Ukraine’s ‘Great Game’ surfaces in Transcaucasia

A ‘Great Game’ is afoot in the Caucasus and Central Asia with Russia gaining an advantage due to recent developments in the Ukraine war. The Western powers have belatedly entered the scene too

July 21, 2022 by M.K. Bhadrakumar
Caspian summit
Presidents of Russia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Iran and Kazakhstan (clockwise from left) took part in the 6th Caspian Summit, Ashgabat, June 29, 2022.

If the metaphor of the “Great Game” can be applied to the Ukrainian crisis, with the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) at its core, it has begun causing reverberations across the entire Eurasian space. The great game lurking in the shade in the Caucasus and Central Asian regions in recent years is visibly accelerating.

The edge of the game is above everything else the targeting of Russia and China by the United States. This unfolding game cannot be underestimated, as its outcome may impact the shaping of a new model of the world order.

Starting with the Caspian Summit in Ashgabat on June 29, the inter-connected templates of the great game in the Caucasus began surfacing. The fact that the summit was scheduled at all despite the raging conflict in Ukraine — and that Russian President Vladimir Putin took time out to attend it — testified to the high importance of the event.

Basically, the presidents of the five littoral states — Kazakhstan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Russia — synchronized their watches, based on the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea — the Constitution of the Caspian Sea — that was signed at their last summit in 2018. While doing so, they considered the current international situation and geopolitical processes worldwide.

Thus, one of the key points of the Final Communiqué of the Ashgabat Summit was the reiteration of a fundamental principle regarding the total exclusion of the armed forces of all extra-regional powers from the Caspian Sea, which primarily meets the geopolitical interests of Russia and Iran.

The fact that the heads of the Caspian countries confirmed this in writing can be regarded as the main result of the summit. Secondly, the leaders focused on the Caspian transport communications and agreed that the region could become a hub for the East-West and North-South corridors.

The Caspian Summit was held just five weeks after Russian forces gained control of Mariupol port city (May 21), which established its total supremacy over the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait in eastern Crimea. Kerch Strait has a strategic role in Russian policies, being the narrow maritime gateway (5 km in length and 4.5 km. wide at the narrowest point) which links the Black Sea via the Sea of Azov to Russia’s major waterways including the Don and the Volga.

In effect, it is yet to sink in that in the geopolitics of the entire Eurasian landmass, the liberation of Mariupol by Russian forces was a pivotal event in the great game, since the Kerch Strait ensures maritime transit from the Black Sea all the way to Moscow and St Petersburg, not to mention the strategic maritime route between the Caspian Sea (via the Volga-Don Canal) to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

United Deep Waterway System of European Russia
United Deep Waterway System of European Russia linking Sea of Azov and Caspian Sea to Baltic Sea and the Northern Sea Route.

Now, to get the “big picture” here, factor in that Volga River also links the Caspian Sea to the Baltic Sea as well as the Northern Sea Route (via the Volga–Baltic Waterway). Suffice to say, Russia has gained control of an integrated system of waterways, which connects the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea to the Baltic and the Northern Sea Route, which is a 4,800 km long shipping lane that connects the Atlantic with the Pacific Ocean, passing along the Russian coasts of Siberia and the Far East.

No doubt, it is a stupendous consolidation of the so-called “heartland” — per Sir Halford Mackinder’s theory (1904) that whoever controls Eastern Europe controls the Heartland and controls the “world island.”

Looking back, therefore, there is no question that the reunion of Crimea with the Russian Federation in 2014 was a major setback for the US and NATO. Putin caught Washington and its allies by total surprise. It complicated their objective to integrate Ukraine into the NATO.

The US was caught unawares for the second time when in the early days of the current special military operation, when all Western eyes were trained on the Kiev region, Russian troops captured the highly strategic southern city of Kherson as early as on March 2. The significance of it was understood only by those who could perceive the great game unfolding in Ukraine as something much more than a mere military conflict. (Most Americans still don’t get it.)

The capture of Kherson in early March practically spelt doom for the NATO’s design to extend its military presence in the Black Sea basin. Today, the game is practically over for the US and NATO, once Russia took control of the entire basin of the Sea of Azov. Russia now de facto controls the access of Dniepr to and from the Black Sea. And Dniepr happens to be the main river way for Ukraine’s transportation links to the world market.


To the immediate east of the Kerch Strait is Russia’s Krasnodar region, which extends southwards to Russia’s largest commercial port on the Black Sea, Novorossiysk at the cross-roads of major oil and gas pipelines between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. In sum, control of the Kerch Strait gives Russia a big say with regard to the transportation routes linking Western and Eastern Europe to the Caspian Sea basin, Kazakhstan and China. Put differently, this part of the Russian special military operation becomes an integral part of Moscow’s Eurasian project linking up with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Washington has belatedly understood that Russia has outwitted the Western alliance and gained the upper hand in the great game in eastern Black Sea region. So, the Western strategy towards the Caucasus and Central Asia is being reworked. The NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg scheduled a meeting in Brussels today with the foreign minister of Azerbaijan Jeyhun Bayramov.

Importantly, Bayramov also attended a meeting of the EU-Azerbaijan Cooperation Council today in Brussels. The EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell later said at a joint news conference with Bayramov that “Azerbaijan is an important partner for the European Union and our cooperation is intensifying.” Meanwhile, yesterday, the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited Baku to sign a memorandum of understanding with Azerbaijan on energy cooperation.

All this is taking place against the backdrop of Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, spearheading efforts to mediate between arch rivals Azerbaijan and Armenia. As part of the EU’s diplomatic efforts, Michel hosted in April a meeting in Brussels between Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev and Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan where the two sides expressed willingness to secure a peace agreement. Last week, the CIA Director William Burns paid an unpublicized visit to Yerevan in this connection. Evidently, Washington and Brussels are jointly strategizing a game plan to replace Russia and Turkey, which have hitherto taken the lead roles in Transcaucasia.

There should be no doubt that Moscow is watching closely the synchronized US-EU-NATO moves in the Caucasus targeting Azerbaijan with a view to undermine Russia’s consolidation in the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea regions, which poses a formidable hurdle to the advancement of the NATO strategies toward Central Asia and Xinjiang. This is a high-stakes game.

It will be recalled that on February 22, just two days prior to the launch of the special military operation in Ukraine, Putin hosted the president of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev in the Kremlin. They signed “a wide-ranging agreement,” the details of which were not divulged. The document is titled the Declaration on Allied Interaction.

Clearly, oil-rich Azerbaijan, which is not only a littoral state of the Caspian Sea but a gateway to both Central Asia and Russia’s Volga region, is destined to play a key role in the great game in the period ahead.

MK Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey. The views are personal.