One of the most important energy and transport corridors for Europe is Turkey and the South Caucasus. This region has sat on a crucial geographical and cultural crossroads that has proven strategically important for military and economic reasons for centuries.
But in the early 20th century the region’s importance increased for Europe.
In 1906, the region’s first pipeline was completed, connecting Baku on the Caspian Sea with Batumi on the Black Sea. More than 100 years later this pipeline, measuring a mere 20 cm in diameter, has been replaced with a modern network of natural gas and oil pipelines with the potential of connecting the heart of Asia with Europe.
This year marks a series of important milestones for transit and economic activity in the South Caucasus – making the region even more important for Europe’s security.
Important year for transit
Last week construction started on The Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP). The TANAP pipeline will run 1,850 km from Azerbaijan to Turkey. It will then link up with the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP). Construction for TAP also started this year and once completed will run from the Turkish-Greek border to Italy via Albania and the Adriatic Sea.
Both the TANAP and TAP are expected to be completed by 2018 and will link up with the existing South Caucasus Pipeline (which connects Turkey to the Azerbaijani gas fields in the Caspian Sea, through Georgia). Together, all three pipelines will form the so-called Southern Gas Corridor.
Not to be outdone, Russia announced in earlier this year that its South Stream project is cancelled and will be replaced with a so-called Turkish Stream pipeline. This new pipeline will supposedly bring Russian gas across the Black Sea to Turkey to then link up with TAP. Already 10,000 oil tankers a year pass through the Turkish Straits and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline brings oil from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. It is debatable if Turkish Stream is even affordable, but if it is built it will help reaffirm Turkey’s desire to serve as a regional energy hub.
The mentality in the Kremlin is: if Europe is not buying oil and gas from Russia, then it should not be getting it from anywhere else.
Not only pipelines
It is not only pipelines that are being constructed.
Kars-Tbilisi-Baku railway, the modern day successor to the Transcaucasian Railway, is expected to be finished this year. Initially, the railway will move one million passengers and some 6.5 million tonnes of freight each year between Turkey and Azerbaijan via Georgia.
In the near future, capacity is expected to reach 15 million tonnes of freight and 3 million passengers each year. This is a huge number of passengers equivalent to moving the entire population of Armenia by train.
Turkey is also in a process of modernising a number of internal railways to accommodate high-speed trains. This will better connect central Anatolia to ports on the Mediterranean Sea in a way never seen before.
Already, a new high-speed railway connects Istanbul with Konya in only four hours 15 minutes, compared to 13 hours before. Last year, a new high speed train line between Istanbul and Ankara was opened, which cut journey times in half.
2015 is also an important year for the Caspian Sea, as it is likely that an agreement will be reached on delineating ownership of its waters.
Agreement on the Caspian Sea
Europe desperately needs oil and gas from Central Asia but the only way to bypass Russia and Iran is through the Caspian Sea. The idea of a Trans-Caspian pipeline has not become reality because there has been a long standing disagreement between countries with a Caspian shore on delineating ownership of the Sea.
As current technology and gas prices allow, a pipeline is the only economically viable option to move gas across the Caspian Sea. Transporting natural gas as Liquefied Natural Gas is only profitable after 2,000 km or more and the distance between Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan to Baku, Azerbaijan is only 270 km. So clearly, LNG transport is not a realistic option.
The success of these future pipelines and rail networks depends on the security situation in the region. It is in Russia’s interest, from both an economic and geo-strategic standpoint, that the South Caucasus remains unstable. This is one of the reasons why conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia will not be resolved anytime soon. The mentality in the Kremlin is: if Europe is not buying oil and gas from Russia, then it should not be getting it from anywhere else.
It is important that Europe encourages the development of this new “Steel Road”. It stands to benefit greatly from investment opportunities and alternative sources of energy from the region and beyond.
Considering Russia’s willingness to use energy resources as a tool of foreign policy, this could not come at a more important time for Europe.
Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States army.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.