Amid the war in Ukraine, deepening Sino-U.S. tensions, and major geopolitical realignments in the Middle East, the space stretching from the Black Sea to China’s westernmost borders attracts relatively little attention. Yet it is here that the outlines of a new world order can be glimpsed.
In the heart of Eurasia and surrounded by major world powers, the South Caucasus and Central Asia are experiencing dramatic shifts.
First, the perception of the two regions as distinct from one another is increasingly being challenged. In the past, the natural obstacle of the Caspian Sea, inadequate infrastructure, and, most crucially, the influence of external powers conspired to divide the South Caucasus and Central Asia. In recent years, regional connectivity has increased, largely due to the war in Ukraine and Russia’s decreasing ability to project power on its southern flank.
Until the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, both the EU and China were comfortable with trade moving primarily through Russia, taking advantage of its adequate rail infrastructure and relaxed customs controls. After all, there were no viable alternatives, with the “Middle Corridor” option—which runs from the Black Sea to the Caspian and Central Asia—playing little more than a complementary role. Little investment was made in its infrastructure, and great powers took all but no interest in its development.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, the South Caucasus and Central Asia became more attractive as a trade route. In late 2022, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey unveiled a road map for the Middle Corridor’s development through 2027. In June, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia set up a logistics company to facilitate transportation between the two regions, and the following month, an Uzbek delegation visited Tbilisi to discuss how to deepen ties even further. The Middle Corridor was also a topic of discussion during Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s July visit to Kazakhstan.
Amid growing levels of transshipment, including a 20 percent increase in freight through the port of Baku last year and a similar rise in cargo and container transit through Georgia, leaders in the South Caucasus and Central Asia are acknowledging their interdependence. This September, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev joined a summit of Central Asian leaders in the capital of Tajikistan.
Great powers, too, are in favor of closer links between the South Caucasus and Central Asia. China has warmed up to the Middle Corridor, recently agreeing with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to push forward with work on a railway connecting the three countries. Beijing has also entered into a strategic partnership with Georgia that could give it a role in the construction of the Anaklia deep sea port and, more generally, boost its influence in the region.
The EU is eyeing a bigger role in both regions. In addition to considering the accession prospects of Georgia, it sees the Middle Corridor as a means of developing infrastructure. In 2022, the EU backed the construction of a Black Sea electric cable that would bring energy from Azerbaijan to Europe. Moreover, Central Asia fits neatly into the EU’s Global Gateway Initiative, a multibillion dollar program for the development of port and rail infrastructure that is Brussels’s answer to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Even beyond the calculations of external powers, the countries of the South Caucasus and Central Asia are converging in their foreign policy outlooks. In the face of broader geopolitical shifts, they have embraced multi-vector foreign policies and deepened cooperation with each other.
Foremost among these geopolitical shifts is Russia’s declining influence, part of a long process that started with the withdrawal of Soviet troops stationed in Berlin thirty-five years ago and today sees Moscow waging war on Ukraine. Last year’s invasion was both a symptom and an accelerant of Russia’s waning influence, and it created a significant power vacuum in the South Caucasus and Central Asia. As a result, Russia is now just one of many external powers vying for influence in these regions, alongside the U.S., the EU, India, Japan, Iran, Turkey, China, and even the Gulf states.
Some players may be better positioned to capitalize than others thanks to close geographic proximity, or greater military or economic might. And some are more obviously ambitious than others. Notwithstanding these differences in will and capacity, the South Caucasus and Central Asia today is a highly crowded space where new trade routes and infrastructure are popping up left and right—and where loyalties are in flux.
Of course, there are challenges, too. This region is prone to instability and vulnerable to external shocks, and the corridor from the Black Sea to Kazakhstan could be undermined by intensifying competition between the West and China. The war in Ukraine could also prove a defining factor. Should Russia prevail, it will again have the bandwidth to resist the development of a competing energy, economic, and transport corridor.
Perhaps the direction of travel would best be described as the pursuit of “multi-alignment,” a trend gathering pace in Eurasia that looks set to provide smaller actors with more room for maneuver. The countries of the South Caucasus and Central Asia have adroitly seized this opportunity, and, as the two regions seek closer ties, the Middle Corridor may well start to play a critical role in connecting the powerhouses of the EU and China.
Source : Carnegie Endowment