MACRO ADVISORY: Great Game 3.0: The Politics of Rail

MACRO ADVISORY: Great Game 3.0: The Politics of Rail
Central Asia has long been Russia's stomping ground, but with the huge geopolitical changes underway today, Moscow is being increasingly challenged by Turkey and China. / bne IntelliNews
By Chris Weafer of Macro-Advisory in Moscow October 25, 2022

Russia and China are the dominant trade and investment partners for Central Asian countries. Moscow is more active in the political and security spheres, while China has liberally dispensed loans for industry and infrastructure projects. But their dominance in the region is now being challenged by Turkey and Iran. Both have stepped up their engagement with all governments across the region and have ambitious trade expansion programmes. The fast-expanding rail networks, as well as the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have created a more favourable backdrop for Ankara and Tehran to pursue their ambitions and extend their influence all the way to the Chinese and Russian borders.

The description Great Game was originally coined by Rudyard Kipling in his novel, Kim. But by the time he had immortalised the description of geopolitics in Central Asia with “Now I shall go far and far into the North, playing the Great Game” (October 1901), the 100-year competition between Great Britain and Russia for power and influence in the region was coming to an end. Colonialisation by the Bolsheviks, from the early 1920s to the end of the Soviet Union 1991, excluded all others from the region and put in place the trade and political infrastructure which sustains Russia’s influence today.

Great Game 2.0 arguably played out between Russia, newly emerging China and the United States from the early 1990s with Moscow’s declining influence creating space and opportunity for Beijing and Washington. That phase ended abruptly in August last year, when Nato forces scrambled to exit Kabul. For sure neither the United States nor Europe are abandoning interest in the region, but without a close border and a now tainted political legacy, neither will be a major player for a long time, at least.

We can now talk about Great Game 3.0. When the conflict in Ukraine ends, or becomes less intense, Moscow is expected to shift its geopolitical focus to Central Asia as part of its long-held ambition to establish Eurasianism as a political and cultural ideology and to expand trade partnerships. It will have nowhere else to go. China, now with a third-term President Xi, is expected to be much more assertive, even aggressive, with its efforts to expand political and trade ties with the 'Stans. So far, Beijing has used its financial arsenal and soft diplomacy to expand across the region but Xi is anticipated to change that to be more openly political and to expand military co-operation.

Turkey has long had the ambition to have a major voice in the Caucasus and Central Asia. It was one of the founder members of the Turkic Council, set up in 2009. Ankara saw this as a vehicle to help it extend its influence across the region and acted accordingly, i.e. openly political. That approach had only limited success as Central Asian countries were wary of replacing the Soviet Union with another colonialising country. In late 2021 the name was changed to the Organisation of Turkic States (OTS), an effort to make it an organisation representing the interests of countries with Turkic heritage. The member states are Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey and Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan is expected to abandon its aversion to membership of any such organisation and to formally join the OTS at the summit in Samarkand on November 11. Ankara offered an inducement to President Serdar by agreeing to end the visa-free travel for Turkmens. There are an estimated 300,000 Turkmens in Turkey, which Ashgabat accuses of being dissidents or members of opposition groups, and many will have to leave when the visa requirement is introduced.

However, it is Iran which is making the greatest effort to take advantage of the rail expansion, Russia’s need for new development and trade partners, and the diversification policies of regional governments. Tehran has long held an ambition to forge broader trade links with Russia and Central Asia. In 2018 it signed a temporary trade deal with the Eurasia Economic Union (EAEU), a deal with allows 80% of the goods traded to be tax and tariff free. It is expected this arrangement will be made permanent in Q1 next year. On the back of this, Tehran has agreed new bi-lateral trade deals, or declared the intention of substantially increasing trade with all the Central Asian states over the next twelve to twenty-four months. The EAEU also allows Iran access to other countries which have, or are progressing, favourable trade deals with the trade body. The list includes Uzbekistan, India, Egypt, Thailand and Vietnam.

Apart from the legal agreements, it is the expanding rail and road networks which give substance to these and future trade deals. Just as railways opened so many trade routes in countries such as the United States, India and in Africa in the past, this is now happening across Central Asia.

China is funding most of the big transport infrastructure projects in the region. But while previously it focused on European destination routes transiting through Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus, now it is funding rail projects that transit through Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan with connections through Turkmenistan and, later, via Afghanistan. The Turkmenistan route, the so-called Middle Corridor, compliments the Kazakh route to bring cargo to the eastern Caspian Sea shore and, from there, to Baku and then to either Georgia’s Black Sea port of Batumi or, via Kars, to Turkey and the Mediterranean Sea. This route also now allows a connection to Iran, either via the expanding Caspian Sea ferry traffic or by connecting into the newly opened International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC), a railway line connecting St. Petersburg with the India funded southern Iran port of Chabahar.

China is also planning to build a direct rail link to Chabahar, where it will gain more direct access to the Indian Ocean, East Africa and (politics allowing) to India. The first shipment of goods along the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan-Afghanistan road-and-rail route took place in late September. This route will be upgraded to a faster and cheaper all-rail route with the construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) line. The agreement to finally start construction of this link was signed by the respective countries during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Samarkand in September. The issue blocking the extension of this route to Chabahar is the threat made by the radical Islamic group, ISIS-Khorsan Province (ISKP), which has promised to attack any project aimed at modernising Afghanistan. Until that threat is removed, the rail link cannot happen.

Tehran (and Kabul) is also a keen participant in the so-called Lapis Lazuli Corridor which runs across Afghanistan, Turkmenistan (connecting with Iran routes), the Caspian, Azerbaijan, Georgia and to Turkey. The route is partly developed (mostly roads in Central Asia and rail across the Caucasus) but with plans for upgrades also to southern Iran and connecting with the INSTC. The European Union is also pushing ahead with a rail project, backed with money from Brussels, to connect EU capitals with Central Asia, Iran and Turkey via Ukraine and the Black Sea. The TRACECA project currently has thirteen member states and overlaps with other major rail lines, such as the INSTC and the Middle Corridor via Turkmenistan.

Moscow is not directly involved in most of these transport projects. But it is keenly promoting the Caspian Sea transport hub (connecting ports in southern Russia) and is a partner with India and Iran in the INSTC. Russia is additionally expected to ensure it “stays in the game” with energy subsidies for the ‘Stans. From early December, the EU will ban imports of most crude and all oil products from Russia. Moscow is expected to divert a lot of this oil to its southern neighbours on favourable terms. It also recently agreed a deal with the Taliban to supply crude, diesel and other products on what has also been reported as “favourable terms”.

But it is again Iran which is benefiting from Russia’s need for new partners and because of its geographic positing. Gazprom and Iran’s NIOC signed a $40bn deal to develop the Kish and North Pars gas fields, although the reality is that work will be slow, as Gazprom does not have the required metallurgical supplies due to sanctions and no Russian supplier can yet make the necessary high-alloy grade metal (it previously came from Japan). Gazprom is also set to be involved in the building of new pipelines, and upgrading existing gas routes, from Iran to Pakistan and to Oman.

The big prize for Tehran may come from Moscow’s ambition to substitute Europe with gas sales to India and to Pakistan. Rather than joining Turkmenistan’s TAPI project (also stalled due to the Afghanistan security threat), Moscow and Tehran are thought to be discussing a gas swap which would take Russian gas down a trans-Caspian gas line to Northern Iran and then swapped for a similar volume near Chabahar for onward export to India and Pakistan. The advantage for Iran is it would get a substantial volume of gas near the Turkish border and, with the planned gas transit hub, an opening to the European market to replace Russian gas. European consumers would end up buying more expensive Russia gas rerouted via Iran and in Turkey.

Apart from the fact there is a larger number of participants, Great Game 3.0 will also be different from the two variants that went before for another critically important reason: the Central Asian countries are no longer passive participants. When Tajikistan’s President Rahmon recently said in front of President Vladimir Putin that “We have always respected the interests of our main strategic partner. We want respect, too," he was speaking for the other Central Asian states or, at least, voiced what they have all been thinking. Tajikistan, like Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, no longer need to kow-tow to either Moscow or Beijing. They have more options, and every new railway expands that list.

Christopher Weafer is Chief Executive of Macro-Advisory Limited, the leading independent Eurasia focused strategic advisory firm, which was founded in 2013. Prior to founding Macro-Advisory, Christopher served as the Chief Strategist for Sberbank, the largest financial organization in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. He has worked in the Eurasia region for twenty-five years, with his experience in Emerging Markets spanning forty-five years. Details of the services offered by Macro-Advisory can be found at