Moscow is relocating the home base of its Caspian Flotilla from Astrakhan to a new port facility in Kaspiysk, Dagestan (see EDM, June 4), an action scheduled to be completed by the end of this year. This move is taking on a more menacing aspect not only for Russia’s own North Caucasus and the other Caspian littoral states, but also for Ukraine and the United States. Notably, Russia has for months now been shifting Caspian Flotilla vessels to the Sea of Azov, threatening Ukrainian ports and maritime traffic there. Whereas, the US hopes to use the Kazakhstani port of Aktau to transfer military equipment to Afghanistan. Thus, what earlier was presented by the Russian authorities as an effort to ensure that the Caspian Flotilla would be able to put to sea more rapidly and in all seasons, increasingly it appears to be a major Russian move toward the former Soviet republics in the region and even toward the Middle East.
When the announcement was first made that that the Caspian Flotilla would be moved south, the reason given was that Russian naval vessels could exit more easily from port facilities in Kaspiysk than in Astrakhan, where such moves have been limited by low or frozen waters. But today, Russian analysts are quite frank about the fact that Moscow’s initial justification for the naval base move in the Caspian was far from the most important. Instead, they openly declare that the new base is about ensuring Russian dominance in the Caspian, countering Western and especially US moves in the littoral states and in the Middle East, and giving Moscow more flexibility in moving ships from the Caspian to the Sea of Azov, where they are being used to put additional pressure on Ukraine.
In a commentary for the Politikus.ru portal, Moscow military analyst Yevgeny Radugin says that the opening of the new base “is not simply some ordinary step for the relocation of the Flotilla from one port to another.” Instead, he argues, “the basic goal” of Moscow’s move in this regard is “to ensure stability and security in the region, considering the military-political status” of the Caspian and its littoral states as well as those adjoining that region. It is important to note here that what Russia means by “stability” is Russian dominance (Politikus.ru, July 7).
At present, the analyst says, “the Caspian region is politically stable, but this is temporary. In the future, disputes are likely to arise as a result” of the interests of the energy-producing states Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan and of those Western countries, above all the United States, interested in gaining access to their oil and natural gas. Moreover, he says, US efforts to gain access to Kazakhstan’s ports as well as sanctions of various kinds again Iran, another littoral state, only add to these dangers.
“One should not forget,” Radugin writes, “how military experts and politicians in the West reacted to the launch in 2015 of Kalibr cruise missiles from the ships of the Caspian Flotilla against ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—the former name for the Islamic State] targets in Syria.” That event shows why Russian naval vessels on the inland sea are so important and can be used in completely “unexpected” ways against opponents. And then he says bluntly, “From the Caspian, it is possible to control the activity of an opponent and influence the Caucasus and Central Asia, the eastern Mediterranean and territories as far as the Persian Gulf.”
According to the Moscow military analyst: “NATO’s [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] plans are well known to Moscow: the coalition seeks to seize control over the post-Soviet sphere of influence by pushing Russia out. [Russia] cannot cope in this case by diplomacy alone. It needs to have a real ability to give an adequate response to foreign threats in order to defend the sovereignty of the country and the security of its peoples.”
Radugin points to the recent agreements of the Caspian littoral states to deny access to all forces of non-littoral states from making use of the waterways (see EDM, May 8, 2017; June 27, 2018) as positive but adds that “agreements, of course, are significant but should not prevent” Russia from having the capacity to enforce them.” That is all the more so now, given that the agreement about the Caspian that the littoral states appear ready to sign does not deal with the key question of the seabed, especially in the southern third of the Caspian, where Russia still rejects Iran’s claims (Kommersant, Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, June 23).
The Russian military analyst concludes his remarks with a brief glance at one of Moscow’s domestic problems that the new location of the base can help solve: the restive North Caucasus and especially Dagestan, the site of the new base and the most conflict-ridden place in that region. He says that “the Caspian flotilla will not only make possible an increase in the level of security but also help resolve a number of economic problems, including the creation of jobs” and training opportunities for young Dagestanis, who might otherwise be tempted by extremists.
In his catalogue of the way Moscow plans to use the new base, Radugin does not mention what may be the most immediate threat from this enhancement of the role of the Caspian flotilla: its shifting of naval vessels from the Caspian to the Sea of Azov, where Russia has been putting pressure on Kyiv by interfering with civilian cargo shipping between Ukrainian ports and the rest of the world. And these more freely deployable Caspian-based naval ships, moved via canal to the Sea of Azov, may soon have a more dangerous consequence. The Russian navy in the last three months has given the Caspian flotilla a shore-landing capability, something that Moscow could use against Ukraine in the near future (see EDM, May 31, June 7).
For most of its history, Russia’s Caspian Flotilla has been an afterthought both in Moscow and the outside world; but its move to a new main base in Dagestan is a clear indication that will no longer be the case.