On October 2, 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov signed a landmark strategic partnership agreement. This agreement formalized Russia and Turkmenistan’s commitment to friendly relations, after nearly a decade of periodic tensions between the two countries.
Even though Western analysts have focused on the economic dimension of this strategic partnership, due to the critical importance of the proposed Trans-Caspian gas pipeline for European energy markets, Russia and Turkmenistan have also made significant strides toward developing a robust informal security partnership. This security partnership aims to expand bilateral cooperation on two key issues of mutual concern: the resolution of long-standing tensions in the Caspian Sea region and the stabilization of Afghanistan.
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Since the early 1990s, Russian and Turkmen policymakers have cooperated on the resolution of tensions between states bordering the Caspian Sea. Although these diplomatic efforts have had mixed success, the preservation of stability in the Caspian region was labeled as a major priority during Putin’s October 2 visit to Ashgabat. During that trip, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held negotiations with his Turkmen counterpart Rashid Meredov on resolving Caspian Sea-related disputes and promoting joint investment projects.
The revival of bilateral discussions between Russia and Turkmenistan on Caspian Sea security can be explained by the expansion of both countries’ military presence in the Caspian region. Large-scale naval buildups by both Russia and Turkmenistan in the Caspian region have prompted concerns about a potentially destabilizing military standoff over rival claims to the Caspian Sea.
Since Berdimuhamedov was sworn in as Turkmenistan’s president in February 2007, Turkmenistan has sought to displace Iran as the second strongest naval power in the Caspian region. To achieve this goal, Turkmenistan has held high-level covert dialogues with the United States on regional security issues, constructed a naval base by the Caspian Sea, and purchased numerous missile-carrying corvette ships.
Turkmenistan has also demonstrated its willingness to flex its military muscles in the Caspian region during periods of heightened intra-regional conflict. In September 2012, Turkmenistan staged a major military drill by the Caspian Sea. The Azerbaijani government interpreted this military posturing as an attempt to intimidate Baku, as it occurred after Azerbaijan opposed Turkmen oil drilling proposals in a disputed area of the Caspian.
The absence of a powerful Western military presence in the Caspian Sea region caused Moscow to initially refrain from deploying its most sophisticated equipment to the area. This reticence has eroded considerably, however, and since 2012, Russia has matched Turkmenistan’s willingness to escalate militarily on the Caspian’s frontiers. Contrary to the 2011 recommendations of a senior Russian military official to scrap the Caspian Sea flotilla due to its perceived “lack of strategic value,” the strength of the Russian flotilla has increased substantially in recent years.
The Russian government has also announced the construction of a highly sophisticated naval facility in Kaspiysk, Dagestan. This facility will be completely constructed by 2020, and will entrench Moscow’s military hegemony over the Caspian region for years to come.
Although Russia remains the overwhelmingly dominant military power in the Caspian region, the reciprocal escalation of military capabilities by Moscow and Ashgabat has increased the risk of a costly confrontation. A provocative action, like Russian oil company ITERA’s 2013 drilling efforts in the Turkmen sector of the Caspian, could create a security crisis, without a mutual commitment to preserving stability in the Caspian region.
Therefore, the expansion of collective security cooperation between Moscow and Ashgabat reduces the risk of unintended conflict in the Caspian region. Increased Russia-Turkmenistan military cooperation could also set a precedent for the resolution of other intra-regional tensions, like those that have developed between Iran and Turkmenistan. This outcome would contribute greatly to the preservation of economic interdependence in the Caspian neighborhood.
Russia-Turkmenistan Collaboration on Stabilizing Afghanistan
In addition to working toward the preservation of peace in the Caspian Sea region, Russia and Turkmenistan have stepped up their collaboration on stabilizing Afghanistan. Even though the Turkmen government continues to deny the threat of terrorism emanating from the Afghanistan-Turkmenistan border, a series of murders of Turkmen border guards by Taliban militants has increased tacit concerns about a spillover of instability from Afghanistan to Turkmenistan.
The Kremlin’s June 2016 announcement that Turkmenistan was willing to accept Russian military training assistance and purchase weapons from Russia to defend itself against violence emanating from the Afghan border underscores the potential for bilateral cooperation on stabilizing Afghanistan. The Afghan political crisis was discussed at length during Putin’s recent meeting with Berdimuhamedov, and the leaders of both countries viewed each other as constructive actors.
Russia’s willingness to diplomatically engage with the Taliban has further increased the prospect of durable Moscow-Ashgabat cooperation in Afghanistan. Even though Turkmenistan granted the United States access to its military facilities during the 2001 war in Afghanistan, Ashgabat maintained diplomatic links with the Taliban in the years leading up to the Islamic Emirate’s overthrow. In 1999 and 2000, Turkmenistan hosted talks between the Taliban and Northern Alliance under the auspices of the United Nations (UN).
Even though diplomatic engagement with the Taliban failed to ease tensions between rival Afghan factions in 1999 and 2000, Turkmenistan has welcomed Russia’s commitment to an all-inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan. Like Russia, Turkmenistan has allegedly provided arms to the Taliban to discourage the Taliban from fomenting instability in Central Asia. In March 2017, former Afghan Minister of Energy of Ismail Khan stated that the Turkmen government had supplied ammunition to the Taliban to ensure that the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline was protected from terrorist attacks.
As other Central Asian countries, like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, have resisted cooperation with the Taliban, synergies between Russia’s and Turkmenistan’s Afghanistan strategy could drive both countries toward a deepened security partnership. This partnership is unlikely to develop into a formal alliance over Afghanistan, due to Turkmenistan’s commitment to neutrality and Russia’s consistent denials of assistance to the Taliban, but it could profoundly impact the regional security environment in the months to come.
Even though security cooperation between Russia and Turkmenistan is likely to remain informal, both countries’ shared commitment to durable peace in the Caspian Sea region and the restoration of political stability in Afghanistan provides fertile ground for issue-specific security collaboration in the months to come. Russia’s establishment of a robust security partnership with Turkmenistan would greatly strengthen Moscow’s influence in Central Asia, and give the Kremlin a useful partner to advance its geopolitical agenda in the region and beyond.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post, The Diplomat and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.