In late August 2018, Russia’s Caspian Flotilla, in conjunction with aviation and coastal air-defense groups, carried out special exercises in the Caspian Sea to test a new tactical formation for detecting and neutralizing low-flying missiles or aircraft (Tvzvezda.ru, August 29). This exercise occurred only days after the heads of the five Caspian littoral states met and signed a Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea. Among other key points found in the Convention, the document approved Moscow’s aim of legally closing the sea to military forces of any non-littoral states—namely to the United States or other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Since the 19th century, Russia’s political and military elite have considered the Caspian Sea as falling within the Russian “sphere of influence.” And to ensure that Russia remains the main power in this basin, the country has sought to prevent a military presence of non-littoral powers in the Sea. After the collapse of the Soviet Union this problem has been a main issue for Moscow regarding the Caspian.
Despite Moscow’s habitually peaceful statements and its insistence on keeping the Caspian a conflict-free basin, over the past few years Russia has been conspicuously increasing its military presence there. The Caspian Sea is a valuable asset for the Russian military due to its location close to the Middle East and directly adjacent to the Caucasus and Central Asia. Moscow can and has used the Caspian Flotilla in its military operation in the Middle East and to further flex its muscles in the Sea of Azov (connected to the Caspian via an internal canal across southwestern Russia) (see EDM, November 2, 2017; June 7, 2018; July 17, 2018). In 2018, Marine Corps units of the Caspian flotilla received new BTR-82A armored personnel carriers (RIA Novosti, May 10). And under the GPV-2027 State Armament Program, the Ministry of Defense is developing an ekranoplan (a ground effect vehicle, or GEV, sometimes known as a “sea skimmer”), which will be able to carry missiles. The ekranoplan will be used to guard the Northern Sea route as well as patrol the Black and Caspian seas (RIA Novosti, September 8). Moreover, the defense ministry plans to complete the construction of a new home naval base for the Caspian Flotilla at the port in Kaspiisk (Republic of Dagestan) by 2020 (see EDM, June 4, July 17). The new base will be already able to receive the first warships by the end of 2018 (RIA Novosti, July 7).
On the eve of the fifth Caspian summit, an air task force from Russia’s Southern Military District (SMD) conducted joint exercises with units of the Caspian Flotilla. These forces trained how to destroy hypothetical enemy vessels (Izvestia, July 25). And several days after the signing of the Caspian Sea Convention, Russia’s Caspian Flotilla exercised new tactics involving special formations of reconnaissance ships and aircraft, fighter jets, and coastal air-defense systems. According to the head of the SMD press office, this approach allowed Russian military units to significantly increase the range of detection of low-flying targets, including cruise missiles. Moreover, the tactical method also opened up new possibilities for the use of Podsolnukh-E surface-to-surface radar stations and Buk-M3 (SA-17 Grizzly) surface-to-air missile systems at sea (TASS, August 29). The exact technical characteristics of the Podsolnukh-E version used by the Russian Armed Forces are classified. But the best export varieties can reportedly locate planes flying 200–500 kilometers away and at altitudes of up to 5 kilometers (Utro.ru, August 29). The Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta referred to the joint tactics being practiced last month as a “Caspian ‘Wall’ against American ‘Tomahawks’ [cruise missiles].” The paper further stressed that the method currently being perfected in the Caspian could be employed by Russia’s naval force grouping in the Mediterranean should the US try to launch new missile strikes against Syria (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 29).
Tactical innovations like the “Wall” have become increasingly prominent during joint drills of different force types in the Southern Military District. According to the SMD, the joint training of the air forces of the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla are currently being worked out on a systematic basis. This practice made it possible to discover new inter-group combat capabilities and also to improve the system of troop combat training (Mil.ru, August 29). Moreover, naval units of the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla, the Air Force, and the Air and Missile Defense Forces of the SMD have practiced jointly establishing defensive lines along the Black Sea and the Caspian coasts against cruise missiles (Mil.ru, August 23). Since last April, MiG-31 fighter jets armed with Kinzhal hypersonic rocket systems have been patrolling in the Caspian Sea region (1tv.ru, July 7). The defense ministry has said that the patrols are carried out within the framework of strategic deterrence (Govoritmoskva.ru, July 19).
Article 3, paragraphs 6 and 7 of the recently signed Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea explicitly call for the “non-presence in the Caspian Sea of armed forces not belonging to the parties” and forbid the signatories from allowing their territory to be used by “other States to commit aggression and undertake other military actions against any party” (Mid.ru, accessed September 26). Russian President Vladimir Putin appraised the Convention as a positive example of successful cooperation under difficult global conditions. He emphasized that security is the main issue for the littoral states and underscored that the Caspian abuts notable hotbeds of tension, the Middle East and Afghanistan. “Therefore,” he continued, “our countries intend to strengthen in every way the interaction of our special services and border protection forces as well as intensify foreign policy coordination” (Kremlin.ru, August 12).
The Convention not only legalizes Russia’s military hegemony over the Caspian but also prevents any outside powers from introducing a military presence in the region. This situation enables Moscow to continue to use the Caspian basin as a military testing ground as well as a base from which to conduct armed operations. As such, Russian forces stationed in the Caspian can not only provide a conventional (defensive) deterrent but also be employed in offensive outward operations—the so-called “bastion” strategy, illustrated several times when Caspian Flotilla vessels launched cruise missile strikes on targets in Syria (see EDM, October 26, 2015). Meanwhile, the other littoral states, with their much weaker military footprints in the Caspian basin, will continue to cautiously observe the power balancing process in the region between Russia and the West.