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In this section, we publish the weekly analysis of the major events taking place in the Caucasus and beyond. The Caucasus Update is written by our Senior Editor Alexander Jackson. Click here to subscribe.

The Times reported on December 13 that, in the next two months, NATO will begin transporting supplies to Afghanistan through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Alliance officials, unsurprisingly spearheaded by the US, have also allegedly been planning a supply route through the Caucasus, across the Caspian Sea and through Turkmenistan onto Afghanistan. The new routes will reduce NATO’s reliance on routes through Pakistan, which have come under heavy attack from Taliban militants in recent weeks.


This shift is more significant than its limited media coverage would suggest, for a number of reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, it signals that NATO is now back to business with Russia after the Georgian war. The EU and the OSCE have returned to normal dealings with the Kremlin in recent weeks, quietly dropping objections to its continued military presence in Georgia. The deteriorating security situation along the Pakistani supply routes, and President-elect Obama’s determination to launch a ‘surge’ of up to 30,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan, have compelled NATO to follow suit and go back to the negotiating table with Russia. For Moscow, allowing supplies to be routed through its territory is a small price to pay to put the Alliance in its debt, especially since it is ultimately in the Kremlin’s interest to have a stable Afghanistan. An agreement was initially struck at the Bucharest summit in April, but has not yet been implemented due to negotiations with the Central Asian states.

Secondly, the possibility of the so-called ‘Central Corridor’ is a signal that NATO still requires the co-operation of Caucasian states to support its operations, despite its rapprochement with Moscow. It also marks a major development in that co-operation, which has previously been limited to airlifting supplies. Road and rail transit provides a much more durable and continuous link. Rail transit would link both Georgia and Azerbaijan to the alliance to a degree previously unknown. For Tbilisi, this would be a convenient informal security guarantee against further Russian attacks: Moscow would not be willing to bomb infrastructure routes and bases in a country through which NATO equipment was passing. Alongside a proposed bilateral security pact with Washington, news of which leaked this week, the NATO transit agreement would shore up Georgia’s security and rebuild Western support, which had faded after the war with Russia.

For Baku, the link would be a tacit sign of support against Armenia and a re-affirmation of the West’s interest in Azerbaijan’s strategic location. Nonetheless, President Aliyev is apparently cautious on signing the deal, which reflects his concern that such engagement with NATO would undermine his balanced foreign policy. Unlike Georgia he has refused to commit to eventual NATO membership and has denied US requests for military bases in the country. It is reasonable to assume that he will back the plan once assured that neither Russia nor Iran will vocally oppose it.

Turkmenistan has been part of the logistics corridor to Afghanistan since the Bucharest summit, which President Berdimuhammedov attended: NATO supplies are airlifted to Afghanistan via bases in his country. Expanding into a rail or road transit link carrying more supplies, is nonetheless a qualitative as well as a quantative shift. It would mark the first time that equipment for a foreign military force would be moved across the territory of this secretive state (rather than merely airspace) since the fall of the USSR. Since shipping more supplies will require upgrading road and rail networks, the agreement will also lead to Western assistance for infrastructure plans. Along with interest in Turkmenistan’s contribution to the Nabucco gas project (see Caucasus Update, Issue 13), this marks what could be the next stage of close co-operation between Ashgabat and the West.

Excluded from the possibility of a transit agreement, due to its isolation by the US and the wider international community, is Iran. The Islamic Republic is already unhappy about American forces to its west, south, and east. A formalized supply corridor running across its northern border is further cause for concern, especially since Iran repeatedly pressured Azerbaijan to refuse US forces basing rights there. Of course, the supplies being delivered via the Central Corridor are nonmilitary in nature (according to public sources), and there is no real threat from NATO, whose European members have no interest in fighting Iran and are in any case overstretched by Afghanistan.  Fears will nevertheless be raised in Tehran that Washington is using the corridor as a cover to store military supplies in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Similar suspicions may be behind President Aliyev’s cautious approach to the deal. NATO’s Deputy Secretary General, Claudio Bisogniero, visited Baku on December 16, where he expressed appreciation for Azerbaijan’s support of NATO’s Afghan mission. This suggests that one purpose of his visit was to encourage Baku into extending that support.

If the Northern and Central Corridors prove successful, and if the dire security situation in western Pakistan does not improve soon, they will become an entrenched part of NATO’s Afghanistan strategy. This will bind the Caucasus and Central Asia to the Alliance more than ever before and make the success of the Afghanistan war conditional upon their co-operation, as well as on the dynamics of the wider relationship between Russia and the West. All of this, of course, leaves Russia with one more card to play through its position in the Northern Corridor. It threatened to block NATO material from transiting Russian soil after the Georgian war, although the corridor was not yet up and running. If it chose to do so once the route was fully operational, the result would be a crippling logistical jam for NATO as the majority of supplies were re-routed through the Central Corridor. It is quite conceivable, in this situation, that Moscow would put heavy pressure on Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to suspend their involvement. This would raise the stakes between NATO and Russia to dangerous levels.

The new routes are politically risky, logistically taxing and place the Alliance’s Afghan mission at Moscow’s mercy: directly in the case of the Northern Corridor, indirectly in the Central Corridor. But it could also be an opportunity to open up the Caucasus and Central Asia to greater co-operation with NATO, and allow the Alliance to begin building a long-term presence in the region. Whether this opportunity can outweigh the costs of relying so heavily on the Kremlin is another matter. But without a drastic improvement in the security situation in Pakistan, NATO has few other options.

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