May 20, 2024 | Real Clear Energy

Don’t Forget the Air Highways

May 20, 2024 | Real Clear Energy

Don’t Forget the Air Highways

While U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is focusing his remaining months in office on attaining compensation fees for U.S. air travelers, a much bigger threat to air travel and transport is emerging. The air highway between Europe and Asia is narrowing due to the conflicts in the Black Sea and Middle East. Following the exchange of fire between Iran and Israel, international flights between Europe and Asia constricted to a slender route above the Caucasus and Central Asia. The current  instability in Georgia and the accelerated peace process between Armenia and Azerbaijan are two potential tripwires that can affect the security of this critical air corridor. Washington needs to devote policy attention to the stability of the states along the Europe-Asia corridor in the Caucasus and Central Asia along this critical air corridor to guarantee it stays open to international flights.

Despite the ability of aircraft to change altitude and directions, international air travel is conducted along designated routes that are essentially highways in the skies. One of the busiest routes of air travel is the highway between Europe and Asia. This route  was significantly narrowed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, as carriers avoided the conflict zone, and Moscow blocked access to its skies to carriers from countries that had refused landing of Russian aircraft. The Israel-Hamas war and the Houthi attacks on the Red Sea, further constricted the flight zone. The flight route  significantly further narrowed the night of April 13th when Iran launched over three hundred missiles, rockets and UAVs toward Israel. Immediately following this massive attack and in anticipation of an Israeli counterattack, flights between Europe and Asia concentrated on a thin corridor above the Caucasus and Central Asia. Air carriers that did not use this route, were forced to divert flights to longer, and more fuel consuming lanes.

As a critical strategic route, multiple powers—especially Russia, Iran, China and Turkey—vie for influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus. This route is also an important energy transit corridor. Several recent developments in the region can lead to instability in the region and challenge the already narrow transport corridor between Europe and Asia. Take the emerging instability in the Republic of Georgia, a country which is a critical link in the Europe-Asia corridor. It is the only state along the route that is not landlocked, thus it is the gateway between global transportation and the states of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Georgia is also a critical node in the export route of Caspian energy to Europe and world markets. Two recent developments strengthen Moscow’s hand in Georgia: The Georgian parliament approved the Foreign Agents bill and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili formally returned to Georgian politics. This week’s passing of the Foreign Agents bill is also likely to set off rounds of protests in Tbilisi and potentially wide-spread instability.

The significant progress toward a peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia may elicit Russian and Iranian counteractions. In recent months, unprecedented progress toward a peace agreement between Yerevan and Baku has emerged and is likely to result in border delimitation between the sides and a peace agreement. Normalization between Armenia and Azerbaijan will lead to Turkey opening its border and direct trade with Armenia, and potentially to the opening of a road and rail route connecting Turkey to Central Asia and China, through the South Caucasus. The emergence of peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan will produce many benefits to the citizens of these states and can strengthen the position of the U.S. in the region. However, the end of the conflict will reduce the power of Russia and Iran over these states and the wider region. Accordingly, Tehran and Moscow may still take steps to undermine this peace process. These steps include supporting domestic opposition in Armenia to the peace process. Strengthening control over Georgia can also increase Moscow’s power over Armenia and Azerbaijan as transit through Georgia is critical to both these landlocked states. Thus, the recent steps to increase influence in Georgia may be linked to Moscow’s attempts to minimize the impact of the emerging peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Washington needs to take steps to ensure the stability and independence of the states of Central Asia and the Caucasus, which are located along the strategic air, land and energy corridor between Europe and Asia. First, the U.S. needs to recognize that Moscow “is not distracted” by the war in Ukraine and still able to take action in the region. If anyone is distracted, it is Washington that as subordinated its foreign policy to its needs in the upcoming elections. Second, Washington needs to evaluate developments in the region in tandem. Many are interconnected, while Washington tends to compartmentalize. Foreign actors often use the domestic political arenas in the states in the region to impose their will. Events in Georgia and the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process may be connected. Last, Washington must see the perseverance of the air corridor between Europe and Asia over the Caucasus and Central Asia as a strategic necessity and actively work to maintain it. To accomplish this, Washington needs to promote the independence and stability of the states along the route.

Prof. Brenda Shaffer is a faculty member of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, Senior Advisor for Energy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center.

Issues:

Energy Iran Iran Global Threat Network Russia U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy