n the fluid global order, initiatives to implement cooperation, exchange of resources and synergies are relevant. The triangulation between Russia-Iran-India is a fact and a pressing necessity, especially for Russia and Iran, the most sanctioned countries in the world. The strengthening of the International North-South Transport Corridor could implement that triangulation. The multimodal North-South corridor is 7,200 km long and makes it possible to reduce costs and times for goods transportation if compared to the passage through Suez. According to estimates, the North-South could double the volume of goods from the current 17 to 32 million tons. Furthermore, over the past year, the reveal of the corridor has grown. So, this project opens geopolitical repercussions, making Asia autonomous and integrated for the first time.
The advantages of the corridor in pills:
1. Reduction of dependence on Suez.
2. Time and cost reduction.
3. Alternative route for Indian goods to Central Asia bypassing Pakistan.
4. Iran is once again a median crossroads.
5. Breaking the isolation and circumvention of sanctions for Russia.
6. Complete integration of the region around the Caspian Sea as a new global hub.
Bandung (1956), Belgrade (1961), Johannesburg (2023)- Materialisation of the Grand Idea
Rather recently on these very pages, the IFIMES researcher Dr. Maria Smotrytska – while marking the 60th anniversary of the inaugural, Belgrade conference of the Non-aligned Movement (NaM) (Aug-Sep 1961), recalled the famous argument of prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic ‘No Asian century without pan-Asian multilateral settings’ which was prolifically published as policy paper and thoroughly debated among practitioners and academia in over 40 countries on all continents for the past 15 years. Then and there, Smotrytska was revisiting and rethinking the professor’s very argument, its validity and gravity in retrospect.
Hence, she noted “Today Eurasia is the axial continent of mankind, which is home to about 75% of the world’s population (see Map 1), produces 60% of world GDP (see Map 2) and stores three quarters of the world’s energy resources (see Map 3) [Shepard, 2016]. In these open spaces, two giant poles of modern geoeconomics are being formed: European and East Asian, which are tearing the canvas of the familiar geographical concept of “Eurasia” and at the same time providing opportunities for new synthesis through the construction and connection of transcontinental transport arteries.”
Past the historical Johannesburg gathering of BRICS, with the “unprecedented (post-) Maastricht-like deepening (institutions’ building) and widening (massive enlargement with 6 either robust demographics or/and economies – hence larger than any of the EU /or for that matter NATO/ enlargements ever) – this grouping is the best living example of the grand idea of Tito, Nehru and Nasser’s postulated active and peaceful coexistence that came to life in Yugoslavia in 1961” – as professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic commented the 15th BRICS Summit.
How the active and peaceful coexistence is materialising itself without confronting but rather by complimenting the existing world order?
The Global Disorder and the Euro-Asian Synchronization
Rise, decline, marginalization, or collapse are inevitable stages in the life cycle of empires. Political power always tries to reverse the decline, but power transfer is a historical constant. The disappearance of power leads to the emergence of a new one capable of organizing space. In the VI Canto of Paradise, the poet Dante – Emperor Justinian is speaking – uses the metaphor of the eagle flying “against the course of heaven” to depict the transfer of power from Rome to Constantinople, the “new Rome”.
Nowadays, an irreversible power relocation has begun, even if there is not a precise gravitational centre. Indeed, the global order is archipelagic and “fluid”, as the Financial Times noted recently. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a magmatic phase started, incentivizing new triangulations and alliances, sometimes alternatives to the West primacy. Of course, the United States remains the global technological and military pivot, and NATO remains the first military alliance, but it is undeniable that the balance is evolving.
The International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) involving Russia, India, and Iran (in total, 13 members) fits into this multipolar-evolving context. If integrally implemented according to plans, it would make it possible to reduce the supremacy of Suez, through which about 12% of global trade transits. This project will encourage a Euro-Asian synchronization and provide an alternative to the traditional Suez route exclusivity, reducing approximately 40% distance and costs by 30%, as claimed by Silk Road Briefing.
Infrastructures have a substantial role in the growth and decline of power. The case of the Suez Canal is emblematic: it interrupted the complex circumnavigations and restored the centrality of the Mediterranean. For this reason, powers aspiring for a hegemonic role invest in infrastructural networks: China with the “Belt and Road”, while Russia and Iran with the Corridor. As a result, the project is fraught with enormous geopolitical implications.
The World Island and Russian Scramble for Warm Seas
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the great Anglo-Saxon geopolitical strategists –Mackinder, Spykman, Lea – asked themselves the problem of how to counter the rise of the gigantic Euro-Asian empires located in the Heartland and their expansion to the critical fault line of the Rimland. In The Day of The Saxon (New York Harper, 1912), Homer Lea warns of the risks of integration between Euro-Asian powers, such as Russia and Germany, as evidenced by the Berlin-Baghdad railway project.
The Anglo-Saxon thalassocrat powers – the authors argued – could not withstand the impact of such vast empires, with young and numerous populations set off for industrial and infrastructural development as well as with boundless natural resources. For this, it is essential to control the Rimland and try to hold back the momentum of the empires, fighting one at a time: once Russia, once China. The containment policy against the Russian giant also derives from these reflections.
They were well-justified fears. At the time, Russia, which had already become a protagonist on the European scene since the Napoleonic wars, had expanded into the Caucasus and Central Asia, had significant rates of economic and demographic growth also thanks to the Trans-Siberian railway and the consequent colonization of Asian Russia. The Czars also aimed at the seas, the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean. For this reason, Crimea has historically been crucial in Moscow’s strategies.
Analyzing the complex geographical composition of the Euro-Asian mass in The Geography of Peace (Harcourt, Brace, 1944), Spykman notes that the seas arranged in an arc all around has facilitated the development of the coastal areas, while the more inland areas have always remained disconnected and without reliable communication routes; this prevented full integration. As a result, communications almost always took place with sea routes. However, there are infrastructural interventions that can break the setback of geography.
The Russia-Iran-India Triangulation
The war led the Western world to sever relations with Moscow. However, as evidenced by the growth of the European import of Russian LNG, it is nearly impossible to disconnect Russia from a fully integrated global economic system. For example, during the Cold World, Charles Levinson in Vodka Cola (Gordon and Cremonesi, 1977) highlighted a similar situation: the interdependence between the two opposing blocks – he also envisaged a hybridization in a more authoritarian sense.
Nevertheless, compared to the twentieth century, Russia is no longer an “ideological lighthouse”, no longer commands the Warsaw block, and, after the dissolution, has been increasingly marginalized. As demonstrated by the bloom of private military companies, the Russian State does not have a monopoly on military force. In any case, Russia has found and is developing effective alternative channels to come out of isolation.
First, the Russian-Chinese integration is already a reality: trade could reach a value of about 200 billion dollars by the end of 2023. Furthermore, China is a privileged end market for Russian resources, but Russia is also a relevant market for China that could compensate for the loss of shares in Taiwan and the United States with Russia.
Last but not least, after a long period in which the mutual value trade has not exceeded 10 billion dollars, in just one year the exchange between Russia and India has reached a record high of 44.4 billion; as a result, Russia is now the fifth largest trading partner. Trade between India and Russia has grown in the last year thanks to the International North-South Transport Corridor, which makes it possible to reduce logistics times from around 40 days to about 25. So, India is investing a lot in the corridor and reached an agreement for the Iranian port of Chabahar. This port is located about 790 nautical miles from Nhava Sheva and Mumbai.
The Geo-Economical Relevance of the Project
A comparable and particularly profitable route already existed a while ago. The United States, England and Canada created a corridor, the so-called “Persian Corridor”, during WWII to transfer military aid to the USSR: over 4 million tonnes of cargo passed through the forerunner of the North-South Corridor.
After the capitulation of the European powers, the USSR had to withstand an overwhelming shock force and was initially forced to retreat. As the Soviet military and industrial complex came into full swing, the corridor, especially in its initial stages, had a greater importance than is generally attributed. The corridor was the only reliable channel to support the USSR as the Nordic and Arctic routes towards Murmansk and Archangel were controlled by the Nazis.
After decades, the project was relaunched in the early 2000s and is listed as a priority by the countries’ governments. The corridor responds to the needs of the three major players involved: access to the Indian Ocean and the Gulf for Russia interrupting isolation, internal infrastructural strengthening for Iran – the country will become a pivotal crossroads of rail, road, and sea routes – and projection towards Central Asia for India bypassing Pakistan, which has become a key-country for China.
In addition, the initiative also has beneficial effects for all the other regional players: the former Soviet republics, Azerbaijan – the port of Baku is becoming an increasingly important hub (over 6.3 million tonnes of cargo in 2022) – and Armenia, but also the Gulf countries, which are now the protagonists of a cautious and attentive policy to redefining the balance.
Current forecasts predict the doubling of freight volumes from 17 million tons per year to 32 million in 2030. The completion of the project would also lead to a shift of the trade and transit axis towards the heart of Central Asia.
Therefore, the North-South Corridor has enormous potential, but there are many unsolved problems. First, complete the infrastructural works in unison, modernize often-outdated infrastructure sections, and finally complete additional complementary interventions, as in the case of the Volga-Don Canal, which could strengthen trade between the Caspian Sea and the Sea of Azov.
This canal is crucial in Russian Iranian commercial exchange: an estimated 35 merchant ships passed through the Volga-Don passages in 2021 (annual average), but this number grew to 50 in 2022 (42% more). However, despite the growing importance of global trade, the intermodal capacity of the ports on the Caspian Sea is still limited, while the interconnection between ports and railways in Iran is still lacking, but the two partners are willing to invest.
Finally, it is very complex to scratch the supremacy of Suez, especially after the doubling. The data show constant growth: from 2011 to 2016, over 16 thousand ships passed through Suez, while in 2021, over 20 thousand (more than 56 per day), as reported by the Suez Canal Authority (SCA). In 2021, about 1.27 billion tons of cargo were shipped through the canal. Therefore, Suez and Panama remain the fundamental facilitators of modern navigation.
In the already mentioned The Geography of Peace, Spykman highlighted some gates or obligatory passages – the so-called “Gates to the Heartland” – potentially dangerous for “world peace”, from which the Russian giant could try to get out. In his vision, the gates are the Arctic route (the ancient Pomor Trade), the Crimea, central European plains, Caucasian passes, the Khyber Pass. Preventing access to Russia at these points is a guarantee of peace; if not, there may be repercussions.
The northern road remains accessible for Russia even if less safe after Finland entered NATO; precisely, the war against Finland (1939-1940) finished with the conquest of the Karelia region and the Rybačij Peninsula to protect Leningrad and Archangel ports. The post-1989 NATO advance has made Russian penetration towards central Europe almost impossible for Russia. Finally, Russia returned to the war to protect the Crimea and the Azov Sea, now a “Russian inland sea”; moreover, in recent years, Russia has appeared in Syria and the Sahel.
In conclusion, by implementing the International North-South Transport Corridor, always following Spykman’s vision, which represents a route that crosses the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, Russia is finding a way to break the isolation up, reaching the “gates”.
If this would be one of the world’s best concretisations of the grand Bandung and Belgrade ideas of our times, the following year will show us.