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Russia: Are Moscow's War Games In Caspian Muscle Flexing?

  • Michael Lelyveld

Russia has cited a centuries-old precedent for this week's Caspian Sea war games: the military campaigns of Peter the Great. But the history lesson may not sit well with Iran, which lost control in the Caspian when the tsar's navy sailed south. This move raises questions about Moscow's latest message to Tehran.

Boston, 7 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russia has cited a troubling piece of history for Iran this week as it launched the biggest war games of the past decade in the Caspian Sea.

The Russian official news agency RIA-Novosti reported Monday that the maneuvers, planned since April, are being held on the 280th anniversary of the Persian naval campaign of Tsar Peter the Great.

The reference to Russia's invasion of the region in August 1722 appears to be a last-minute decision on the part of the Kremlin. It was never mentioned during preparations for the exercises over the past 3 1/2 months.

For whatever reason, Moscow has reached back in time to give the Caspian operation added significance.

"In honor of the tsar, the creator of the Russian Navy, a new town on the Caspian was named Port Petrovsk. Now it is Daghestan's capital Makhachkala," RIA-Novosti reported. It is also now a Russian terminal for Caspian oil.

Russian officials have given a long series of reasons for the war games, which involve some 60 ships and 10,000 members of sea, air, and land forces. The missions include prevention of terrorism, drug smuggling, poaching, and environmental damage, as well as security for shipping and oil. On 5 August, exercises were also staged "to protect the effluent treatment facilities of the town of Kaspiisk," RIA-Novosti said.

The Peter the Great reference may just be one more reason for holding the maneuvers, which were ordered by President Vladimir Putin immediately after a five-country Caspian summit in Ashgabat failed to break a deadlock on border disputes.

But the piece of Russian history is also Iranian, and the events of the 18th century may look less glorious from the southern point of view. The period was marked by Russia's expansion and its wars against the Turks, while Persia's Safavid Dynasty was fading away. The year 1722 saw a three-way assault on what is now Iranian territory from Afghans and Ottomans, with Russia close behind.

Fearing a Turkish invasion of Persia, Peter the Great mounted one of his own, taking the western and southern Caspian shores.

The two countries have been at odds over Russia's formula for dividing the Caspian in the post-Soviet period, with Moscow insisting on a sectoral split of the sea floor alone. Iran is seeking either common control or a 20 percent share, which is far more than its coastline would merit. Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have sided with Russia. Turkmenistan has its own plan, but it is believed to be blocking the isolation of Tehran.

Iran has made clear in the past that Russia's solution would give too much range to its navy, a concern that is likely to be on its mind again this week. Tehran has supported its case for an even share of the Caspian by citing Soviet treaties of 1921 and 1940 that dealt with Iran as an equal partner.

For whatever reason, Russia seems to have canceled or qualified Iran's invitation to join in this week's war games, citing another Soviet pact as the cause.

On 1 August, RIA-Novosti reported that Russia "declined" an Iranian plan to send four ships to the exercises. The news service said: "In compliance with the 1924 Soviet-Iranian Treaty, no men-of-war but Soviet ones can be deployed in the Caspian Sea. The USSR collapsed a long time ago, but this formula is still applicable. This is why Russia's southern neighbor, as well as Turkmenistan, [will] be represented at the exercise only by its observers."

The explanation makes little sense, considering that Turkmenistan is a former Soviet republic. Forces from Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are taking part. Iran has not confirmed that it asked to send ships, but months passed before it announced that even observers would take part.

Russia seems to be saying that if Soviet treaties are going to be cited, two can play at that game. But this week, Russian Deputy Natural Resources Minister Ivan Glumov argued against the treaties that Iran wants observed.

Glumov was quoted by ITAR-TASS as saying: "These documents are still valid though they have a limited force. The new Caspian states that emerged after the USSR's disintegration are guided exclusively by national interests in their approach to the use of Caspian resources." He did not explain why the treaty on warships should have more force.

There are signs that the rebuff to Iran was also a late switch. On 30 April, Russian Ambassador to Tehran Aleksandr Maryasov said that Putin had "invited representatives of all Caspian states to participate in the exercises as observers and also did not exclude the possibility of their direct practical participation in working out certain exercises' tasks."

The dispute over the division formula seems the most obvious explanation. In its commentary last week, RIA-Novosti wrote, "The Kremlin's hopes that the five leaders would manage to come to a mutual agreement on the Caspian Sea division never came true." It added, "This seems to be the reason why the Russian authorities decided to demonstrate not only the country's political and economic importance in the region, but also its military power."

Whether the idea of the historical reference came from the Kremlin or the military is hard to guess, but the message is unlikely to be lost on Tehran.

In the past week, Iran has been quiet about the exercise, although several press comments were critical after it was announced. Recent reports have focused on the broader benefits of relations with Russia, including its work on the Bushehr nuclear-power plant. On 6 August, the official Iranian news agency IRNA summarized the Caspian event, saying with some overstatement, "Observers from Iran and Turkmenistan are supervising the war games."

In the "Tehran Times," former Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Velayati said Russia was "trying to flex its muscles" in the Caspian. But he emphasized that Moscow was "trying to tell NATO," not Iran, "that the Caspian Sea is its own security zone and that they are not welcome there." More to the point is the meaning of Russia's message to Iran.