of growing price distortions abroad, Kazakhstan has set quotas for the export of wheat and flour that will last at least until 15th June 2022. In addition, producers are required[↗] to sell up to 10% of the amount of wheat and flour destined for export at a reduced price on the domestic market.

Following the mass protests of January 2022, the Kazakh regime is determined to strengthen public order and prevent new sources of public discontent. This is even more precarious because the Kazakh government will now be unable to rely on Russian ‘peacekeepers’ that were sent to Kazakhstan in January as part of the CSTO’s intervention, launched[↗] under the guise of restoring order and protecting critical infrastructure.

On the other hand, the Caspian Sea is emerging as one of the regions where Europe is looking for alternatives to Russian hydrocarbons. Russia’s war against Ukraine revealed that the EU is incapable of easily sanctioning Russian energy exports, which indirectly support military aggression. In 2020 alone, the EU bought[↗] around 175 billion cubic metres of gas from Russia, a significant sum.

To reduce dependence on Russia, the EU has begun exploring the possibility of importing more gas from Azerbaijan through the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), which forms the last stretch of the Southern Gas Corridor. Launched in 2020, the TAP is currently underutilised.

Although the EU is willing to buy more gas from Azerbaijan, Baku can only contribute[↗] some eight billion cubic metres, of which 75% already goes to Italy. At the same time, the annual supply of the TAP can only be a maximum of ten billion cubic metres. Azeri gas production also has limitations that are offset by gas purchases from Turkmenistan based on the trilateral swap deal[↗] involving Iran-Azerbaijan receives two billion cubic metres from Iran, which Turkmenistan replaces. This deal is not, however, immune to increased geopolitical tensions.

Conclusion

Caspian Sea nations have put national interests at the heart of their foreign policy regarding Russia’s renewed offensive against Ukraine, which requires a delicate balancing act.

Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan speak openly about the importance of respect for territorial integrity. They are advocating for peace, like Iran, but they have also set themselves up as mediators between Moscow and Kyiv. Turkmenistan has chosen to stay completely away from the topic.

As nations in the Caspian Sea region try to adapt to the geopolitical shifts of the Euro-Atlantic and their growing role in the stabilisation of Eastern Europe, free and open nations, not least the United Kingdom (UK), should be forward-leaning in fostering mutual areas of cooperation. There is vast energy potential in the Caspian Sea region that can aid in reducing European dependence on Russian oil and gas. Indeed, a secure Caspian Sea region is vital in ensuring Euro-Atlantic security, now and in the future.

Denis Cenusa is an Associate Expert at the Eastern Europe Studies Centre.

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