The North-South Corridor and the Realities of New Eurasia

NEW – November 22, 2022

As a result of current events, Russia, as it has already become obvious, will have to build completely new trade routes. This task will take more than a year or even a decade. Even if they did not begin to solve it yesterday or even after 2014, however, many projects announced back in the distant 2000s are either being implemented with a huge lag from the original plans, or did not go beyond purely virtual concepts at all.

Nevertheless, we will have to work in this direction with acceleration, compensating for the slowness of the bureaucratic machine in the past years.

For example, the existing border checkpoints to China are clearly not enough, so it has already been announced that they will try to launch a new crossing near Khabarovsk earlier than planned according to the original plan of 2026. Two new bridges to our Asian neighbors, opened this year (automobile – Blagoveshchensk-Heihe – and railway – Nizhneleninskoye-Tongjiang), as well as promising cross-border crossings will serve the needs, first of all, of the Far East itself and partly of Siberia.

Access to Western Siberia and the European part of Russia will be provided by the famous Zabaykalsk-Manzhouli crossing, the modernisation of which has been going on on both sides of the border for a long time. In addition, in the press again loomed the idea of the Altai Transport Corridor, which had already been repeatedly rejected, but the harsh wind of change forced them to return to it again. Even if it is still at the level of vague conversations.

But not by a single China… Since the International North-South Transport Corridor, which will connect the European part of Russia with Iran, and through it with India, acquires special, perhaps even more important, importance in the new conditions. This idea originated in the noughties, but its practical implementation began only in the second half of the 2010s.

Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia and India have already invested billions in the modernisation of their railway and highway networks and this large-scale work continues. Although the pandemic and armed conflicts have made their own adjustments to the plans.

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Shipping along the Caspian Sea to the coasts of Iran and Turkmenistan is of particular importance here. Earlier, there was also a lot of talk about the construction of a new Caspian port Lagan in the Russian Federation, but it never started.

An alternative route is also kept in mind. Through the Caspian Sea, Turkmenistan, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan, the “silk roads” were supposed to stretch all the way to India via highways and railways. In this sense, the recent presence at the SPIEF of a representative of the Taliban government ceases to look like such a curiosity. And if we add here the fact that Vladimir Putin made his second foreign visit to Turkmenistan after the start of his visit, the pieces of the mosaic are already forming a relatively complete picture.

However, this truly exotic route is seen rather as an additional and backup to the main one – through Azerbaijan (or the Caspian Sea) and Iran. And the point here is not only in the specific shade of the Turkmen, and even more so, the Afghan power systems and not in customs nuances (more borders – more bureaucracy and various fees), but in the banal lack of infrastructure. Sometimes – even in a basic form.

Obviously, it is possible to talk about the availability of transport infrastructure in the same Afghanistan very conditionally. For example, the railway of the Russian gauge (1520 mm), laid back in the USSR – through the famous Friendship Bridge – stretched only to the border town of Hairatan. Under the Americans, the railway was extended to Mazar-I-Sharif. And that’s all. Plans to extend to Herat, and even more so the Great Trans-Afghan Highway, which was so loudly talked about at the beginning of 2021, after the well-known events of the summer of the same year, became a matter of the very distant future.

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There are also completely different risks – political ones. The West will try to prevent the creation of Eurasian cooperation beyond its control. After all, the North-South corridor will help Russia and Iran overcome sanctions, and Azerbaijan, which is periodically threatened with the same sanctions, will be less susceptible to such threats.

Actually, it is for this reason that both the former British Empire and its current successor, the United States, have always opposed any cooperation within the continent. The sea routes are completely controlled by the Anglo–Saxons, the continental ones are only partially controlled.

The main target is likely to be the key country of the corridor – Iran. Here, the Anglo-American interests are supplemented by the interest of Israel, which has long been – and quite openly – talking about the possibility of attacking Iranian nuclear facilities.

Under one pretext or another, transport facilities may also be subjected to similar strikes. Even if Israel itself does not need it, “senior comrades” can “recommend” expanding the range of goals. However, such an attack is fraught with unpredictable consequences. Iran is by no means the Yugoslavia of 1999 with an uninitiative Milosevic at its head – the opportunity and desire to strike back are present in abundance here.

However, it would be naive to assume that the threat comes only from Israel. The most vulnerable section of the corridor runs between the ports of Bandar Abbas in Iran and the Indian Nhava Sheva. This water area can be blocked at any time by the United States military, the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet is located in Bahrain. Not to mention the two air bases – Al Udeid (Qatar) and Diego Garcia (British territory in the Indian Ocean), which operate as a constant threat.

Another “case” that is already being used against the North-South corridor is the buildup of instability in Iran itself. Noticeable protests break out in this country every few years, re-igniting the already familiar gossip in the West about the supposedly imminent “fall of the Ayatollah regime.”

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However, in reality, everything is still somewhat different. In this difficult year, Tehran has resisted again, relations with the Russian Federation are getting stronger and military-technical cooperation (including the infamous drones and, possibly, the Su-35 from an unrealizsd Egyptian order) is not a special case of forced partnership, but a fully realised short- and medium-term direction. For Moscow, the North-South corridor is becoming a kind of analogue of the now destroyed Baltic gas “streams”.

Speaking of gas. South Asian countries are vitally interested in Russian energy carriers, which are currently delivered by sea, which makes supplies vulnerable. Laying pipelines across the entire continent is still a difficult task, both for geographical and political reasons, but in the future it can be solved. And conversations about specific ways of implementation are becoming more insistent.

Access to the South of Eurasia is becoming in many ways even more important than the conditionally “Chinese” direction. Including because China itself has offered little beyond empty rhetoric to the Russian Federation. Moreover, it is difficult to interpret a number of steps as friendly. For example, the opening of the Nizhneleninskoye-Tongjiang bridge was predicted by the Russian press back in April, the Chinese newspaper Global Times talked about August, but in fact the bridge began to work only in November. At the same time, some Russian resources tactfully hinted that the reason for the delays lies precisely on the Chinese side.

The result: there are still many obstacles in the way of the North-South corridor. However, if in the noughties it was only an interesting addition to relations with the West, and in the 2010s it became extremely important, then in the 2020s there is simply no alternative to it.

Aleksandr Zbitnev

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