Turkmenistan Defense and Foreign Policy

Foreign policy and defense

Turkmenistan is a nation in Central Asia. Its capital city is Ashgabat. A constitutional principle in Turkmenistan’s foreign policy is that of “permanent neutrality”. The large oil and natural gas resources make the country interesting for both Russia and the US as well as the EU and China. Relations with Russia and the western countries are often strained and Turkmenistan has been in conflict with the Caspian Sea countries regarding the right to oil and natural gas.

turkmenistan military spending and defense budget

The foreign policy line on permanent neutrality was introduced after the independence of the Soviet Union in 1991 and meant that Turkmenistan was in fact long internationally isolated.

The country was one of the founders of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which gathers former Soviet republics, but since 2005 is only an associate member and, for example, stands outside the organization’s security cooperation and free trade union.

The relationship with Russia is complicated, mainly because of Turkmenistan’s export of natural gas. Turkmenistan was long dependent on the Russian gas export market and the country often accused Russia of taking advantage of its geographical position to buy Turkmen gas at underpriced prices and exporting it further west with good profits. Discussions about the price of natural gas often occurred. Turkmenistan has therefore strived to reach the world market through new lines, which do not go through Russian territory, to China, Iran and the EU, among others.

Turkmenistan chose not to condemn Russia for the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 (see Ukraine, current policy). The economic crisis that hit Russia in 2014 led to a sharp decline in imports of Turkmen. In 2016, it ceased altogether after the Russian gas company Gazprom accused Turkmen Turkmazaz of breach of contract. After a visit by Gazprom’s head in Turkmenistan in March 2019, gas exports to Russia resumed.

Iran and China are important

Nowadays, China is by far the largest buyer of Turkmen gas (see Natural Resources, Energy and Environment). In December 2009, a gas pipeline was opened from Turkmenistan to China. During the 2010s, cooperation with China has increased significantly, not least because China has increased its investments in infrastructure in Turkmenistan.

In 1997, a gas pipeline was opened between southwest Turkmenistan and the Iranian city of Kord Kuy. It was the first pipeline for the export of Turkmen gas outside the former Soviet Union and marked an important departure from the dependence on Russia. In 2010, the second gas pipeline was inaugurated to Iran. However, in early 2017, Turkmenistan ceased gas flow to Iran due to unpaid gas delivery bills. With the dispute still unresolved, in January 2018, Iran turned to the International Arbitration Court in The Hague for an opinion, whereupon Turkmenistan soon also filed a complaint. The verdict is expected to take a couple of years.

Tight contacts with the vest

Turkmenistan became the first Central Asian country in 1994 to join NATO’s Alliance for Peace Partnership Program for Peace (PFF). However, US and EU countries’ relations with the authoritarian Turkmen regime are strained.

The EU’s interest in natural gas is great, at the same time as it criticizes the lack of democracy in Turkmenistan and the violations of citizens’ human rights (see Democracy and Rights). A partnership and cooperation agreement was signed in 1998, but it did not come into force because of the above criticism.

For the same reason, relations with the United States are complicated. Relations with Washington were also weakened by the fact that Turkmenistan maintained diplomatic contacts with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 1996–2001 and that the country did not lend its support to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. During the ensuing war, however, Turkmenistan became an important transit country for aid transports to Afghanistan. Around one million Turkmen live on the Afghan side of the border.

In the spring of 2015, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan announced a collaboration that will bring gas from Turkmenistan via Turkey to Europe. In March 2019, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and the EU agreed to build a transport corridor linking the port city of Türkmenbaşy with the Romanian Black Sea city of Constanta.

The Caspian Sea conflict

Turkmenistan has long had strained relations with all the countries around the Caspian Sea, ie Kazakhstan, Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran. In August 2018, however, the five countries signed an agreement regulating the legal status of the water. The agreement was signed by the country’s leaders in the port city of Aktau, Kazakhstan.

The status of the Caspian Sea has been unclear since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The conflict has affected whether it is a lake or an inland sea. An inland sea would be subject to UN maritime law, while the right to a lake must be negotiated between the countries. The ambiguity has led to uncertainty about who has the right to extract the rich oil and natural gas resources.

The 2018 agreement stipulates that the Caspian Sea is neither a lake nor an inland sea, but has “special legal status”. This means that the surface water will be used jointly by the five states, while the seabed and its assets will be divided. How these boundaries are to be drawn does not say anything about (however, the interference fishing that produces caviar is regulated by means of quotas). The agreement also states that no other country may establish military bases on the Caspian Sea alongside the five states.

The years after the turn of the millennium, Turkmenistan’s relations with Uzbekistan were bottom frozen as a result of an alleged coup attempt in Ashgabat in 2002. The Uzbek embassy in Ashgabat was searched by police in search of evidence of Uzbek involvement in the coup attempt. Uzbekistan reacted strongly to the accusations and soon troops were assembled on both sides of the border. Through bilateral cooperation agreements and other confidence-building measures, relations between neighboring countries have gradually improved and are now normalized.


Turkmenistan’s defense is still under construction. Plans exist for a naval force in the Caspian Sea. Turkish military is training parts of the country’s armed forces. With Russia, Turkmenistan has entered into an agreement on defense cooperation; the two countries are jointly responsible for Russian forces deployed along the border with Iran and Afghanistan. The defense is based on general military duty for two years. President Berdimuhamedow has his own militia of about 2,000 men and other security units. There are around 5,000 semi-military soldiers in the country.


Army: 33,000 men (2017)

The air Force: 3,000 men (2017)

The fleet: 500 men (2017)

Military expenditure’s share of GDP: 2.9 percent (1999)

Military spending’s share of the state budget: 15.0 percent (1999)