The revised EU Central Asia strategy in the face of Russian revisionism

This blog post examines the relations between the European Union (EU) and Central Asia (CA) in the wake of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, focusing on energy security. It shows how the EU’s and CA’s dependence on Russia as a supplier and transmitter of energy is drawing the two regions together. Looking at the revised EU Central Asia strategy and other key documents, it is argued that the foundations for a diversification of energy supply sources and transport routes were laid before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As a result, the EU and CA should find it relatively easy to adapt to a time in which Russia is turning pipelines into weapons.


Russia’s weaponization of pipelines

Before being destroyed in September 2022, the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, supplying the EU with 45% of its gas imports in 2021, had been used by Russia as a means to pressure the Union over its support for Ukraine: In June 2022, the Russian state-owned operator Gazprom reduced gas supplies by nearly 60% on the grounds that a repaired turbine could not be returned in time. In July 2022, another turbine stopped operating, reducing gas supplies by a further 50%. In August 2022, Gazprom announced the temporary suspension and, after an engine oil leak had allegedly been found during the maintenance of the last operating turbine, the indefinite suspension of all remaining gas flows. On all three occasions, operation failures were blamed on European sanctions against Russia.

A pipeline that is less known in Europe is the CPC pipeline between the Kazakh Caspian Sea oil field of Tengiz and the Russian Black Sea marine terminal at Novorossiysk. Like Nord Stream 1, the CPC pipeline, which in 2021 handled 80% of Kazakhstan’s oil production, has been repeatedly used as a political tool: In March 2022, the Russian chief executive of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium said that two of three tanker loading facilities at Novorossiysk had been rendered inoperable due to a storm, reducing Kazakh oil exports by a factor of five. In June 2022, a few days after Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev had made clear that Kazakhstan would not recognize the self-proclaimed pro-Russian republics in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s energy minister announced that the search for explosive mines on the seabed near the port of Novorossiysk would be extended by ten days, further disrupting the shipment of Kazakh oil. In July 2022, a day after Tokayev had offered Charles Michel, President of the European Council, his help to stabilize the European energy market, a Russian court suspended the activities of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium for 30 days (a ruling that was later overturned), citing violations of environmental requirements.


The EU and CA: In search of strategic autonomy

Russia’s repeated weaponization of the Nord Stream 1 and CPC pipelines has been a constant reminder for the EU and CA to advance their strategic autonomy. As Josep Borrell, High Representative of the EU, noted during his visit to Uzbekistan in November 2022: “Just as we in Europe are focused on developing our strategic autonomy, so we recognise our partners’ desire to do the same.” Admitting that “excessive dependencies and the absence of choice can come at a cost”, Borrell made the case for stronger and more sustainable energy ties between the EU and CA.

And indeed, the EU, anxious to diversify its energy supply sources, and CA, anxious to diversify its energy exporting routes, are turning to each other: Kazakhstan is focusing its efforts to develop the Trans-Caspian route, allowing the country to bypass Russia by shipping its oil across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan, from where it could reach Europe through non-Russian pipelines. For the EU, however, strategic autonomy refers not only to the diversification of transport routes but also to the decarbonization of energy production. To that end, an investment agreement was signed during Charles Michel’s visit to Kazakhstan in October 2022 that intents to create one of the world’s largest industrial plants for the production of green hydrogen in Kazakhstan’s wind- and sun-infested Mangystau region.

At first sight, then, the war in Ukraine not only marked a “Zeitenwende” in the foreign, security and defense policy of Germany, but also in the relations between the EU and CA. As shown below, however, major strategic decisions for recent EU policies were taken before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Thus, in contrast to Germany, the EU as a whole was well-prepared for a souring of relations with Russia.


Towards greater engagement

In response to China’s and Russia’s growing assertiveness in the region, as marked by the Silk Route Initiative (Belt and Road Initiative), announced in Astana in 2013, and the Eurasian Economic Union, signed in Astana in 2014, the EU came to adopt a more active and pragmatic approach towards CA. In 2018, the European External Action Service initiated the EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy that provides for large-scale investments in sustainable infrastructure projects in (Central) Asia. In 2021, the strategy was subsumed under the Global Gateway Initiative by the European Commission. While global in scope, large parts of its public and private funds will be channeled to CA, given that the initiative is seen as Europe’s answer to China’s Silk Road Initiative.


Towards more pragmatic engagement

Although the European Parliament saw “the need for an EU-Central Asia strategy that is not based on geostrategic interests but is designed to develop a participative and democratic society”, parts of the “principled-pragmatism” approach of the European Union Global Strategy of 2016 (an elaboration of the European Security Strategy of 2003) found their way into the revised European Union Central Asia Strategy of 2019 (an elaboration of the European Union Central Asia Strategy of 2007). The first two overarching goals of the revised strategy, for example, bear the names of “resilience” and “prosperity” – a clear evolution from the more politicized and patronizing goals of “democratization” and “modernization” that Central Asian autocrats had been quite wary of.


Turkmenistan – the litmus test?

The EU’s ability to make itself independent of Russia will ultimately depend on its capability to translate these strategic documents into action. Turkmenistan, home to the world’s second largest gas field, is the only country in CA that has not concluded a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU yet. Negotiated by the European Commission and ratified by all EU member states, the agreement has been blocked by the European Parliament, which, more principled than pragmatic, made clear that it will give consent only if certain standards for democracy, the rule of law and good governance were met. Given the EU’s desperate search for alternative energy suppliers, efforts need to be intensified to convince Ashgabat of the necessity of meeting these standards, while Strasbourg should take a more pragmatic stance.



Jan Niklas Rolf is a Postdoctoral Researcher in International Relations at Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences in Kleve, Germany. His research interests include development cooperation, security policy, and (non-)conflict in the post-Soviet space. He knows Central Asia from several study trips and visiting lectureships.

Jakob Lempp is a Professor of International Relations at Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences in Kleve, Germany. He is an Associate Researcher at the German-Kazakh University in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and was a Research Fellow at the OSCE-Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. His research focuses on European integration and the political systems of Central Asia.