MOSCOW -- Russia lashed out Tuesday at an offer by the European Union to broker talks between energy-rich former Soviet nations Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan aimed at creating a natural gas pipeline that would carry Turkmen fuel to the West.
Moscow's testy outburst over EU lobbying for construction of a trans-Caspian pipeline highlights Russian sensitivities over prospects that its grip on the supply of gas to Europe could be loosened.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said that only the five countries bordering on the Caspian had the right to settle issues regarding use of the inland body of water.
Europe is eager to diversify its gas purchases away from Russia, whose recurrent disputes with transit nation Ukraine have led to periodic cutoffs.
Western Europe relies on Russia for a quarter of its gas needs. Some 80 percent of the gas bound for Western Europe is carried through Ukrainian pipeline. A pricing dispute between Ukraine and Russia in 2009 left Europe without a key source of gas and the union is keen to diversify its supply.
Under a mandate approved Monday, the EU will propose a union-wide treaty supporting the completion of the trans-Caspian pipeline. Gas carried through that route would then be fed into EU-backed Nabucco pipeline that bypasses Russia.
"Europe is now speaking with one voice. The trans-Caspian pipeline is a major project in the Southern Corridor to bring new sources of gas to Europe. We have the intention of achieving this as soon as possible," EU Energy Commissioner Oettinger said in a statement.
The planned Nabucco pipeline is slated to transport 31 billion cubic meters of natural gas from the Caspian region to Austria via southern Europe. The viability of the project has been called into question over doubts that enough suppliers can be found to fill the pipeline.
A trans-Caspian pipeline would likely resolve those misgivings, as Turkmenistan has already committed in principle to supplying the European Union with up to 10 billion cubic meters of gas annually. Nabucco's backers say gas will start flowing through the pipeline in 2017, although industry insiders are skeptical that deadline will be met.
Another difficulty facing Nabucco is competition from the Russian-backed South Stream pipeline, which is planned to link a southwestern Russian port to southern Europe via a route along bottom of the Black Sea.
Lukashevich said that any accidents befalling the trans-Caspian pipeline would impact all five littoral nations, meaning operations in the inland sea could only go ahead after receiving joint approval, in line with a declaration signed by all the countries' leaders in 2010.
"It is evident that laying down the trans-Caspian pipeline in a confined basin with high seismic activity and a tectonic seabed is exactly one of those questions," he said.
The other two Caspian nations are Kazakhstan and Iran.
Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan have traditionally not enjoyed smooth relations and have for many years been embroiled in a dispute over a contested section of the Caspian Sea. Ties have improved recently, however, and the EU may hope its involvement could help maintain that trend.