Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine have re-sparked an old issue: Europe’s energy imports. Every year a river of natural gas flows west from Moscow into the heart of Europe. But, with the stability of this river in question again, Europe is looking for other sources for its energy. While at first the Trans-Caspian pipeline seems like the ideal solution, on closer inspection of the geopolitics surrounding the proposal it becomes less attractive. Russia is the main supplier of European energy. In 2007 Russia made up 38.6 percent of total gas imports for the European Union. For the Baltics, their reliance on Russia is much greater, with 100 percent of the domestic gas consumption of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland coming from their authoritarian neighbour. This dependency leaves Europe in a vulnerable position. A vulnerable position amply exploited during the withdrawals of 2006 and 2009.

Maintaining this dependency is a dream for Russia and a nightmare for Europe. It prevents Europe from standing up to Putin out of fear of an energy price rise retaliation, while helping to maintain Moscow’s influence over the region. Europe has scoured for alternatives to Russian energy. One option that has been proposed before is the Trans-Caspian pipeline. This consists of a potential submarine pipe constructed across the Caspian Sea, connecting Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan. From there a conglomeration of pipes, known as the Southern Corridor, would snake through Turkey and Eastern Europe and into our homes.

And what’s on the end of this maze of infrastructure? The world’s fourth largest natural gas reserve. Turkmenistan is drowning in natural gas and has more than both the USA and Saudi Arabia combined.

However, due to its landlocked nature it currently relies entirely on Russia to export all of its gas. What does Russia then do with it? Re-export it to Europe, at much higher prices.

But what would be the best way to cut out the Putin middleman? The Trans-Caspian pipeline. This pipe cuts Russia out of the equation and would allow both Europe and Turkmenistan to shake off that energy-hoarding bear off their backs. However, the situation is not so simple. While in theory this pipeline would diversify both Turkmenistan’s gas exports and Europe’s gas imports it is very unlikely to ever be constructed, due to the geopolitics of the region.

For one, Russia would not be too happy about it. Seeing all of what was her gas, and profit, trickle under her feet would leave Russia a bit peeved. Putin has already claimed that any pipeline without Russia’s consent would be illegal and considering the latest Ukraine fiasco we should be wary to assume Putin won’t lash out militarily against something that doesn’t suit his geopolitical desires. Counting Russia’s navy in the Caspian Sea reveals if Putin wanted to stop it, he certainly could.

And secondly, Europe is not the only one who has spied this rich opportunity in central Asia. China has been hard at work constructing the Central Asia-China pipeline. By 2015 this will allow 40 billion cubic metres of pure Turkmenistan gas to flow eastwards. While Turkmenistan’s total potential gas export production is estimated at 80 billion cubic metres a year, this is not enough for Europe and China to share. Therefore, any westward flowing pipeline construction would step not only on the toes of Moscow, but also of those in Beijing. Furthermore, if Putin has to compromise and choose between China and Europe to receive Turkmenistan’s gas, there’s little wonder who he’ll choose.

The Trans-Caspian pipeline also provides an interesting case study of Russia’s and China’s changing role in international relations. The West can no longer act as it pleases and is in much greater political competition with the East. Taking it one step further, could this situation be interpreted as a revised Cold War scenario? The first world, representing liberal democracies. The second world, containing the authoritarian capitalists of China and Russia. And the third world, consisting of developing nations fought over by the first two worlds – each trying to gain political influence?

In any event, we are entering a world where the West is confronted much more on the international stage, and a grasp on geopolitics is key in understanding these international relations.

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