A China-Europe Rail Link Circumventing Russia Could Have Major Geopolitical Consequences

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 85

(Source: Forbes Georgia)

To buttress the country’s flagging economy, Moscow has counted on the Russian Federation being the primary transit route for Chinese goods being shipped to Europe. However, Beijing’s commitment to becoming the dominant player on the Northern Sea Route (The Barents Observer, June 7) as well as plans by Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan to develop a railway corridor linking China with Europe via their territories (Casp-geo.ru, June 4) both cast doubt on Russia’s expectations. Those expectations are also hampered by the degraded state of the Russian railway system, over which trains travel much slower than on newer tracks elsewhere. And this limitation is further exacerbated by the fact that shippers have to shift from the international standard rail gauge width and back again when they go into and out of the Russian Federation.

The Ukrainian, Georgian and Azerbaijani plan was announced at the end of May, during the Ukrainian Ports Forum. The proposed route will rely both on railways still to be constructed or modernized as well as on the use of ships between Central Asia and Azerbaijan and between Georgia and Ukraine. Yuli Lavrenyuk, Ukraine’s deputy infrastructure minister, told the group that Azerbaijan and Ukraine currently have sufficient shipping capacity both on land and on the sea to handle “about 80 percent” of what this transportation corridor could carry once completed. Hence the two maritime links are not the bottleneck some had feared and that Moscow had counted on to keep this plan from being realized (Zerkalo.az, May 31).

All three of the countries involved have long been interested in hosting transit routes for Chinese and European goods crossing the continent. Azerbaijan has developed an entire set of companies to link its rail system with that of Kazakhstan; Georgia has been promoting itself for more than a decade as the primary westward route for Central Asian hydrocarbons; and Ukraine has joined the International Association of the Trans-Caspian International Transportation Route to ensure that it can remain a player. All three are also interested in north-south trade along what has come to be called the South-West Corridor from India to Poland and view the east-west China route as yet another and potentially more important means to ensure their economic and political freedom of action from the Russian Federation (Casp-geo.ru, March 18, 2018).

Until recently, Moscow felt that it need not worry about these alternatives because of its political relationship with Beijing and because of economic difficulties in Ukraine and Georgia, if not in Azerbaijan. But now that has changed. On May 31, the Asia Development Bank (ADB) announced a major loan program to develop rail lines in Central Asia, something that will make the Azerbaijan–Georgia–Ukraine corridor far more likely to be developed—and completed sooner than most had assumed (Russian.news.cn, May 31). Not surprisingly, alarm bells have gone off in Moscow.

In a commentary for the Rhythm of Eurasia online portal, Russian analyst Aleksey Chichkin says that the new loan program not only will allow the development of the alternative corridor but could revive plans (dating back to 1991–1992) to unite Central Asia into a single bloc, and even lead to a revival and expansion of GUAM (loose political grouping of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova). Indeed, he says, Uzbekistan, which was a member of that anti-Russian organization between 1999 and 2006, might even be persuaded to rejoin. Were that to happen, GUUAM would be in a position to regionally challenge the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), especially if its economies were integrated by being part of a China–Europe transportation corridor and even more if other Central Asian countries were to become members. Thus a railway project China wants, Chichkin suggests, could transform the geopolitics of the post-Soviet space (Rhythm of Eurasia, June 4).

All these projects have antecedents that already failed, the Russian analyst admits; but now, “with the arrival of new leadership in Uzbekistan, the project of a common regional bloc has received a new impulse,” especially given the encouragement Washington gave to Tashkent in September 2017, at the United Nations, and during the Uzbekistan–United States summit in Washington last month. If the US is pushing for this in the current environment, it means, Chichkin suggests, prospects for both the rail link bypassing Russia and a new regional association challenging Moscow’s dominance in the post-Soviet space are far greater than many had assumed (Rhythm of Eurasia, June 2, 2018).

Perhaps the first victim of this development, Grigory Lukyanov of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics says, might be the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC), which Moscow has pushed as a regional, post-Soviet space alternative to expanded ties with the West and China. But if the rail corridor takes off and if GUAM revives, there is little reason to expect that the EAEC will be able to compete. Because the stakes are so high, Moscow can be expected to play up rivalries among these countries even as it presses ahead to make Russian rail the primary land route for trade between China and Europe.

One Moscow analyst, Asa Migranyan of the Institute for CIS Countries, is confident that differences among Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan and among the countries of Central Asia will give Moscow a good chance to delay if not kill the rail project and keep GUAM from revitalizing (Sputnik News, June 3, 2019). But in Chichkin’s view, such confidence now appears misplaced (Rhythm of Eurasia, June 4).