Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 143

The July 23 incident, in which an Iranian warship forced an Azerbaijani research vessel out of a British-Azerbaijani offshore oil drilling area, is the most serious consequence thus far of a naval buildup otherwise spearheaded by Russia in the Caspian Sea. Notwithstanding the fact that Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan possess only dwarf “naval” capabilities, fit for border patrol duty at best and not for any combat, Russia keeps adding to its Caspian force of combat vessels. On July 18-19, Russian military officials announced that three newly built vessels are about to sail down the Volga River to the Caspian Sea.

The Valentin Pikul, built at St. Petersburg’s Almaz shipyard, is a Project 10410 vessel, NATO designation Firefly. It has a displacement of 375 tons, length of 49.5 meters, speed of 32 knots, sea endurance of ten days, and operating range of some 2,000 miles, and is armed with a 30-mm and a 76-mm artillery system.

The Mirazh, designed at the Almaz shipyard and built at the Vympel shipyard in Rybinsk, is currently undergoing final sea tests out of the Russian-leased shipyard in Feodosya, Ukraine. It is an all-weather vessel with a displacement of 121 tons, a length of 35 meters, a speed of up to 50 knots and an operating range of 1,000 miles. It is armed with a 30-mm artillery system for hitting air, surface and coastal targets. The Sokzhoy, built at the Volga shipyard in Nizhny Novgorod, is the first vessel of the Project 14230 type of air cushion vessels. It has a displacement of 99 tons, a speed of more than 50 knots and an operating range of 800 miles; its armament has not yet been disclosed. These vessels were commissioned by Russia’s Federal Border Guard Service for its Caspian squadron based at Kaspiisk.

That squadron, however, is second in strength to the Russian Navy’s Caspian Flotilla, based at Makhachkala. That flotilla is the sole naval force in Russia in recent years to have seen a net growth of its strength. It has been reinforced with combat units transferred from the Baltic Fleet, and is slated to acquire high-speed boats armed with updated Mosquito missiles this year.

Russian authorities are not offering any rationale for this policy, despite the obvious risks it poses to a closed sea increasingly crowded with oil and gas projects. Yet the buildup proceeds against the backdrop of unresolved issues of sectoral delimitation and of the officially declared Russian opposition to trans-Caspian pipelines. Absent explanations from Moscow–indeed in the absence of any discernible political or military rationale–the littoral states are left to conclude that the naval buildup may well aim to intimidate them.

Such was clearly the case in January of this year when Russia’s Caspian Flotilla exercised with live ammunition in “central parts” of the sea, then staged a show of gunboat diplomacy in front of Baku. The task force requested permission to enter Azerbaijani littoral waters and lay anchor in Baku only after it had done both. Azerbaijan did not protest. That demonstration of force was the first of its kind in the post-Soviet era in this closed sea.

For their part, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan each own a few small patrol craft, as a rule not combat-capable, and the most modern of which are too small to be armed. A few of these boats were delivered by the United States, which is careful to avoid any move that could be misperceived as fueling an arms race. In an interview just published in Baku, the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, Ross Wilson, reaffirmed the U.S. policy which rules out a military presence or arms deliveries to Caspian states, emphasizing instead nonmilitary dimensions of security. By contrast, Russia last month offered an “arms-for-gas” deal to Turkmenistan. That country’s President Saparmurat Niazov expressed interest in naval vessels, to be paid for in natural gas.

Iran is the only other country with a naval potential in the Caspian Sea. Tehran is a proponent of demilitarizing the Caspian, and has recently evidenced concern at Russia’s naval buildup and movements in that sea. Iran has, however, severely damaged its credibility with its sudden military move. Western countries have in the past looked at various proposals to demilitarize the Caspian Sea, but have not taken them up officially. With the recent and ongoing buildup of Russian naval capabilities, against the backdrop of Western-driven mineral development, the concept of demilitarization changes meaning. By now it must entail not only restrictions but also a builddown; and it cannot fail to include Western countries as active participants in a demilitarization of force-limitation regime. The West’s economic presence requires a corresponding political-diplomatic framework for regional security (Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostey, July 18-19; Kenneth Weisbrode, “Patrol Boat Procurement Makes Waves on the Caspian,” Eurasianet, July 17; Our Century, July 18-24; see the Monitor, January 16, July 17).

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