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Russia’s Tripartite Gas Union with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan: Implications

Kazakh President, Kassym-Jomart Takyev, and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow on November 28. Source: AFP.

On November 28, the presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan discussed the opportunity of establishing a tripartite gas union during a meeting in Moscow. This union aims to coordinate the transportation of Russian gas through the territories of the two Central Asian republics, a necessity given their recent inability to cover the internal demand.

The three parties expressed a positive attitude towards the idea of closer cooperation. The intention of creating this union was announced by the press secretary of the President of Kazakhstan, Ruslan Zheldibai: "During the talks in the Kremlin, the presidents of Kazakhstan and Russia discussed the creation of a three-party gas union of Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to coordinate efforts during the transportation of Russian gas across the territory of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan."

The press secretary confirmed this attitude for Russian President Dmitry Peskov. He explained that the new union would establish a coordination mechanism and develop infrastructure for domestic and foreign consumption.

On the Russian side, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak also expressed support. He underlined the historical ties between the three countries as they used to share a common gas infrastructure in Soviet times. He also said that the three partners “have a great potential for cooperation in this area, including gas supplies and processing, which, in principle, is already being done for deliveries to other export destinations."

The tripartite union will undoubtedly support the two Central Asian countries to cope with gas shortages. In November this year, the Uzbek Prime Minister, Abdulla Aripov, announced that the country would suspend gas exports to other partners, like China, to meet domestic demand. Turkmenistan was rumored to be one of the potential supporters. 

As for Kazakhstan, a similar situation is currently ongoing in the country. Despite being an internationally established exporter, residents of the northern and central parts of the country face difficulties with gas supplies as gas reserves and a better pipeline network are located in the western sector. Therefore, this makes Russian and Uzbek gas an essential resource for a large share of the Kazakh population.

Nevertheless, this new union should not only be interpreted through a mere economic lens. The ongoing events in Ukraine and the reshuffles on the international chessboard are pushing several countries towards re-elaborating their relations with Russia.

It is not a secret that Moscow is far from appreciating Kazakhstan’s stance vis-à-vis the war in Ukraine. As it is well known, Astana did not recognize the two self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. It is actively selling weapons to Kyiv, and is developing a multi-vectorial policy that includes renewed relations with the Western world. 

Moreover, the country has increased cooperation with Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan to discuss extending the Middle Corridor. This route, whose official name is TransCaspian International Transport (TITR), connects China to Europe through Central Asia and the Caucasus. Further development of this route would allow Kazakhstan to bypass Russia. Four partners met recently in the western Kazakh city of Aqtau to discuss this opportunity.

Kazakhstan’s will to expand westward was recently confirmed after a meeting between the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and his Kazakh counterpart, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, on November 29 in Paris. It should be noted that Astana recently committed to supporting the European Union's new green policies, with a particular emphasis on the transition to green hydrogen. This tendency was confirmed during the recent COP27 in Egypt.

This renewed relationship may explain the cold reception that the Kremlin reserved for the newly elected Kazakh President on his arrival in Moscow on November 27 to participate in the Russia-Kazakhstan Interregional Cooperation Forum.

Nevertheless, well aware of the stalemate created after the recent events, Tokayev did not miss the opportunity to stress the longstanding friendship and partnership between the two countries. He also referred to the choice of Russia as his first official visit after re-election to underline Moscow’s symbolic importance: "Indeed, my first foreign visit [after being reelected] takes place here, in the Russian Federation, and that in itself has political significance and, of course, a certain symbolism," emphasizing words like “strategic partner” and the “special character” of their friendship.

Undoubtedly, this trilateral gas union will strengthen the economic relations between the three countries. Nevertheless, besides the economic benefits that the country may reap, this union is also a geopolitical necessity, especially for Kazakhstan. 

The already mentioned Kazakh rapprochement towards the west and the intention to bypass the territory of the Russian Federation for gas shipments present inherent risks that could flare up latent issues. One of these is undoubtedly the conspicuous Russian minority that, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has populated the northern part of Kazakhstan, compounded by the fact that the two countries share a 7,644-kilometer border. 

Moreover, the recent mobilization announced in September 2022 by Putin pushed even more Russian nationals, especially males, to flee the country and find shelter in neighboring Kazakhstan to avoid mandatory conscription. According to the data released by Kazakh Interior Minister Marat Akhmetzhanov, about 200,000 Russians have entered the country. 

Notwithstanding the conditions of equality pursued by the government vis-à-vis the Russian minority, Astana’s multi-vectorial policies, the refusal to align with the Russian Federation in the war in Ukraine, and certain domestic laws must be handled with care. The recent bill on mandatory knowledge of the Kazakh language, history, and legislation to get Kazakh citizenship announced on November 8 by Prime Minister Alikhan Smaiylov is a case in point. 

Therefore, no matter how many deals Astana may sign with its partners, Moscow remains not only one of the most basic suppliers but also one of the most dangerous threats looming over a country, Kazakhstan, considered by Moscow to be part of its backyard. Consequently, Kazakhstan’s pragmatic economic approach should also be analyzed through this lens.

The current situation thus calls for balance because of Kazakhstan’s multi-vectorial oil and gas policies. While Astana seeks to cooperate with Georgia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan to expand westwards through the Middle Corridor, at the same time, it wants to ensure the well-established exploitation of the Caspian Consortium Pipeline CPC route, which passes through the Russian port of Novorossiysk. It should be reminded that this route is a powerful leverage exploited by Russia to create not a few problems for Kazakh oil exports, as happened in July this year. 

Russia's current and past actions abroad are far too concerning for its neighbors. Whether the actual capabilities of the Russian war industry reflect reality or not, events like the ongoing war in Ukraine and the 2008 war in Georgia clearly express Moscow’s intentions when it comes to its traditional Soviet backyard.

Edited by: Lou Igounet


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