In early April, the minister of defense of Russia, Sergei Shoigu, announced the relocation of the Caspian Flotilla from Astrakhan (Astrakhan oblast, on the northwest coast of the Caspian Sea) to Kaspiysk, a Dagestani city just south of the republican capital of Makhachkala. The first phase of construction of the naval base in Kaspiysk will be accomplished in 2019, and the entire facility will be finalized in 2020 (Chernovik, May 22). On May 16, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov discussed the infrastructure-related details of relocating the Caspian Flotilla from Astrakhan to Kaspiysk, during his meeting with the head of Dagestan, Vladimir Vasilyev (Tvzvezda,ru, May 16). The implementation of the military infrastructure work in Dagestan has been accompanied by a purge of local government officials since the Kremlin’s promotion of Vasilyev to acting head of the republic last fall (Kavkazsky Uzel, May 14; Kommersant, October 3, 2017).
The headquarters of the Caspian Flotilla, the smallest naval unit in the Russian Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Мorskoy Flot—VMF), has been located in Astrakhan since moving out of Baku, in 1992, after Azerbaijan became independent. However, the Caspian Flotilla has all along had supplementary facilities in Kaspiysk and Makhachkala. Russia’s Caspian naval force consists of more than 70 warships, including the frigates Tatarstan and Dagestan; three rocket ships, the Grad Sviazhsk, Uglich and Velikiy Ustyug; as well as units of the Russian marine corps (Kommersant, April 2). Following decades of quiet passivity, the first notable combat activity of the post-Soviet Caspian Flotilla was several instances in recent years of targeting the Islamic State and other groups in Syria with Kalibr cruise missiles fired from warships located in the Caspian Sea (see EDM, October 26, 2015; Tvzvezda.ru, September 30, 2017).
According to Russian officials and military experts, the headquarters move is logical since Kaspiysk presents a number of advantages over Astrakhan. First, seawater in the Volga delta at Astrakhan freezes for five months out the year, which necessitates the use of icebreakers to move vessels in and out of port. As the chief of the Russian navy’s Main Staff, Admiral Viktor Kravchenko noted, “[following the relocation to Kaspiysk,] all the forces will be concentrated in one place and will no longer be dependent on weather conditions” (Militarynews.ru, April 2). Second, the absence of tall bluffs, the presence of well-established transport infrastructure and the vast untapped territories suitable for building additional facilities make Kaspiysk an ideal place for a naval base. Both Makhachkala and Astrakhan lack such favorable conditions (Ndelo.ru, October 7, 2017). Third, the water around Astrakhan port is shallow and does not allow large ships to operate there. According to the Ministry of Defense of Russia, marine dredging operations will be completed in 2019 during the first phase of building the replacement Caspian naval base (RBC, April 2, 2018; Izvestia, October 2, 2017). Moreover, there are plans to develop a commercial seaport at Astrakhan, which could further affect the operational readiness of naval forces still stationed there (RBC, April 2).
Building massive infrastructure around the new naval base in Dagestan requires firm control over financial transfers from the federal center. Reportedly, 20 billion rubles ($320 million) will be spent from the federal budget for the development of infrastructure of Kaspiysk seaport, which will necessitate additional federal control over Dagestan (Chernovik.net, September 9, 2017). Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dagestan has held a reputation as one of the most corrupt subjects of the Russian Federation, due in large part to struggles among multiple rival ethnic clans (Chernovik.net, November 15, 2017). Furthermore, according to official estimates, Dagestan was the origin of more than 1,200 jihadist fighters who traveled to fight in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts, which is more than any other Russian federal subject (Kavkazsky Uzel, January 31, 2017).
In October 2017, former deputy speaker of the Duma (lower chamber of the Russian parliament) Vladimir Vasilyev—an Orthodox Christian of ethnic-Kazakh-and-Russian ancestry—was appointed acting head of the predominantly Muslim region of Dagestan (TASS, October 3, 2017; see EDM, October 13, 2017). He tellingly relies on personnel from other regions of Russia and has appointed several non-indigenous cadres to various key positions in the republic (Chernovik.net, March 30). These nominations have been complemented by a number of high-profile arrests of local political and business elites, such as Makhachkala Mayor Musa Musayev, former minister of education Shakhbas Shakhov, the billionaire owners of Summa Corporation, brothers Ziyavuddin and Magomed Magomedov, as well as Suleiman Kerimov, who was extradited from France to Russia (Regnum, February 6; Onkavkaz.com, April 18; see EDM, March 13). Notably, Kerimov earlier was interested in investing in seaports in Dagestan (Edaily.com, October 6, 2017). Pointedly, Vasilyev’s rule since his appointment has sometimes been described in the Russian media as “external governance” (vneshneye upravleniye) (Pravda.ru, February 7, 2018).
The relocation of the Caspian Flotilla is designed to make Kaspiysk Russia’s new southern outpost. Along with its preexisting military bases in Botlikh and Buynaksk, a naval base in Kaspiysk, Dagestan, will further increase Russian presence and control over the political-security situation in this volatile republic. Aside from these domestic considerations, Moscow has far-reaching foreign policy objectives as well. Notably, the favorable geographic location of Kaspiysk allows Russia to put neighboring Georgia, Azerbaijan and large swathes of Central Asia under Russian missile cover. And recent years’ ship-based missile attacks on Syria (see above) indicate that the Caspian Flotilla will remain one of the key Russian military units during Moscow’s evolving involvement in the Middle East.
On the other hand, increased federal control over Dagestan and the purging of local ethnic clans could trigger further escalation inside the republic. The possible return of militants from the Middle East after the fall of the Islamic State, combined with the potential willingness of some local oppressed clans to actively oppose the current status quo in Dagestan, could revitalize local nationalist movements, an Islamic insurgency or a combination of both. Moreover, increased Russian military personnel in Kaspiysk might become an ideal target for revitalized jihadist groups.
The relocation of the Caspian Flotilla, despite its domestic political considerations, is clearly a significant strategic decision by the Russian military. It will increase the Russian navy’s capacity in the Caspian Sea and possibly translate to additional pressure on the South Caucasus and Central Asian states.