Since 1991, two key questions have dominated discussions of the fate of the Caspian Sea: First, how will it be divided now that there are five littoral states rather than two, as was the case in Soviet times? And second, will this landlocked body of water be an east-west transit bridge between China and Central Asia in the east and Europe in the West, or a north-south route for the projection of Russian power toward Iran and the Middle East? Both of those issues are now heating up as a result of three important moves on this complex chessboard that, as of yet, are still incalculable in their consequences.
First of all, the United States and Kazakhstan have agreed that Washington can use the Caspian ports of Aktau and Kuryk as transit points to supply US forces in Afghanistan. Several Moscow-based experts have criticized this arrangement, asserting that it will de facto transform those ports “automatically into bases of the Pentagon and its allies.” To the extent that happens, this agreement by Astana has “destroyed the architecture of Caspian security,” Viktoriya Panfilova of Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote on April 24. According to her, the US-Kazakhstani accord sets the stage for heightened great power competition in the Caspian, its littoral, as well as in the countries of Central Asia through which US materiel will pass (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 24).
Astana views this development as coming out of Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s successful visit with his US counterpart, Donald Trump, a meeting that capped at least five years of talks between the two governments, the Moscow journalist says (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 24). But many in Moscow are worried the agreement will increase Washington’s role in the region and may even—on the basis of US assistance—lead to the formation of a Kazakhstani flotilla that could challenge Russia’s own naval presence in the Caspian (Versia, April 22).
Most Russian commentators regard this as a US provocation in an area where Moscow should have a droit de regard, although they are generally dismissive of its immediate practical consequences. Aleksandr Sobyanin of the Center for Traditional Cultures, for example, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta, that “Kazakhstan’s current shift toward the side of the US bears an anti-Russian format but on the whole does not threaten Russia’s interests,” at least now. But if the United States deploys military personnel to these Kazakhstani ports, that would be an entirely different matter, he contended (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 24).
Aleksandr Vorobyev of the Institute of Oriental Studies agreed, but he believes that Astana views the accord as giving it commercial transit advantages as well as ensuring that it can “count on a strengthening of ties with the US and support from the American leadership on a number of other issues that are important for Kazakhstan.” Consequently, this latest agreement should not be viewed in isolation from a more general challenge to Russia’s interests.
But a third Russian analyst, Aleksandr Knyazev, who specializes in Central Asia and the Middle East, maintained that the agreement between Washington and Astana will have immediate and negative consequences. “Under the current conditions of American-Russian and traditional American-Iranian conflicts, this [new US] presence will generate anger both in Moscow and in Tehran,” he said. And that, in turn, will make it far less likely that any agreement will be reached about the delimitation of the Caspian and its oil-rich seabed, Knyazev concluded.
The second major development complicating Caspian regional dynamics occurred earlier this month, when Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced Moscow was shifting the home base of its Caspian Flotilla from Astrakhan, at the northern edge of the sea, to Kaspiisk, Dagestan, some 400 kilometers away, toward the central section of the sea. He also announced that the number of officers and sailors assigned to this flotilla will “be increased” and its already modernized fleet upgraded further to allow it to do things like fire cruise missiles toward Syria from near its base rather than after sailing for some hours (Pravda.ru, April 2; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com), April 3). Viktor Murakhovsky, the editor of the military journal Arsenal Otechestva, argued that Astrakhan, because of problems with the Volga delta there, is hardly ideal as a base: in wintertime, ships are sometimes delayed in putting out to sea when ordered. The situation in Kaspiisk is much better, and the Flotilla will be able to respond immediately Pravda.ru, April 2.
That technical detail certainly played a role in this decision, but there are at least hints that perhaps three other domestic and foreign policy developments may have been even more important (Svobodnaya Pressa, Chernovik, April 2; Kavpolit , April 3). Specifically, the move represents both a vote of confidence in President Vladimir Putin’s new man in Makhachkala (see EDM, October 13, 2017; February 28, 2018) and provides the central government with additional forces to use to intimidate him or others in the North Caucasus; it gives Russia even more leverage to block or, in the event of a crisis, quickly destroy east-west pipelines under the Caspian (see EDM, April 5, 2018); and it provides new content to Moscow’s desire to have as much de facto control of the Caspian and, indeed, to restore the pre-1991 division of the sea between itself and Iran, something that the other littoral powers have been challenging (see EDM, November 7, 2017).
Finally, the third big regional news story involves Turkmenistan, which is preparing to open a new Caspian seaport on May 2—one that will be able to handle far more east-west trade than ever before. This development promises to strengthen the role of Azerbaijan and Turkey in Central Asia while posing yet another threat to Russia. That trend was underscored at recent conferences in Baku and Ashgabat about the increasing role of sea-based logistics in the geopolitics of the region (Turantoday.com, April 14; 1news.az, April 23).
These three moves—one involving transit, a second highlighting the projection of Russian power, and a third opening the way for expanded east-west trade—thus set the stage for the intensification of conflicts on the Caspian, which are likely to become more serious because outside powers are now far more directly involved.