The New Reality of Energy Geopolitics in Eurasia

Recent Features


The New Reality of Energy Geopolitics in Eurasia

With the so-called gas union, Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are engaging in opportunistic cooperation and flirting with dangerous new dependencies.

The New Reality of Energy Geopolitics in Eurasia
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

On November 28, 2022, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev visited Moscow, meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other top Russian officials. During their meeting, Russian media later reported, Putin suggested forming a “trilateral [gas] union” with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Tokayev reportedly responded positively, “Why not?” 

The comments sparked a sudden flash of attention. Despite the vagueness of the proposal, the context of the time – eight months after Russia had invaded Ukraine and as Europe looked to lessen its dependence on Russian gas – generated considerable interest. 

A spokesman for Tokayev afterward sought to tamp down the fevered discussion, clarifying that the two presidents discussed how “to coordinate joint actions for the transportation of Russian gas through the territories of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.”

A year and half later, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan are engaged in what Shaimerden Chikanayev, a Ph.D. researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, calls “opportunistic” cooperation on closely coordinated bilateral terms. The closer integration in this “gas union,” Anatole Boute, a law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says, will mean “greater dependence on Russia, in line with previous Russian-led initiatives to secure Russia’s influence in the region and counter competing foreign interference.”

In the following interview with The Diplomat’s Managing Editor Catherine Putz, Boute and Chikanayev shed light on what the “gas union” is (and what it isn’t), how it emerged from a complicated geopolitical shift, and how it contributes to Central Asia’s energy security in the short term, but may generate dangerous new dependencies in the long term. The “gas union” may serve to forestall much needed energy market reforms in the region amid rising demand and contractual commitments to exports for China.

What impact has the war in Ukraine had on the energy geopolitics of Eurasia?

Boute: The disruption of Russian gas supplies to Europe, and the EU’s objective to phase out Russian energy imports in response to the war, have forced Gazprom to look for alternative offtakers for the gas it previously exported to Europe. Redirecting these gas supplies to Central Asia allows Russia to seek closer integration, and thus greater influence, through preferential energy supplies, a strategy that has characterized energy relations in Russia’s sphere of influence since the early stages of the Soviet energy industry. 

For importers, there are great risks associated with the creation of these new energy dependencies, as illustrated by the weaponization of Russian gas supplies in, e.g., 2006, 2009, and 2022, an issue I discuss in my latest book “Energy Dependence and Supply Security: Energy Law in the New Geopolitical Reality.” There is also a risk that Russia will seek to use its energy influence to obtain control over strategic gas assets in the region, such as pipeline links to China, similarly to its gas-for-infrastructure deals in other strategic transit countries. 

At the same time, the loss of the profitable European market also presents a challenge for Russia’s energy geopolitics, as Russia and Gazprom may find it more challenging to subsidize supplies at preferential prices both within Russia and to its strategic partners.

Chikanayev: The emergence of the so-called “trilateral gas union” is the direct consequence of the war in Ukraine, and it symbolizes a significant shift in Central Asia energy dynamics. As Russian President Vladimir Putin noted, these are “the first exports of a kind in the history of these gas pipeline systems, for never before has Russian gas been pumped toward Central Asia.”

The whole idea of the “trilateral gas union” is to enable Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to export all of their own natural gas to China at a higher price, while purchasing gas from Russia at a lower price for domestic consumption. This would be in Russia’s interest, as Russia must deal somehow with the gas embargo by the European Union. Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are already experiencing a shortage of gas, yet still need to comply with contractual obligations for export to China and meet increased domestic consumption. It seems, therefore, that the “trilateral gas union” can provide economic benefits to Russia, Central Asia, and China and, therefore, it has good chances for success even without being officially recognized as a “gas union.”

It seems also that because of the war in Ukraine, Russia has been forced to curtail all its plans to proceed with the liberalization of its domestic gas market and with the creation of the common gas market of the Eurasian Economic Union.