The Western sanctions and the “energy reprisals” which followed from Moscow, have the effect of closing the taps of Russian natural gas to Europe, the flows now being carried out in … droplets.
Russia delivered about 140 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year to Europe, its most lucrative export market. However, due to widespread sanctions in the region and European countries moving away from Russian energy, current deliveries are only a fraction of this.
Therefore, Moscow is now looking for new customers and reviving old avenues that date back to the Soviet period.
Uzbekistan oil pipeline
It was April 27, at the Tashkent Investment Forum, when Uzbek Energy Minister Jurabek Mirzamakhmudov announced that Russia would begin supplying his country with natural gas through its Soviet-era pipelines.
Central Asia has emerged as a key region for Russia’s energy export needs, with Uzbekistan seeking to play a leading role.
As the Moscow Times wrote months ago, in January 2023, Uzbekistan started importing Russian natural gas due to a severe energy crisis within it. The Kremlin has sought to strengthen this relationship, not only by using its Soviet gas pipelines, but also by encouraging Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to form a tripartite gas union with Russia.
After the Second World War
The Jamestown Foundation writes in its analysis that the Soviet Union began to exploit the hydrocarbon deposits of Central Asia in the years following the Second World War, although the oil and natural gas resources were then developed. used exclusively for the internal needs of the Soviet Union.
Three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, hydrocarbon exports are increasingly integral to the economies of post-Soviet states in the Caucasus and Central Asia, especially those surrounding the hydrocarbon-rich Caspian Sea.
Uzbekistan seems eager to buy Russian gas since, unlike Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, it has only modest gas reserves and can no longer even meet its domestic needs with its own resources.
The Soviet pipeline network
From the 1960s, the Soviets built a network of pipelines, the Truboprovodnaiia sistema Sredniaia Aziia-Tsentr (Central Asia-Central Pipeline System; SATS), which ran north to transport gas from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in the USSR and which was capable of transporting up to 50 bcm of gas per year. The eastern branch of the SATS includes the SATS-1, -2, -4 and -5 pipelines, which were built between 1960 and 1988. Gazprom now controls the SATS network that crosses post-Soviet Central Asia.
Soviet-era gas pipelines should be upgraded by building new compressor stations to reverse the previous flow pattern from Central Asia to Russia.
In addition to increasing natural gas imports, in the first quarter of 2023 Uzbekistan also aggressively increased energy imports of coal, oil and petroleum products.
The “consolation” of Uzbekistan
According to the Jamestown Foundation for Russia, Uzbekistan represents a consolation since its deliveries of natural gas to Europe have been greatly reduced following the explosions of the Nord Stream One and Two underwater gas pipelines. And Gazprom is seeking to redirect its gas exports to the East.
However, caution is called for. The 60-year-old SATS-4 pipeline needs to be scrutinized first, especially as it crosses the Kyzylkum and Karakum deserts in extreme weather conditions.
Neftgas has already announced that after the inspection and associated interventions, the compressor stations can be upgraded to operate in reverse.
However, concerns about the operational safety of the SATS pipeline system are well founded as over the years there have been a number of major accidents, fires and explosions, including an accident in 2009 on the line SATS-4 in Turkmenistan, which took a long time to mend and led to a breakdown in Gazprom’s relations with Turkmengaz.
The role of China
Moreover, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, competition has intensified between Russia, China and the United States for influence in Central Asia.
For the post-Soviet states of Central Asia, the most pressing question for their governments is how to improve their economies despite their geographical isolation. Integral to their economic development is access to affordable and reliable sources of energy, which only Russia could provide through its unique, if somewhat dilapidated, Soviet-era network of pipelines. “For the region, these energy exports, in addition to providing an alternative source of revenue for a certified pariah state, raise the interesting question of what Russia will expect in return for its greatness,” the Jamestown Foundation report concludes. .