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Reviving an Ancient Route? The Role of the Baku – Tbilisi – Kars Railway

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Though the initial idea about the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway project was raised in the early 1990s, it was not taken seriously due to regional instability and economic difficulties. However, with the realization of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipelines in 2006, the idea of a railway connection became real once again.

The BTK, covering 850 km with a capacity of 5 million tons of cargo (upgradable to 15 million) per year and one million passengers (upgradable to three million), and connecting Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, was launched in 2007 (Klimas and Humbatov, 2016:38; Uysal, 20 October 2014).It was launched without any international backing mainly because Armenia was left out due its occupation of nearly20 percent of Azerbaijani territory after a war in the early 1990s that ended in a cease-fire in May 1994.

Though initially the plan was to be completed in 2010, financial challenges as a result of falling oil prices meant that it became operational only on 30 October 2017. Azerbaijan was the driving force behind the BTK railway project.  The BTK is an important step in reviving the historical Silk Road. The Silk Road refers to an ancient network of trade routes that was used from 130 BC, when Han China opened trade with the West, to 1453 AD when the Ottoman Empire decided to end trade with the West and closed the routes. However, the term is far more recent. It was coined by the German geographer and traveler, Ferdinand von Richthofen, in 1877 AD, who designated this network of trade routes ‘Seidenstrasse’ (silk road) or ‘Seidenstrassen’ (silk routes) (Mark, 28 March 2014).

However, the trade routes carried far more than silk. Trade included textiles, spices, grain, vegetables and fruit, animal hides, tools, wood work, metal work, religious objects, art work, precious stones and a lot more. It carried ideas and people too(UNESCO, nd.). Ideas and culture were transmitted changing the face of Eurasia. Many of the cities along the Silk Road became hubs of culture and learning. It connected the Han Chinese Empire with the Roman Empire. Starting at Xi’an (Sian), the 4,000-mile (6,400-km) road, in reality a caravan tract, followed the Great Wall of China to the northwest, bypassed the TaklaMakan Desert, climbed the Pamirs (mountains), crossed Afghanistan, and went on to the Levant; from there the merchandise was shipped across the Mediterranean Sea. Not many merchants travelled the entire route. In fact, the trade was handled by a series of middle men (Encyclopedia Britannica, 30 October 2017).

With changing regional and geopolitical constellations, the historic Silk Road is on its way to revival, with a strong geo-political motive.In this respect, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which plans to improve Chinese rail and sea transportation to better connect with the global economy, strengthens the future perspective of the BTK. The Belt and Road goes through 65 countries, includes 70% of the world’s population, three-quarters of its energy resources, a quarter of goods and services and 28% of global GDP—some $21 trillion (Campbell, 2017). 

Map of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway

btkr

Source: Twelves, R., 01 November 2017, From Baku with Love: The New Transcaucasian Railway.

Hence, the importance of the project is manifold, ranging from economic to strategic interests. Being a part of traditional Silk Road route plays an important role for freight and passenger transportation between Asia and Europe.The BTK increases the strategic importance of Azerbaijan by enabling it to become a transport hub between Europe and Asia. Azerbaijan has already secured its energy independence thanks to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipelines, both supported by the West and transnational oil companies such as BP and ExxonMobil. However, the same support could not be secured for the BTK railway project.

The BTK has faced serious challenges including a lack of support from international donors or Great Powers. Indeed, under pressure from the Armenian lobby, possible funding from the USA was blocked for the BTK (Tsurkov 13 November 2017).Thanks to the decisiveness of Azerbaijan, the biggest hurdle, thelack of finances to carry out the construction/reconstruction works in Georgia was solved with Azerbaijan’s offer of a loan of $775 million with concessional terms to Georgia (Klimas and Humbatov, 2016:22). It is important to note that the total cost of the BTK was above $1 billion. Thus, Azerbaijan indeed took the lion’s share of responsibility in realization of the BTK project. This showed how important a small state could be in big regional projects without international backing. 

There are still many uncertainties ahead the entire Belt Road project. It passes through some of the world’s most volatile borders—Iran-Turkey, Russia-Ukraine, and the de-facto border between Western and Eastern Ukraine. China expects countries like Vietnam and Malaysia, with whom it competes for maritime influence to co-operate on the project. Another problem is that this ambitious attempt to connect the world’s richest regions in the West and the East through a swathe of poorer territory might mean that China has to extend geopolitical commitments, including military, which may not be welcome (Bohl, 2017).

In addition, the new Silk Road project has the potential of upsetting China’s regional rivals such as Japan and India. In an indication that such a challenge would be addressed Japan and India recently announced the AAGC (Asia Africa Growth Corridor) an initiative led by a partnership between India and Japan to better integrate the economies of South, Southeast, and East Asia with Oceania and Africa. In contrast to the land based routes of the New Silk Route this will be series of intersecting sea based economic triangles interconnecting cities in Central Asia which is expected to have rapid economic growth (Shepard, 2017a)

Such moves risk upsetting the traditional power in Central Asia—Russia—which as a legacy of the Tsarist and Soviet Empires has considerable influence in the region. Russia has cooperated with India on its own continent-crossing plan the North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC). This 7,200-kilometer multimodal trade corridor is expected to run from India to Russia, linking the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea, improving India’s connections to Iran, Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia(Shepard, 2017b)

A Russia, no longer under sanctions, could become a serious rival for the BTK. Additionally, China should fully commit to send goods to Europe mainly through the historic Silk Road route rather than through the Suez Canal (Twelves, 1 November 2017). Furthermore, so-called ‘frozen conflicts’ in the region should be taken into consideration. A possible restart of an armed conflict can put regional projects into danger. Therefore, in the long term, some grave challenges remain.

However, standing up to these challenges could open up new perspectives. In other words, with full-fledged commitment by China and regional countries and the solution of threatening ‘frozen conflicts’, the BTK has the potential to bring back the trade potential of the historic Silk Road and substantially contribute to the development of economies lying along the route.

The main significance of the BTK is that it will reduce Russia’s monopoly on overland transportation and boost the travel between Asia and Europe. Most importantly, the transportation cost and time will be reduced substantially. Being a piece of historic Silk Road, BTK will transport goods from China to Kazakhstan, and then through the Caspian Sea to Baku, from where it will be taken to Turkey via BTK and finally to Europe, as far as London. The time required for the trip will be around 13-15 days which is almost twice as fast as sea transportation to the same destination. Moreover, it is 50 percent cheaper than air transport (Rick, 1 November 2017; Klimas and Humbatov, 2016:11). China has been strengthening the Central Asian part of the historic Silk Road. In terms of trade turnover with the Central Asian countries, China already overtook Russia in 2008. In other words, China is Central Asia’s biggest trade partner. In 2013 China achieved a trade balance of $ 50 billion, whereas Russia had $31.5. Interestingly, in 2001 China’s trade with Central Asia was only $1.5 billion (Muzalevsky, 27 April 2016).  In 2015, the Chinese president Xi Jinping mentioned that Chinese government aims at investing $46 billion in Central Asia in order to develop trade, transport and energy infrastructures (Muzalevsky, 27 April 2016). Until 2015 China have already invested nearly $40 billion to the Central Asian countries.Such a level of investment backs up the belief that Silk Road project is going to be revived in the coming few years. Benefiting from concessional loans from China and its own energy revenues, Kazakhstan have improved its transport infrastructure and build new railway connections which also includes the railway crossing the country from west to east.

Turkey is another country that eagerly supports the historic Silk Road expecting to become a transport hub between Asia and Europe. Apart from BTK, the famous Marmaray project is Turkey’s other contribution to the revival of historic Silk Road. The Marmaray project aims at connecting Europe and Asia by rail with a tunnel under the Bosphorus. This project, transporting both passengers and freight, is expected to be completed by February 2018 (Uysal, 4 July 2016).The BTK will be a crucial project to increase transport between Turkey and the CIS countries.

Initially Iran could lose out if the BTK project is realized as Turkey coulduse it to re-route goods that are currently transported to Iran via the CIS. However, in the long-run, if sanctions are liftedonce and for all, Iran will also benefit from the revival of historic Silk Road. Indeed, Iran has expressed its interest in building railway lines to Azerbaijan (Uysal, 20 October 2014).

Among others, the ministers of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan also attended the opening ceremony of the BTK railway in Baku (Mahmudov, 3 November 2017). This demonstrates the interests of all Central Asian countries to join the transportation route to transport their goods to the promising European market.

To conclude, the BTK will not only help the economies of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, it will also contribute to the trade between Asia and Europe bypassing Russia’s overland transportation monopoly. Therefore, it is not only an economical but also a strategic project. The major importance of the project is its positive impact on helping small countries to avoid Russian overland transport manipulations.

The BTK will increase both passenger and freight transportation between Asia and Europe outside Russian grip. It is the first regional non-energy project in South Caucasus connecting Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. The BTK railway proved an alliance build around an infrastructure project involving small states can shape greater economic as well as political regional realities which impacts great players as well. Azerbaijan, taking the biggest responsibility for the completion of the BTK, will also take the lion’s share in terms of benefits. It will become a transport hub, if it further develops its transport infrastructures, and it will also get access better access to Europe by using the transportation infrastructures, e.g., ports of Turkey.

Previous energy projects have shaped the regional triangle between Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey, and BTK will further strengthen this network. BTK is a purely economic project. Yet, it certainly has political and cultural consequences as well; it can contribute to strengthening trust between nations. Historical mutual mistrust among the Chinese andCentral Asians can be challenged with growing people-to-people encounters due to trade and travel along the historic Silk Road.

Moreover, besides the establishment of new partnerships and better integration of Eurasian countries into global value chains, the BTK will also help in attracting Foreign Direct Investment to countries like Georgia and Azerbaijan. Last but not the least,the BTK will encourage construction of free economics zones and infrastructures along the route. 

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Eastern Europe

Ukraine war’s first anniversary and beyond

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photo source: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

The first anniversary of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine falls on February 24. The Russian strategy of attrition war has not yet produced the desired political outcome but has been a success nonetheless, writes Indian Ambassador and prominent international observer M.K. Bhadrakumar.

The delusional “westernist” notions of the Moscow elite that Russia can be a dialogue partner of the West have dissipated thoroughly, with ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s stunning disclosure recently that the West’s negotiations with Russia regarding the Minsk Agreement were an “attempt to give Ukraine time” and that Kiev had used it “to become stronger.”

Thus, the accession to Russia four ex-Ukrainian regions — Donetsk and Lugansk [Donbass], Zaporozhye, Kherson oblasts – accounting for around one-fifth of Ukrainian territory, is a fait accompli now, and Kiev’s recognition of it is a pre-requisite for any future peace talks.

The Kremlin has put necessary mechanisms in place to galvanise the defence industry and the economy to meet the needs of the military operations in Ukraine. From a long-term perspective, one historic outcome of the conflict is going to be Russia’s emergence as an unassailable military power that draws comparison with the Soviet Red Army, which the West will never again dare to confront. This is yet to sink in.

Under the plan approved by Putin, the Moscow and the Leningrad military districts will be created, three motorised rifle divisions will be formed in the Kherson and the Zaporozhye oblasts (that have been annexed in September) and an army corps will be built in the northwestern region of Karelia bordering Finland.

The internal western assessment is that the war is going badly for Ukraine. Spiegel reported last week that Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) “informed security politicians of the Bundestag in a secret meeting this week that the Ukrainian army is currently losing a three-digit number of soldiers every day in battles.”

The Biden Administration is hoping to buy time till spring to revamp the pulverised Ukrainian military and equip it with advanced weaponry. The old stocks of Soviet-era weaponry have been exhausted and future supplies to Ukraine will have to be from hardware in service with NATO countries. That is easier said than done, and western defence industry will need time to restart production.

All the bravado that ‘Kiev is preparing for an offensive to drive the Russians out of Ukraine’ has vanished.

The big picture, therefore, as the war enters the second year is that the West is working feverishly on plans, with the Biden Administration leading from the rear, to deliver heavy armour to the Ukrainian military by spring, including German Leopard tanks. If that happens, Russia is sure to retaliate with strikes on supply routes and warehouses in western Ukraine.

Dmitry Medvedev, the outspoken former Russian president who is close to Putin and serves as deputy chairman of the powerful security council, explicitly warned, “Nuclear powers have never lost major conflicts on which their fate depends.”

There is the ‘X’ factor — US domestic politics as it approaches the 2024 election year. The Republicans are insisting on an auditing of the tens of billions of dollars spent on Ukraine — $110 billion in military aid alone — making the Biden Administration accountable.

The CIA chief William Burns paid an unpublicised visit to Kiev, reportedly to transmit the message that US arms supplies beyond July may become problematic.

International Affairs

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China Still Ambivalent About the Middle Corridor

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Image Source: Mbkv717/Flickr

Despite the oft-touted momentum behind the Eurasian Middle Corridor circumventing Russia, China still appears not to be fully behind the project beset by geopolitical challenges and infrastructure hurdles.

Overlapping Interests

Russia’s war on Ukraine has been a game-changer for Eurasian connectivity. The route through north Eurasia running from China to Europe that served as a major conduit between the two is now less attractive as a result of the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow. China-EU shipments along the Northern Corridor have decreased by 40 percent according to data from October 2022. This new reality serves as a major incentive for finding alternative routes.

It is rare in geopolitics that so many states in such a short timeframe would agree on advancing a certain project. The Middle Corridor, connecting China and Europe via Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Black Sea, is a good example of a vision where different countries from across Eurasia have accelerated the work not only on promoting the idea, but also laying the ground for its expansion.

In the months following the invasion of Ukraine, the EU has re-invigorated its policies toward the wider Black Sea region and has actively engaged Central Asia through high-level visits, pledging economic and political support. No longer willing to trade with China through Russia, Brussels is now pushing for the expansion of the Middle Corridor.

Small nations along the Corridor, too, have upped their diplomatic game. Leaders of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Central Asian states have grasped the emerging opportunity and begun inter-state cooperation through bilateral visits and the signing of memorandums on the minimization of tariffs and border crossing hurdles.

The effects of such cooperation are already evident. Indeed, emerging connectivity opportunities push the governments to reconsider their previous position on long-stalled projects such as the Anaklia deep sea port in the case of Georgia or the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, which the cooperating states pledged to begin work on in 2023.

Then, there is Turkey. Seeing an opening in the region, Ankara has increased its outreach to Central Asia already following Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in 2020. Effectively the initiator of the Middle Corridor idea back in 2000s, Turkey is now arguably one of the critical players driving the concept. A series of “block train” transports were initiated in recent years, traversing the corridor. In February 2021, a train reached China from Turkey’s eastern provinces after nearly twenty days of transit. In April 2022, another train was dispatched via the same route. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Kazakh colleague Kassym-Jomart Tokayev commended during their summit in Ankara in 2022 “the growth of cargo transit via the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad and the East-West Middle Corridor.” Moreover, the two sides “stressed the importance of strengthening coordination between the relevant institutions for the effective and sustainable use of the Middle Corridor.”

Yet, one critical player– China – is largely missing. Beijing has rarely commented on the Middle Corridor and Chinese analysts write exceptionally little on the issue. Most importantly, Beijing has invested very little in the actual development of the corridor.

Significant Constraints

China’s reticence so far can be explained by pure pragmatism. Of course, there is a major imperative for Beijing to find alternative routes as transit through Russia becomes problematic. In that regard, the Caspian Sea and the South Caucasus indeed constitute geographically the shortest link to Europe.

Yet, the route is not an easy one – it is multimodal, i.e. consists of both sea lines and land routes and crosses multiple countries which have made little effort to synchronize their transit capabilities and develop infrastructure before 2022.

Currently, there is close to no joint tariff coordination, effective inter-governmental dialogue and adequate infrastructure to process the throughput which has been shipped through Russia. For instance, lack of infrastructure in the Caspian Sea prevents convenient transit from Central Asian ports to Azerbaijan. Similar troubles beset the Georgian side of the Black Sea, especially as there is no deep sea port. The construction of the Anaklia port was postponed due to political infighting in the country with new construction plans only recently announced. In 2022, the Middle Corridor could only absorb 3-5 percent of the China-EU trade, which limits Beijing’s interest in the route.

Finally, geopolitical factors, such as instability in the South Caucasus, have contributed to making the Middle Corridor not as attractive for China as it might seem on the first sight. Russian influence is a primary factor. Despite Russia’s current weakness and incrementally growing dependence on China, the latter will have to carefully measure how Moscow will be responding to the development of a route which circumvents it from the south, in the region where Moscow has four military bases.

Kremlin could potentially rupture the connection both politically and through the use of more radical measures if deemed necessary. Much will depend on how Moscow fares in Ukraine. Perhaps a victory might even embolden it to prevent the corridor from materializing. But even if defeated or bogged down in a protracted war, Russia’s behavior will remain unpredictable, keeping China at unease.

From the South Caucasus, the Middle Corridor continues to either the Black Sea or Turkey. The former is currently a war theater, with chances for peaceful implementation of the corridor quite limited. This leaves China with Turkey.

Ankara and Beijing have promoted inherently competing visions of Eurasian connectivity. There were even hints that Turkish and Chinese influence clashed in Azerbaijan, which limited China’s engagement in the expansion of the Middle Corridor. After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the situation seems to have changed and Turkey and China have opened more active talks on cooperation along the corridor. For instance, China-Turkey Communication Forum was held in September 2022, focusing, among other things, on synergizing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the Turkey’s Middle Corridor. Yet, the pace of cooperation remains slow with little practical steps taken so far.

Looking Ahead

China might eventually grow interested in the re-invigorated Middle Corridor as a part of a hedging strategy. As was the case with silk roads in ancient and medieval times, trade corridors rarely remain static. They constantly adjust to emerging opportunities and evade potential geopolitical dangers. In the same vein, China’s massive BRI is far from stationary, but constantly evolving and adjusting to varying circumstances instead.

Although the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea have not featured high in the BRI documents published by Beijing, the region can rise to rank higher among Chinese interests amid a new emerging geopolitical reality. This is especially the case if Russia grows even more sidelined in Eurasian geopolitics and Beijing realizes that betting on Russia long-term is a dead-end.

Author’s note: first published in chinaobservers

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A turning moment in Ukraine Crisis

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Germany’s decision to send tanks to Ukraine is a major moment in the Ukraine Crisis. It will have a far-reaching impact and may turn it into World War III. It is a tradition of the US to gang up to counter its adversaries. Iraq war, Libyan attacks, Syrian aggression, and the Occupation of Afghanistan, all were the result of allied forces, the US has the skills to make allies in addition to NATO and achieve its political objectives.

The US lobbies against its adversaries, and use all dirty tricks including media to malign its adversaries. They mislead the public and level the ground for the next stage – armed intervention. Looking at US interventions in any part of the world, you may conclude a similar approach.

Ukraine is also no exception. The US was preparing grounds for this crisis for a long and dragged Russia into it. Including Ukraine in NATO, was a red line for Russia, but, deliberately, this path was chosen to spoil global peace.

After failing all negotiations, Russia was left with no option except launch a special military operation on the same line as the 2014 Crimea operation. It was just a limited operation and should have been over after securing Russian borders only.

Unfortunately, the US had different intentions and trapped Russia in Ukraine and a full-scale war started. It was purely American war against Russia, but, as usual, America ganged up with NATO and also sought assistance and support from friendly countries.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the move on Wednesday, bowing to intensifying international pressure – led by the United States, Poland, and a bloc of other European nations, which called on Berlin to step up its military support and commit to sending their sought-after vehicles. The influx of Western tanks into the conflict has the potential to change the shape of the war. The shipments are a breakthrough in the West’s military support for Kyiv, signaling a bullish view around the world about Ukraine’s ability to reclaim occupied territory. Crucially, they may allow Ukraine to take the fighting to Moscow’s forces and re-capture more occupied land, rather than focusing primarily on beating back Russian attacks.

The US has increased its defense budget and military aid to Ukraine. It is aimed to attack Russia, not limited to liberating Ukraine only. It will prolong the war and let Russia bleed for longer.

Participation of Europe in conflict may worsen the situation and may harm Europe more. Although there are public rallies, protests, and agitations in major cities in Europe to end the Ukraine war or at least oppose Europe’s active participation. Some were chanting slogans to leave NATO. It seems the public understands the consequences but the rulers are blindly following US policies. It might create a rift between the public and rulers.

Blunders made by rulers, but, the price is being paid by the public, in the form of inflation, hikes in the price of fuel, energy, food, etc., are a common phenomenon all over Europe. The danger of spreading the war is at high risk.

Imagine, if Russia also seeks assistance from its allies and gangs up to conform to NATO aggression, it will be certainly a Word War III. Today, the World is obviously polarized and blocks are emerging rapidly.

It also can turn into nuclear war too. The 8 declared nuclear states have enough piles of nuclear weapons to destroy the whole world completely. It is scaring scenario.

But despite knowing the consequences, no one is taking any initiative to end the war and seek political solutions to the crisis. The US is not interested in the peaceful resolution of the disputes and Europe is blindly following America.

It is urged that the UN may intervene proactively and initiate a dialogue to reach an acceptable solution for all stakeholders. Unbiased, non-partisan nations may come forward to initiate peace dialogues. All peace-loving countries and individuals may act proactively and struggle to end the Ukraine crisis. Satisfying all concerned parties may achieve sustainable peace and avert any big disaster.

Humankind is the most precious thing in this universe and must be respected. Value human lives, save human lives, and without any discrimination protects human lives across the board all over the globe.

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