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Caspian Sea States On Course For Naval Arms Race

The Caspian Basin is growing in importance as a source of energy resources.
The Caspian Basin is growing in importance as a source of energy resources.
Earlier this month, representatives of the countries that surround the Caspian Sea met in Moscow to discuss divvying up its ample natural resources. The meeting broke up with all sides praising their desire for peace and cooperation.

If it were only so.

The reality is less encouraging. In May, the commander in chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, announced to a meeting in the coastal city of Astrakhan that Russia's Caspian Flotilla will be receiving at least 16 new ships by the end of 2020.

The flotilla, which already has 148 vessels, boasts the most powerful frigate in the sea, the frigate "Tatarstan." By the end of this year, he said, two new missile ships and three landing ships will join the flotilla. He also vowed that the government would soon provide Russia's Caspian fleet with new shore-based supersonic antiship missiles.

Russia's plans mark the latest episode in the militarization of the Caspian, which is either -- depending on whom you ask -- the world's biggest lake or the world's biggest inland sea. That definition, it turns out, is anything but academic. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the five countries that abut the Caspian -- Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, and the two Central Asian states of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan -- have been sparring over how to divide it up among them.

International law regulates countries' offshore control of maritime resources differently for lakes and seas, so the slice of the Caspian's rich energy resources -- estimated by some experts to be worth $3 trillion -- that goes to each country has much to do with which interpretation wins out.

Naval Arms Proliferation

Despite all the positive rhetoric, the latest conference in Moscow, officially known as the 29th session of the Caspian Working Group, demonstrated that the five countries are not that much closer to resolving the issue than they were after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. two decades ago. And that is inspiring some of them to seek insurance in the form of a heftier military presence.

After Russia, Iran is the second-largest power in the Caspian, with a force of 90 vessels in the sea. Tehran announced earlier this year that it intended to add another 75 missile ships to its fleet, to be built either in its Caspian shipyard or transported north from the Persian Gulf. In June, the commander of the Iranian Navy, Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, stressed Iran's determination to safeguard its interests in the Caspian: "We have full control over Iran's 20 percent share of the sea." Iran subscribes to the view that the sea should be shared equally between the five states.

Oil-rich Kazakhstan, meanwhile, is also trying to boost its maritime defenses on the Caspian. It has built a new air base in the western port city of Aqtau, which is also the headquarters of its nascent navy. Reports indicate that Kazakhstan is looking to buy patrol boats from South Korea and is building up its manpower by sending cadets to study in other countries, such as Turkey.

Azerbaijan has used its close relationships with Turkey and the United States to boost its naval forces. The country inherited a mere eight vessels from the Soviet Union, including a frigate and seven minesweepers, but over the last decade the Azerbaijani Navy has received 30 patrol cutters from Turkey and three motor boats from the United States. In addition, the United States has helped Azerbaijan to install maritime radars along its coast and establish a command-and-control center in Baku.

Turkmenistan, which so far has a minimal naval presence in the sea, is also using its good relations with Turkey to beef up its forces. A Turkish shipyard is building two fast patrol boats for the country. In 2010, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov announced the establishment of the country's first naval academy.

Energy Bridge To The World

Russia, however, is far and away the uncontested leader among the Caspian's budding naval powers.

Aleksei Vlasov, editor in chief of "Vestnik Kavkaza" and an expert on Caspian issues, says that, by boosting its naval power in the Caspian, Russia is trying to push other powers to get serious about finally coming to agreement on the sea's legal status. While Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan have reached mutual agreements on their sectors, there are still plenty of unsolved issues about control of the sea and its resources.

Russia is strengthening its position, he says, because "it is aware that in the next 10 to 15 years the Caspian Sea is going to become a bridge between the Middle East countries, former Soviet republics, and European states. Moscow is concerned that the dragging on of the discussion about the legal regime of the Caspian Sea can change the balance of power in the region. The main concern of Russia is the increasing presence of Western countries in the region."

U.S. military assistance to the Azerbaijanis and Kazakhs is only part of what is worrying the Russians. Western oil and gas companies like Chevron and BP have a strong foothold in the Caspian region. Russia has long held a monopoly over the pipeline networks that the countries of the region use to get their resources to market, but the United States and Europe, experts say, have had some success in building new export routes that lessen that dependence.

The stakes are high. Analysts say that between 2 to 6 percent of the world's oil reserves lie beneath the Caspian Basin. The sea also boasts 6 to 10 percent of the world's gas reserves.

Growing Russian-Iranian Rivalry

The other factor is rivalry between Russia and Iran -- a point belied by both countries' protestations of their special "strategic relationship."

According to Russian military analyst Vladimir Yevseyev, director of the Center for Public and Political Studies in Moscow, "Russia is worried by the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran is also trying to develop its military presence, and that is apparently the most important factor driving Russia toward militarization of the Caspian Sea. Russia is being dragged against its own will into an arms race that can lead at some stage to military conflicts."

Stephen Blank, professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Army War College, says that Moscow wants to "ensure that Russia is the strongest naval power in the Caspian and can impose its will, if necessary, on anybody and provide what it considers to be a roof over the [post-Soviet states].

"So in that sense it is a challenge to Iran. The Iranian government has been very aggressive in refusing to make progress on the Caspian Sea's delimitation. So this is an attempt by Russia to show that it will not be pushed around in the Caspian."

Russia, Blank says, is also doing its best to counter the U.S. assistance to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. But he warns that Moscow's determination to maintain its dominance in the region might sometimes have an opposite effect.

"The Russian neo-colonial, neo-imperial kind of approach is flatly in contradiction with the interests of both the post-Soviet states and the United States, which is why they want to have good relations with the United States to protect them against these kinds of threats," Blank says. "If Russia thought that it could have cooperation rather than exclusivity, I think we'd have it."

To be sure, there are some encouraging signs. On July 21, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev submitted an agreement on Caspian security to the Russian parliament for ratification. Known as the Security Cooperation Agreement, it commits Russia and the other littoral countries to cooperate on maritime security and on efforts to combat transnational threats like terrorism, organized crime, arms smuggling, illegal migration, and the drug trade. It was signed by all five presidents of the Caspian countries last November.

Those same leaders are scheduled to convene another summit in Moscow before the end of this year. If previous meetings are any indication, there will be much talk of the need for regional peace and stability. What remains to be seen is whether the states of the region can manage to match the rhetoric with the reality.

RFE/RL Radio Farda's Oksana Beheshti contributed to this report

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