Russia Wants to Build a Gas Pipeline to China

A worker walks in front of pipes which lie stacked at the Nord Stream 2 facility at Mukran on Ruegen Islandon October 19, 2017 in Sassnitz, Germany. Nord Stream is laying a second pair of offshore pipelines in the Baltic Sea between Vyborg in Russia and Greifswald in Germany for …
Carsten Koall/Getty

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday his government is conducting feasibility studies for a gas pipeline between Russia and China.

“The project of cross-border pipeline construction over the territory of Mongolia from Russia to China is considered in practice. The work is in progress and it is progressing successfully,” Putin said after meeting with Mongolian president Ukhnaa Khurelsukh in Moscow.

“The optimal route, length and other parameters have already been determined. The feasibility study is being prepared. I believe it will be ready in broad terms in weeks to come,” Putin said.

The project Putin referred to has been in development since December 2019, when Russian state oil company Gazprom signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of Mongolia to build an extension of Russia’s Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline that would run across Mongolian territory into China. The extension would become known as the Soyuz-Vostok pipeline.

According to Russian state media, the current schedule for the project envisions breaking ground in 2024. When completed, the Soyuz-Vostok pipeline will have substantially higher capacity than Power of Siberia 2 does.

Thursday was Putin’s first meeting with Khurelsukh and the Mongolian president’s first foreign trip since his election in June. Putin said he was honored Khurelsukh chose Moscow as his first destination and noted this year is the 100th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Mongolia and Russia, which was the first country to recognize Mongolia’s independence.

“Certainly, we too are interested in close cooperation with our Mongolian friends,” Putin said, applauding a 24-percent growth in trade and a huge increase of railroad traffic this year despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Russia was concerned Mongolia’s turbulent election could produce an outcome unfavorable to Moscow’s interests, but Khurelsukh declared his support for both Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the two big regional economic and political projects. 

Khurelsukh was a former prime minister who resigned in January 2021 after massive protests in the capital of Ulaanbaatar against his government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The protests broke out after a viral video showed a woman in nightgown and slippers getting marched off to a quarantine facility with a baby clutched in her arms. Mongolian weather is not conducive to wearing nightgowns and slippers outdoors.

Khurelsukh successfully ran for president after the current officeholder, Khaltmaa Battulga, was prevented from running for re-election by a controversial constitutional amendment that limited the presidency to a single term. 

Mongolia still has a few thorny issues to resolve with Russia, notably some Mongolian dam projects vital for local mining projects but potentially damaging to the ecology of eastern Siberia. Mongolia also likes to keep its political options open – it has cultivated a relationship with South Korea, and purchases coronavirus vaccines from India as well as Russia and China.

Some analysts believe Mongolia could potentially be Russia’s “best friend” in Asia, while others think Putin secretly views Mongolia as an irritant to be contained and subdued because it is a somewhat volatile democracy sandwiched between authoritarian giants China and Russia – both of which counted Mongolia as an imperial possession at various points in history. Modern Mongolian leaders often play Russia and China against each other to squeeze better deals from both, an approach that sometimes leaves Moscow seething. 

The Soyuz-Vostok project is a tangible expression of Mongolia’s political position, as it would have been possible for Russia and China to build a pipeline that did not pass through Mongolia, but cutting through Mongolia will get Russian gas to China’s high-demand areas more quickly and cheaply.

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