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Caspian: Results Of Russian War Games Still A Mystery

  • Michael Lelyveld

The conclusion of Caspian Sea war games last week has brought little change to the region. Officials have cited both diplomatic and security goals for the show of Russian naval power, but reports suggest confusion over whether any were achieved.

Boston, 21 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- After two weeks of Russian war games in the Caspian Sea, the reasons for the maneuvers and the results remain matters of debate.

The naval exercises that ended on 15 August drew widespread initial coverage but far less attention as they came to a close. Reports suggest little agreement on the outcome of the operation, which was said to be the largest in the Caspian during either Russian or Soviet times.

Despite the display of power, it is unclear what Moscow's maneuvers achieved. Official statements have been fragmentary or at odds. There are also signs that the event failed to advance either diplomatic or security goals.

During preparations last month, analysts focused on Moscow's motives for assembling some 60 ships and 10,000 troops in waters where oil projects have so far taken precedence over arms. President Vladimir Putin called for the exercises after a summit of Caspian leaders collapsed in April, sending the message that Russia hoped to push its neighbors into solving their decade-old border disputes.

But confusion reigned over the objectives, in part because Russian officials listed so many. The exercises were variously said to be aimed at preventing terrorism, drug smuggling, oil spills, and poaching of sturgeon. Some officials said the mission was to safeguard shipping, secure a new north-south transit corridor, or coordinate search and rescue at sea.

As the event unfolded, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov cited conflicts in Chechnya and Georgia as reasons to increase security, although neither has previously triggered a Caspian naval response. The only maritime incident of any significance took place in July 2001, when an Iranian gunboat chased two Azerbaijani research vessels from a contested oil field. By comparison, Russia's neighbors in the Caspian are seen as lightly armed.

In the absence of other problems, planners worked to create other plausible threats. Ivanov reportedly witnessed the disarming of "terrorists" who stormed a drilling platform. Kazakhstan's armed forces, who joined with their own war games, devised a scenario in which Chechen rebels who had fled Russia took control of a nuclear-power complex in the Mangistau region to blackmail the government, Kazakhstan's Khabar television said.

Among the five shoreline states, Azerbaijani elements also participated. Iran sent an observer, while Turkmenistan refused to take part. Both Iran and Turkmenistan have rejected Russia's formula for a post-Soviet division of the Caspian, creating an impasse that the war games seemed designed to break. Without a legal division, oil contracts remain theoretically open to challenge, while some disputed resources cannot be developed at all.

The success of the many missions was hard to judge, in part because reporters were barred from the exercises or sent to the wrong sites, the Russian daily "Kommersant" complained. Some who did glimpse the action gave unfavorable reviews. The Russian paper "Rossiiskaya gazeta" criticized the military hardware because tanks arrived freshly painted but without enough armor to protect them from attacks, repeating a deadly mistake made in the first Chechen war.

"Kommersant" described Tatar President Mintimer Shamiev as "very upset" that the new Russian frigate named for his region could not perform as planned after its masts were removed to sail under bridges on the Volga.

The measures of success were also obscure. Russian Admiral Vladimir Kuroedov told journalists on Friday that helicopters had removed 10 kilometers of poachers' nets during maneuvers, Interfax-AVN Military News said. Some 760 kilometers of nets have been found so far this year. But in a briefing for Putin, Ivanov said that "no poachers were spotted in the Caspian's northern part."

Contradictions followed the conclusion of the event. Although the official RIA-Novosti news agency quoted Ivanov as saying that he "would not rule out" a Caspian security grouping with Kazakhstan, the country's defense minister, General Mukhtar Altynbaev, told Interfax that there is "no urgent need" for such a force. On Kazakh television, Altynbaev noted that the government had not allocated any budget for the Caspian operation.

Iran's observer, Admiral Mohammed Dehqani also said his country would stage its own Caspian war games next year, according to Interfax. But the official Iranian news agency IRNA cited a government spokesman, saying no such decision had been made.

Russia's signals toward Iran have been a central controversy in the maneuvers, while their disagreement over how to divide the Caspian goes unresolved. On 31 July, RIA-Novosti cited a 1924 Soviet treaty with Iran as a premise for barring its combat ships from the Caspian. It is now unclear whether that prohibition has been dropped or whether Moscow intends to raise it again.

If Putin's plan is to mix diplomacy with military measures in the Caspian, the region will now await the next move by either Russia or Iran. But so far, the results appear murky, and there are few signs that security has been improved.