The Russia–Ukraine war and subsequent collapse of Russia–West relations have negatively impacted supply routes passing from Asia to Europe via Russia. Politicians, experts, economists and transport companies started to look for alternative transport connections to continue cargo movement between Asia and Europe. Perhaps the most discussed route is the “Middle Corridor,” which envisages trade between China and Europe via Kazakhstan–Caspian Sea–South Caucasus–Black Sea or South Caucasus–Turkey.
The idea of a “Middle Corridor” has been circulating since 2013 as a potential additional route within the Chinese “Belt and Road” initiative. The first step was taken on November 7, 2013, when as part of the II International Transport and Logistics Business Forum “New Silk Road” in Astana, the leaders of JSC “National Company” Kazakhstan, CJSC “Azerbaijan Railways,” and JSC “Georgian Railway” signed an agreement to establish the Coordination Committee for the development of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route. In February 2014, the Coordination Committee for the Development of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route was established to increase the flow of goods to the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route. Two years later, in December 2016, the participants of the Coordinating Committee for the Development of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route – Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia – decided to establish the International Association “Trans-Caspian International Transport Route.”
Within the program, several infrastructure projects have been realized, including the Baku–Tbilisi–Kars railway, which was opened in October 2017, the renovation and expansion of the Baku International Sea Trade Port, as well as the establishment of the Alat Free Economic Zone in Azerbaijan. Baku International Sea Trade Port is currently the most developed structure in the Alat settlement. It has a throughput capacity of up to 15 million tons of cargo, including 10,000 twenty-equivalent units (TEU). The port will ultimately be able to handle 25 million tons of cargo, including 500,000 TEU.
However, despite all these investments, many doubted that the ‘Middle Corridor” could compete with transporting Chinese goods to Europe via the Kazakhstan– Russia–Belarus route. It was too complicated and envisaged the passage of cargo via railway and sea lines, crossing many state borders with different customs regulations. It seemed that the “Middle Corridor” would always have a secondary role behind the Russia–Kazakhstan–Belarus route. However, the war in Ukraine significantly impacted the supply chains through the Eurasian landmass. As the passage of transit goods from Russia/Belarus to Europe becomes highly complicated, the “Middle Corridor” suddenly becomes a viable alternative for European and Chinese logistic companies. Since 2022, the development of the “Middle Corridor” has become one of the critical topics in the EU negotiations with Azerbaijan and Central Asian republics, in particular, Kazakhstan. The EU puts significant emphasis on this route, viewing it as a way to boost its economic relations with China. China also started to look to the “Middle Corridor” with growing interest as an alternative and viable route to reach Europe, circumventing conflict-affected Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
The primary focus has been on infrastructure development along this new route, including establishing new border crossings, upgrading existing ports and railways, or constructing new ones. However, one significant aspect is missing from ongoing debates about the launch of the “Middle Corridor” – the geopolitics and stability of the South Caucasus as the primary transit route for the new corridor. Regional stability will play a decisive role in bringing the project to life. No international freight, logistics or insurance company will agree to implement large-scale cargo transportation through the unstable region.
In this context, the ongoing negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan on signing a peace treaty and finding a long-term solution to the Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) conflict will significantly impact the possible success of the “Middle Corridor.” After the 2020 Artsakh War, the region faced a new balance of power, with the increased role of Turkey, more assertive Azerbaijan and weakened Armenia. The war in Ukraine has shifted the focus of Russia from the region, making Turkey and Azerbaijan more aggressive in their policy. Meanwhile, as Armenia grapples with Azerbaijani coercive diplomacy, being under constant threat of new military aggression, the situation in Artsakh deteriorates daily, bringing the Armenian population of the region to the brink of actual starvation.
Azerbaijan wants to force Armenia to sign a capitulation and push the majority of Armenians from Artsakh, leaving few Armenians living there and using them as a showcase to prove to the international community that Azerbaijan is a tolerant country that respects the rights of ethnic minorities. Some outside the region may believe that this is a recipe for long-term stability, thinking within the concept of “no people, no problem.” However, this is a distorted logic. Armenia is indeed weak, the population is still reeling from the trauma of the 2020 war and many are afraid of a new war, and this mix creates apathy and indifference. Nevertheless, these conditions will not continue forever. Whenever it starts to change, Armenians inside and outside Armenia will seek revenge if the settlement of the conflict results in de facto de-Armenization of Artsakh and Azerbaijani and Turkish economic penetration into Armenia. Thus, if Armenia is forced to sign a capitulation, even if it is called a “peace agreement,” it will be a path to long-term regional instability and another Armenia–Azerbaijan war in the future, which definitely will negatively impact the prospects of the launch of the “Middle Corridor,” regardless of the fact that it will pass only through the Azerbaijan–Georgia or if the Azerbaijan–Armenia route will be utilized, too. Thus, any external player which is serious about the “Middle Corridor” as a long-term geostrategic project connecting China with Europe, should be cautious to prevent the humiliation of Armenia during the ongoing Armenia–Azerbaijan negotiations.