The lack of direct access to the sea is our strategic disadvantage. This disadvantage is objective, that is, it is not up to us (our policy) to change it, it stems from our geographical location. This is why our country, regardless of who is in power, does not have many foreign policy options. We certainly need access to the sea to feel safe and build profitable trade. This access must be sustainable, safe and cheap.
We have access to the Black and Baltic Seas via Russia (via canals). But the sustainability of this access is questionable, and it is neither safe nor cheap. Moreover, the waterways passing through Russia remain frozen for almost half of the year, which means that the economic benefits cannot be great. If we had access to the Indian Ocean via Iran, this could be the cheapest and most economically viable route. But I don’t think there is any need to explain why this is not happenning.
Thus, we have only one access to the sea left, through Georgia. The sea we get access to via Georgia (Black Sea) has two historical and geopolitical masters, Russia and Turkey. The state of relations between these two countries directly affects us. Although it is clear that a war between them will be extremely harmful for us, the exact opposite is not in our favor either. In other words, our country will not gain anything from a rapprochement between Russia and Turkey, on the contrary, our foreign policy opportunities will be further reduced. The more Russia, Turkey and Iran disagree, the more opportunities our country’s foreign policy gains.
Luckily (I could not find a better word) for us, Turkey is both a brotherly country, and as a NATO member it cannot get too chummy with Russia or Iran. It will not be able to do so, because the historical and geopolitical confrontation both Russia and Iran, separately and together, have with Turkey is not going anywhere. Therefore, even if we put aside the brotherhood part, Turkey and Azerbaijan will still have a great need for each other in this region. What about Georgia?
Since Georgia is located between Turkey and Azerbaijan, it becomes a means to the end of meeting said great need. This benefits Georgia as well. Although this country, unlike us, has direct access to the sea, it does not have the strategic resources to enter the world arena through that sea, not to mention the clear and persistent threat from Russia. The latter is one of the strongest factors bringing Georgia and Azerbaijan together. On top of that, if we recall Georgia’s energy dependence on us and our transport dependence on Georgia, we can better understand the deepening cooperation between our two countries (+Turkey).
The relations between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey can be called “strategic interdependence”. This does not mean an alliance yet, but it is impossible not to see that this is where we are heading. One joint military exercise after another clearly shows this. Military exercises are conducted out of necessity, not out of idleness. And everybody knows what threats these three countries are conducting joint military exercises against and where these threats are coming from (even if they never speak openly about it). Without a doubt, one of the purposes of the exercises is to protect the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, along with the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Supsa pipelines. This railway is also of great military importance.
What is the strategic importance of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway? Was the West really against it, or was all of the West against it? Have there been similar examples in the past and are there any today?
To grasp the context of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars issue, we will have to look at the situation in our region and its neighborhood. Let’s start from afar—from China.
As China’s economic situation improved, its political ambitions grew. Many of them stem from its strategic disadvantage in terms of its geographical location. China has direct access to the sea, but this access is controlled by the US Navy all around. The shipping routes from China to the sea lie near the coasts of South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore. All of these routes are under direct or indirect control of the US Navy. In the event of a war or a serious crisis, the United States could easily cut them off, slamming all these doors shut right in China’s face. China knows this, and it is trying to find alternative routes.
One of the alternative routes lies North. This route via Russia is both long and difficult, and, therefore, it cannot be as cheap as China would like it to be. Besides, Russia’s traditional infrastructure problems raise the administrative costs of this route. There was a part of the route from China to the West, and the second part was completed by the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. However, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway was not a project China considered. China was presented with a fait accompli, and now we are trying to kindle China’s interest in using this route.
There is another route, China’s own initiative to which it attaches direct strategic importance and on which it spends a lot of money—the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The construction of this corridor began in 2002 with increasing speed. First, China built a large port in Pakistan, then it began to build a railway from its territory to that port. It is a project that required an initial investment of more than $60 billion. A lot of work has been done. The use of this corridor serves several of China’s goals. The two most important of these are: 1) direct access to the Indian Ocean without crossing the US-controlled sea lanes; 2) India, China’s geopolitical archrival, ends up cut off from major freight traffic. The second goal is in line with Pakistan’s geopolitical interests. Pakistan, like China, sees India as its eternal geopolitical rival. Tensions in the region are so high that a war could break out at any moment. In this regard, the military significance of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is growing, as military aid can be transported from China to Pakistan via it, if necessary.
What does this have to do with the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway? Although it does not seem to be directly relevant, there is an important contextual link between these two projects. Since the beginning of construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in 2002, India has considered this route a strategic threat and has been looking for alternatives. In this matter, India’s interests align with those of Iran and Russia. Iran has its own scores to settle with Pakistan, so, just like India, Iran does not want Pakistan strengthening in the region. Russia, on its part, is interested in reducing the growing power of both Pakistan and China in the region. This made Russia, Iran and India join forces and sign an agreement in 2002 on the North-South Transport Corridor project—a railway from Russia to Iran and a sea route from Iran to India.
To implement this project, these countries need Azerbaijan, because any railway from Russia to Iran has to go through our country. As a matter of fact, Azerbaijan has no direct economic interest in the North-South Transport Corridor project. Geopolitically, not only do we have no need for it, this project actually creates new threats for us. But we had little opportunity to oppose it, so we had to accept it. I think that Pakistan also appreciates this, because it does not object to our involvement in a project that runs counter to its strategic interests and does not cut its military assistance to us.
Although the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway project is not theoretically new, its launch should be viewed in the context of the geopolitical confrontation of the above projects. The foundation of this project was laid in 2007.
What was the approach of the great powers, especially the West and Russia, to this project?
In the first part, I tried to explain our country’s strategic disadvantage due to its geographical location. I stressed the importance of the railway through Georgia for gaining a sustainable, safe and cheap access to the sea. In the second part, I tried to show the place of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway in the geopolitical confrontations in other regions, in the context of the transport networks being built there. In the third part, I want to take you on a little walk down the history lane to explain how transport projects with unclear economic benefits can be important in a geopolitical confrontation. I hope that this explanation will change the perspective of those skeptical of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. I will also try to show the possible role of the great powers interested in our region and our country in this context.
There is an approach called “Fashoda syndrome”, the name given to France’s foreign policy choices regarding Britain. Fashoda was a town between Egypt and Sudan. In 1898, France sent a small expedition there. Once the group took up station there, larger forces were to follow. The goal was to block the access to the Indian Ocean for Britain, who controlled the Suez Canal. This has long been France’s policy. The same policy was pursued in the Strait of Gibraltar: Britain in the north (south of Spain), France in the south (Morocco). Britain, who, of course, knew this, sent to Fashoda an army that was much larger and stronger than the French expedition. Britain then expressed its strong diplomatic protest to France and threatened it with a war. France tried to resist at first, threatening back that the Russians would also go to war against Britain, referring to the Franco-Russian military alliance. But Britain did not back down: well aware of the Russians’ transport problems (which had been known since the Crimean War), they were convinced that Russia would not join the war. After the Russians indeed said that they would not join the war, France had to withdraw its troops from Fashoda. That solved the problem—for Britain. For the French, it was a great disgrace (at least this is how they saw it). This is why the “Fashoda syndrome” is sometimes called the “Fashoda complex”. After this incident, France pursued the same policy in Britain-related issues (I will explain this policy later). What can all this possibly have to do with the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway? Take it easy, our walk down the history lane is not over yet.
After Fashoda, France realized that it would not be able to take on Britain on its own, and that Russia’s transport backwardness made it (Russia) an unreliable ally. Immediately after the Fashoda standoff, the French General Staff proposed to the government that railway networks should be built in the areas of Russia that were of strategic interests to the French, with France allocating the funds and directly controlling the construction. They began to take the same approach against Germany, but that is another story. What concerns us here is the role of Russian railways in the Franco-British geopolitical confrontation.
Russia was in dire need of money. It asked Britain, Germany and the United States, but neither lent money to Russia, so France took the opportunity to offer Russia a hefty amount. They had one condition— Russia would build railways where France wanted them. Russia needed its own railways, but the directions specified by the French did not suit Russia’s economic interests. Sergei Witte, Russia’s finance minister at the time, opposed borrowing from France under these conditions. Still, Russian military circles managed to persuade Tsar Nicholas II to accept France’s offer. France lent Russia 450 million francs and demanded a railway line from Orenburg to Tashkent. Russia agreed. The French General Staff drafted the project and supervised the construction work. Why? Again, for Russia, this railway line was of no economic benefit. Why did France need this railway?
This route was important for France’s geopolitical confrontation with Britain. Once the railway was finished, Russia would be able to transport about 200,000 troops from its central provinces to its remote southern borders (Tashkent) in a short time. And from Tashkent, those troops could easily get to Afghanistan, where the British troops were stationed. The British force there was not large, so it would not be able to resist the army that the Russians could bring. When Britain learned of the plan, it tried to obstruct it, but it was too late. Russia borrowed funds from France and began the construction of the railway. Britain now had to reckon with France, tempering tempered its policy against it and then concluding a military alliance with it—against Germany. Russia was also in that alliance. Thus, France got what it wanted. It was able to force Britain to reckon with itself and get over the Fashoda disgrace.
France has not been ashamed of the Fashoda incident for a long time now (and it happened over a hundred years ago anyway). But the incident did not go unnoticed. In short, the so-called “Fashoda syndrome” means that France cannot leave Britain to its devices anywhere in the world. In other words, wherever Britain goes, France must go. For example, France must invest in the country where Britain invests, France must open a school in the country where Britain opens a school, and so on.
Now we are getting back to the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. If you follow the news, you must have read that in recent years France has taken a serious interest in our railway infrastructure (including metro and tram), investing in it, selling us locomotives and cars, building a depot. Why? I think it is because of the “Fashoda syndrome”. Britain invests in our pipelines, so France invests in our railways. There are other projects, but they are of no interest to us in this context. Yes, France did not pay for the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. Nobody did, we funded it on our own. But other investments made by France in our railway infrastructure will also benefit the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. Essentially, if the West wanted, it could block the railway. The West did not want to help directly, so as not to hurt Armenia’s feelings, so to speak, among other reasons, but it clearly did nothing to stop it either. French investments are an example.
Of course, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway is not as important for France as the Orenburg-Tashkent railway was. However, this railway is aligned with several strategic interests of the West. The North-South Transport Corridor is neither in our strategic interests nor in the West’s. But this transport corridor was built because we could not stand against Russia and Iran on our own, and because the West was involved in other things. In this context, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway can partially prevent the risks the North-South Transport Corridor poses to both us and the West. In fact, if we take a purely geopolitical approach, even from a military point of view, it would be more accurate to call this railway “Kars-Tbilisi-Baku”, because it allows Turkey to transport its or NATO troops here from Turkey. Given the US intermarine security strategy (Intermarium), the Kars-Tbilisi-Baku railway will be essential for creating a security zone between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Hence Russia’s and Iran’s lack of enthusiasm, to put it mildly, about this railway and their attempts to prevent its construction.
Therefore, although we do not know what the economic benefits of this railway will be, its strategic (including military) potential is obvious. Our enemies see this even more clearly than we do, because they are vigilant and never leave us alone. Thanks to them, we are finally wide awake as well and, of course, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway was undoubtedly built against Armenia.