Moscow has increased the size and activity of its flotilla on the Caspian Sea and the readiness of its Gyumri base in Armenia over the last several months. Russian officials say this development reflects concerns about instability in Syria and Iran, but it also appears to transform those forces from the tripwire they have been over the last two decades into a capability to play a larger role both in the South Caucasus and more generally.
Russia’s Southern Military District (MD) announced last week (January 5) during a press conference that commanders had increased the number and intensity of drills at the Gyumri base and that Moscow has continued to expand the size and capabilities of its Caspian Flotilla. Specifically, the MD press office said that uniformed personnel at the base in Armenia had increased their target practice times by 25 percent over the year before, a significant intensification given the shortage of funds for such activities that many Russian units now experience (www.regnum.ru/news/fd-abroad/armenia/1610633.html).
At the press conference, officers added that the Caspian Flotilla had been enlarged over the last year by five surface combat vessels, including two capable of launching rockets and a third capable of deploying helicopters, as well as two support ships. That expansion is continuing with a new corvette having been added to the force in the last month alone as well as with the announcement of plans to add landing craft and a floating harbor and repair ship over the next several years (rusnavy.com/news/navy/index.php?ELEMENT_ID=16633).
Both the Gyumri base in Armenia, which has more than 3,000 Russian military personnel, and the Caspian Flotilla are protected by the CIS air defense center at Kaputin Yar in Astrakhan oblast and are integrated into the Collective Reaction Forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) of which Armenia, but not Azerbaijan or Georgia, is a member.
In reporting these developments, the Regnum news agency suggested that they should be viewed within the context of “the complex military political situation in the Near East as a whole and around Syria and Iran in particular.” It added that these moves “testify to the intention of Moscow to strengthen its positions in the Trans-Caucasus [sic] given the background of growing risks and challenges connected with the destabilization” of the broader region.
Three Russian comments on these developments provide some additional context. First, Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies and a member of the Russian defense ministry’s public council, notes that Russia has taken these steps to remain in “the lead” militarily across the region. With the assistance of the United States and Israel, Azerbaijan has been able to acquire some highly advanced systems on both land and water. But the focus of Baku’s land forces remains the Karabakh dispute with Armenia, and US-Israeli support is about Iran, not about Russia (valdaiclub.com/defense/41620.html).
The second of these, Konstantin Sivkov, the vice president of the Moscow Academy for Geopolitical Problems, notes that the Gyumri base continues to be a subject of debate. He points out that “Turkey has overwhelming military supremacy in the region and Russia will hardly be able to stop an advance of Turkish forces” should Ankara decide to launch one. But such an attack would mean that Turkey would find itself in a state of war with Russia, something it clearly wants to avoid (www.pravda.ru/world/formerussr/other/18-10-2012/1131692-gumri-0/).
Sivkov adds that Moscow has a 25-year lease on the Gyumri base but does not pay rent. Whereas, in neighboring Azerbaijan, Moscow ended its use of the Gabala radar site this past fall because Baku insisted Moscow pay more. The reason for this arrangement, the analyst says, is that “Russia and Armenia are allies […] Russia will not fight for Azerbaijan but it will for Armenia” because the latter is part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.”
Thus, Sivkov continues, “the Russian military base on the territory of Armenia exists not only as a defense against Turkey” but also against Azerbaijan or even NATO forces standing behind Baku. Thus, the Gyumri base protects Armenia “equally” against both possibilities.
And third, Admiral Sergei Alekminsky, the commander of Russia’s Caspian Flotilla, points out that the Russian navy relatively closely cooperates with Kazakhstan, but less so with other littoral states. He adds that tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan, on the one hand, and between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, on the other, over security issues and oil deposits on the sea floor have intensified to the point that “there could be war” as a result.
Up to now, Russian forces on both land and sea in the South Caucasus appear to have functioned primarily as a tripwire intended to dissuade others from acting. But the growing size of the flotilla and the enhanced military preparedness of both it and the units at Gyumri mean that at least potentially, Moscow may be positioning itself to be able to deploy them for more forward reasons.