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Caspian: 'Militarization' Of The Sea -- Myth Or Reality?

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the four ex-Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan have undertaken the strengthening of their military capabilities in the Caspian Sea basin. Such steps, which would have remained unnoticed under normal circumstances, have sparked much concern given the absence of an overall agreement on the legal status of the inner waterway. Reports that Russia's Caspian Fleet will conduct unprecedented maneuvers in the area next month have revived speculations on the "militarization" of the Caspian Sea.

Prague, 10 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- At the close of a regional security summit held on 23-24 April in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, host President Saparmurat Niyazov stunned his audience by stating that he could "smell blood" behind the Caspian Sea.

Addressing his counterparts from Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Russia, the Turkmen leader urged them to settle their differences over the legal status of the landlocked waterway, believed to contain the world's third-largest hydrocarbon reserves, in order to avoid a regional conflict.

To many observers, Niyazov's words sounded like an overstatement. But on 25 April, Russian President Vladimir Putin made an announcement that seemed to confirm the Central Asian leader's claims.

During a stopover in the Caspian city port of Astrakhan on his way back from Ashgabat, Putin ordered the Russian military to arrange what he suggested would be the largest regional war games since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. He also pledged to allocate more than $300 million in the coming years to modernize Russia's Caspian Fleet.

The maneuvers, which are scheduled to take place next month, are expected to involve naval, ground, and air forces equipped with some of the newest weapon technologies. Units participating in this unprecedented show of force will practice search-and-rescue, antiterrorism, and antitrafficking operations, reportedly using live fire.

Putin said other littoral states would be invited to send representatives to the maneuvers, but so far only Azerbaijan has officially accepted the Russian invitation. It's still unclear whether Kazakhstan will participate, while officially neutral Turkmenistan has already turned down Putin's offer.

The planned Caspian maneuvers have triggered swift reactions in Iran, with official newspapers slamming "Russia's threatening tone" against its neighbors and President Mohammad Khatami cautioning against an arms race in the region.

Yet, reports say Tehran has recently deployed 38 new gunboats in the sea's southern sector, thus apparently contributing to what is commonly referred to as the "militarization" of the Caspian.

These reports, as well as others, that say that Russia is currently deploying a new missile system on the Caspian Sea shore and recently moved several gunboats from its Baltic and Black Sea fleets to the Caspian Fleet, could not be independently confirmed.

The scale and purpose of the so-called "militarization" of the waterway -- or, as Russia's "Vedomosti" financial daily on 26 April phrased it, "the renunciation of the idea of demilitarizing the Caspian Sea" -- remain unclear and have given rise to much speculation.

Defense analysts argue that despite the assistance offered by the United States to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan to build up national fleets, the military capabilities of these two countries remain somehow limited. The same goes for Turkmenistan, although Ashgabat claims to have recently acquired a number of Ukrainian speedboats and is reportedly considering purchasing Russian-made gunboats in return for natural gas.

Of all the Caspian littoral states, military experts note, only Iran has enough military strength to match Russia, which inherited the bulk of the Soviet armed forces after 1991.

Sanobar Shermatova is a Central Asia and Caucasus expert at the "Moscow News" weekly newspaper. In an interview with RFE/RL, she expressed doubts about the much-publicized "Caspian militarization." "I don't see any important step being taken to militarize [the Caspian]. I am talking here about 'militarization' per se. On the surface, yes, there seems to be something going on. For example, there is this Russian Caspian Fleet. But it seems to me that nothing serious has been really made to strengthen it. Maneuvers will take place there soon, but I have the impression that it is rather a show of force to remind [other countries] that Russia still has a naval force in the Caspian," Shermatova said.

To prove her case, Shermatova argued that escalating tension could prove counterproductive while all five Caspian states are trying to reach an agreement on how to divide the sea, although prospects of an overall understanding on this sensitive issue look rather dim regardless.

Gennadii Chufrin is the vice director of the Moscow-based Institute of World Economy and International Relations, or IMEMO. He also agreed that it is premature to describe the Caspian as a militarized area, although he told our correspondent that all five littoral states should remain extremely watchful not to let what he described as a "dangerous display of military force" deteriorate.

"So far, I would say that there is a clear tendency [in the Caspian region,] to boost defense spending and to develop armed forces. It is not a 'militarization' in that sense that we have not yet witnessed a process that would have gone too far and that would pose a serious threat to peace and security. But to leave these tendencies unnoticed would be extremely dangerous," Chufrin said.

Somehow echoing Russia's official viewpoint, Chufrin said the ongoing military buildup, which under different circumstances would have been innocuous, is particularly explosive given the littoral states' inability to reach an agreement over the legal status of the waterway.

"To me there is absolutely no doubt that a sovereign state should have its own armed forces. However, the problem is that in the Caspian region, armed forces are currently being built up or strengthened -- depending on which state we are talking about -- while the legal issue [of the sea] has still not been solved. What should be considered a border? What should be considered territorial waters? What should be considered an economic zone? Whereas, in the northern part of the Caspian, Russia and Kazakhstan have found a rather acceptable solution to these questions, the problems that exist in the south between Azerbaijan and Iran, and between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, are, I believe, approaching a dangerous stage," Chufrin said.

Talks between Iran and the four new independent states that have emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union have dragged on for nearly a decade, preventing the rapid development of the Caspian natural resources.

Azerbaijan, notably, is entangled in a legal dispute with both Turkmenistan and Iran over ownership rights to several oil fields. On 23 July last year, an Iranian warship illegally entered Azerbaijan's territorial waters to chase an oil-exploration vessel out of a disputed area, raising fears that the two countries would sever diplomatic ties. The Iranian move drew fierce protests from the U.S., which soon afterward presented Baku with two gunboats.

Iran strongly opposes a Russian proposal to leave the Caspian waters for common use while dividing the seabed into national sectors proportionate to the size of each country's coastline. That option would leave Iran with the smallest Caspian share. Arguing that it enjoyed ownership rights over half the waterway before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tehran seeks a minimum 20 percent share of the sea for itself and rejects the common-waters formula.

On 13 May, Russia and Kazakhstan agreed to divide up the northern part of the sea and to develop jointly three major oil and gas deposits there. Ignoring Iran's claims that such bilateral deals have no legal force, Moscow and Baku are working on a similar agreement that should have been signed when Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev visited St. Petersburg yesterday. But the signing ceremony was postponed, officially for lack of clarity in the wording of the document.

The conclusion of bilateral agreements among all four former Soviet republics that Moscow is pressing for would eventually leave Iran isolated on the Caspian scene.

Moscow and Tehran have developed friendly relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is best seen in the technological aid offered by Russia to complete Iran's Bushehr nuclear-power plant and the flourishing military cooperation that exists between the two countries.

Russia considers Iran as a potential counterweight to Turkey's influence in the South Caucasus, while Tehran sees in its cooperation with Moscow a way to offset the policy of containment imposed by Washington on the Islamic Republic.

Yet, when it comes to its interests in the Caspian area -- a region it considers its backyard -- Moscow, Shermatova believes, is ready to place its relations with Iran on the back burner. "This goes exclusively for the Caspian. [In Moscow's view,] there is no point in isolating Iran completely, as the United States wants. It is just that, for Russia, it is much more important to reach an agreement [on the Caspian] with its neighbors. Russia is much more keen to reach an agreement with them than with Iran," Shermatova said.

Mohammad Reza Djalili is an Iran expert at the Geneva-based Graduate Institute for International Studies. He told our correspondent that he sees three main explanations to Tehran's growing isolation: its insistence on refusing to reach a compromise over the maritime borders, its hard-line stance toward the U.S. and, finally, Russia's own Caspian policy.

"The Russians have progressively changed their policy regarding the Caspian. Prompted by the desire to protect their national interests, they have stopped their initial support to Iran on this issue and, now, the Iranians are left with no means of exerting pressure on the Russians. They cannot leave the Russians and ally themselves with the Americans -- since the latter are being compared to the devil -- whereas, for the Russians, this kind of problem does not exist. They can find a common language with the Iranians and they can find a common language with the Americans, even more so with the Americans. When they believe cooperation with the Americans is more profitable, they choose the Americans over their cooperation with Iran, which for them is only relatively profitable," Djalili said.

Although Moscow and Iran are not in the best period of their relations, they nonetheless remain tied by a series of common interests. Iranian armed forces still rely heavily on Russian military supplies and both countries should open soon a new Caspian transport line between the city of Olya, on the Volga delta, and the northern Iranian port of Enzeli.

Accordingly, regional experts believe that Putin's decision to beef up the Russian military presence in the Caspian should not be seen as a warning to Tehran, as Iranian leaders seem to believe. Rather, it should be viewed as part of Moscow's overall strategy in the neighboring Caucasus region, where Russian troops have been trying to quell Chechen separatism for nearly eight years. Although Chechnya does not border the Caspian, the neighboring autonomous republic of Daghestan -- which serves as a rear base for separatist fighters -- has a maritime front.

Some analysts believe Putin's announcement could also be seen as a response to the recent dispatching of U.S. military advisers to Georgia, a country that has maintained thorny relations with Russia since 1991. The American instructors have been officially tasked to train the Georgian army in antiterrorism operations, but the decision is generally seen as being part of broader U.S. geopolitical plans.

"With the landing of U.S. troops, it has become clear that Georgia could one day or another become a springboard for NATO. Preparations are going on to that effect in Georgia. Should that happen, the North Caucasus and the Caspian regions would turn into some kind of southern flank for Russia, which would have to protect its maritime borders the same way it protects its land borders. Georgia has played a role in Russia's decision to reinforce its southern military district [which includes the North Caucasus] and, probably, in its decision to reinforce the Caspian [Fleet] as well," Shermatova said.

Djalili also believes what he describes as "military gesticulations" in the Caspian basin are not necessarily linked to the division of the sea. He said that, "the Caspian space is no longer a place where only local conflicts could break up," adding that, since 11 September, the region must be seen in a broader geopolitical context.