One of the major historical obstacles for Russian territorial (or simply geopolitical) expansion over the past several centuries has been the Caucasus Mountains.
Thence comes Russia’s permanent drive to reduce the role of the mountain range through artificial construction of passes and roads into the South Caucasus. The success of these policies has been largely dependent on how Russia was allowed into the South Caucasus at any given time. From the Russian perspective, the Georgians, who control all major access through the Caucasus, could not be trusted. To alleviate this, the Russians had to have their own territorial strongholds – that’s how we come to Georgia being constantly invaded and its various regions being from time to time under the Russian protectorate.
Beyond this purely military aspect, minimizing the role of the impassable Caucasus range has had the Russians working on extending their economic power. When the territory was under Moscow’s direct control in the Soviet period, or earlier in the Romanov epoch, the Russians were keen on using/exporting local natural resources. Since the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Russia’s primary drive has been to increase trade with and buy crucial infrastructure (pipelines, railroads etc.) from the South Caucasus countries.
The North-South Economic Corridor project runs from Russia to Azerbaijan, Iran and then to the Persian Gulf and possibly to India too. This is an ambitious project, with goods from India and Iran able bypass the Suez Canal and reach Europe (the Baltic Sea) through Azerbaijani and Russian territories. In fact, this potential route is shorter than the one via the Suez Canal.
The talk on implementation of the North-South Corridor has been going on for some time, and substantial progress has already been made on the Astara Railway which connects the Iranian and Azerbaijani railway networks.
Somehow related to the implementation of this economic corridor might be cooling of tensions around the Caspian Sea, as seen last year.
Ironically, Russia’s problems with the West and Moscow’s pivot to the Middle East and Asia-Pacific (in whatever form its takes) has pushed the country to find other great trade partners. India, via Iran, would serve the Russians perfectly. Teheran and Moscow are both under Western sanctions and this, too, might be a very good incentive to aim for success in the Corridor project. In other words, an increased emphasis on Moscow’s economic interests through and around the Caspian Sea to India and Iran is related to larger geopolitical developments of Russia being shut off in the West and having no other opportunity but to move southwards.
Arguably the biggest winner in the project will be Azerbaijan, which will benefit from its strategic position not only as a hub for east-west trade and energy routes, but also for north-south commerce.
However, it is still very unlikely that much of the India-Europe trade could be diverted to the North-South Corridor. In fact, as is always the case with new trade routes, quite some time will be needed to pull the project off the ground, a crucial obstacle being the heavy economic sanctions imposed by the US on Iran which could easily undermine the efficiency of the project.
Overall, this and in coming years, we will see an intensified struggle between the regional powers surrounding the South Caucasus for laying down new trade routes, pipelines and roads, etc. In fact, a very good example of this is the reports in the media that Chechnya plans to build a road to Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge. Yet another development surrounds Georgia’s Abkhazia and Tskhinvali (the so-called “South Ossetia”) regions, where the Russians want to have trade routes passing through the breakaway territories to connect with Armenia.
Again, this is all part of Russia’s drive to minimize the impassability of the Caucasus range.
This article was published at Georgia Today
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