Moscow promotes naval cooperation between Caspian states to exclude others
When the five Caspian coastal states signed a maritime delimitation pact in August 2018, they further agreed not to allow any outside power to play a military role in this landlocked sea (RITM Eurasia, August 14, 2018). But in the three years since the agreement was adopted, the geopolitical situation in the region has changed for a variety of reasons: namely, Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia last year, growth of the navies of the riparian states (see EDM, May 28, 2020 and June 24, 2021), the development and reorientation of exchanges between Caspian ports (see EDM, May 23, 2017 and April 6, 2021), as well as the growing involvement from Turkey and China (see GED, October 16, 2020; TRT, February 23, 2021). In response, Russia has taken three important steps to promote cooperation between itself and the other four states around the Caspian to ensure that outside powers, especially Turkey and China, continue to be excluded.
The first of those steps has been a gradual effort by Moscow to expand ties with Iran, as Tehran shares Russian concerns about growing Turkish influence in the region. These efforts have included increased government-to-government exchanges and increased contacts between experts and scholars from both countries (see EDM, February 25).
Russia’s second and third milestones are more recent, more spectacular, and underscore the extent to which the Russian government views Caspian naval cooperation for its broader geoeconomic and geopolitical goals. In August, Russia completed the rebasing of its Caspian Sea flotilla from Astrakhan in the north to Kaspiysk and Makhachkala in Dagestan, nearly 400 hundred kilometers further south, allowing it to project electricity into the region much more easily than before (Caucasus Post, August 28).
Last but not least, Moscow took the lead in late summer military maneuvers and a naval competition with three of the other four Caspian coastal states (Turkmenistan did not participate due to its policy of neutrality) in the off and off the coast of the Iranian port. of Enzeli. These events aroused great interest in the media of the four countries (RITM Eurasia, September 16; Tengri news, August 31).
Russia’s own Caspian Flotilla remains the dominant naval force on the Caspian; however, it is no longer the only force that matters. Not only did the other four riparian states – Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan – quickly develop their own navies, but several of them, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan in the first place, cooperated with the China and Turkey in a way that some fear in Moscow could tip the scales against Russia in the Caspian region. At a minimum, Russian officials fear that at least one of the riparian states will allow these powers to play a role in the Caspian Basin that was supposed to have been prevented by the August 2018 agreement. Turkey’s shipbuilding as well as China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in particular, make Russian concerns understandable, especially since its Caspian flotilla is far larger than all other regional navies put together, its ships are less modern and could therefore be at a disadvantage if outside aid were given to one of the other riparian states. In recent years, Moscow has strived to make its flotilla a more powerful force on the sea itself, in neighboring and more distant territories by launching cruise missiles from ships operating in this expanse of water and moving (via internal waterways) its Caspian Warships temporarily to the Sea of Azov (see EDM, May 31, 2018, June 7, 2018, July 17, 2018, December 4, 2018).
In Enzeli, ahead of the aforementioned summer exercises, Russian Rear Admiral Sergei Yekimov, Deputy Commander of the Caspian Flotilla, stressed the importance of naval cooperation between Russia and other riparian states, Iran in particular, for Moscow. The reason for organizing competitions and exercises off the Iranian coast, he said, is to develop cooperation and mutual understanding. He expects these exercises, which first took place a year ago, to become an annual event, something that will more closely connect the navies of the four riparian states to address all issues affecting the future of the Caspian (Radio Sputnik, August 31).
Russian coverage of the competition and exercises highlighted that such events were intended to reaffirm the August 2018 agreement that no non-littoral state will be allowed to introduce a military presence there. “Turkey,” in the words of a Russian military commentator, “as it is known, is not on the list of Caspian Sea countries and, therefore, it is quite logical that Russia and others participating countries will closely follow the military commitments of this NATO member [North Atlantic Treaty Organization]”Lest it violate their common commitment (Mil.ru, August 31).
Obviously, Moscow is sending a signal, a signal that Iran in particular wants to hear and welcomes. But Russia’s ability to ensure that its policies are followed is far less unassailable than it would like. With the exception of Tehran, the governments of the other four Caspian coastal states have their own programs both on the use of the sea itself and on cooperation with outside powers. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are working increasingly closely with China to develop East-West and Trans-Caspian trade, and neutral Turkmenistan was not even represented in Enzeli. Azerbaijan increasingly ties its future to Turkey, which has its own growing interest in projecting its power to Turkish countries across the Caspian. As such, Russia has cause for concern, and so Moscow’s latest moves are unlikely to be the last in this geopolitical game (Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, July 3).