New Russian Naval Doctrine Assigns Expanded Role to Caspian Flotilla

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 125

The Russian Navy corvette Veliky Ustyug, a small missile ship in the Caspian Flotilla, takes part in a military parade on the Neva River on Russian Navy Day in 2021 (Source: Peter Kovalev/TASS)

When President Vladimir Putin signed Russia’s new naval doctrine on July 31, most commentators, both in Moscow and abroad, focused on his ambitious plans for Russia’s blue water navy and especially its expansion into the Arctic. One aspect of the new doctrine, however—its elevation of the Russian naval presence in the Caspian—has received far less attention; but it may ultimately be more important. That conclusion reflects the difficulties Moscow faces in building the ships it needs for an expanded ocean-going presence, difficulties that may make it hard for Russia to meet its plans there. Yet, it also highlights the fact that the Kremlin views the challenges Moscow faces with the Caspian and its littoral states as especially serious and has, therefore, decided to give the Caspian Flotilla a central role in responding to them. (On Russia’s shipbuilding problems, see EDM, November 1, 2018, April 25, 2019;, July 27; and on unhappiness in the Russian naval high command about that, see EDM, July 25, 2021.)

The new 3,000-word Russian naval doctrine updates and replaces three earlier versions Putin had promulgated (, July 31). Like its predecessors, none of which was completely fulfilled, much of the new doctrine is more aspirational than a road map for what Moscow will actually be able to accomplish. But as a statement of the Kremlin’s intentions, it is critically important. And nowhere are those intentions more likely to be transformed into reality than with the Caspian Flotilla.

As Russian security analyst Vlad Kondratyev notes, the new Russian naval doctrine devotes significant attention to the Caspian fleet, often treated almost as an afterthought in earlier editions (, August 3). Not only is this naval unit mentioned frequently in the new text, but it is also invariably listed alongside the ocean-based fleets of the Russian navy without any suggestion of inferiority. This represents a significant upgrade of its status from Soviet times when the Caspian was effectively a Russian lake as Moscow controlled almost all the territory around it, and Iran, the only other littoral country, did not have a significant naval presence. It is also a significant change from the recent past as all five littoral states—Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran and the Russian Federation—have expanded their Caspian naval presence. Indeed, Russia’s naval doctrine appears to be a response to that new development (see EDM, June 24, 2021). At present, Moscow appears especially concerned with Kazakhstani efforts in this direction given rising tensions between Russia and the Central Asian country (, April 21, August 8, August 11). Nevertheless, ultimately the Kremlin does not want to find itself in a weaker position behind any of the other littoral navies, including those of Iran and Azerbaijan, which have been expanding rapidly (Nezavisimoye voyennoye obozreniye, September 12, 2021).

Not only does the new doctrine frequently refer to the Caspian Flotilla, but it also specifies that this force is responsible for one of “the vitally important regions (zones)” of the world’s water surface as far as Russian national interests are concerned. To that end, the doctrine calls for the expansion of cooperation with other littoral states on a wide variety of issues, including the protection of the environment, as well as the modernization and development of the Caspian Flotilla and its basing. Thus, Moscow can lead “the development of international military cooperation with the naval forces of the states of the Caspian region.” In so saying, the Kremlin is committing itself to an expansion of the Caspian Flotilla relative to the other naval forces there, something it has lagged behind in recent years. And given that the size of ships the Caspian can handle is much smaller than those required on the world’s oceans, it is more likely that Russia’s hard-pressed shipbuilding industry will be able to deliver the necessary crafts. Moreover, Moscow may be mulling the possible development of additional ports beyond the new one in Daghestan, which the fleet shifted to several years ago from Astrakhan to put Russian forces closer to the center of the sea.

The Caspian Flotilla began to attract international attention when it fired cruise missiles at Syria in 2015, when some of its ships were transferred to the Sea of Azov to put pressure on Ukraine and when the flotilla fired additional cruise missiles into Ukraine in March 2022. And the fleet has long been recognized as a force that Moscow can use to defend its own mercantile and petroleum projects in the sea and to interdict the use of the Caspian by others (see EDM, May 31, 2018; November 27, 2018; December 4, 2018; April 13, 2021). Yet, compelling reasons point to the reality that now Moscow has other and perhaps even more important reasons to increase the strength of the Caspian Flotilla.

On the one hand, the Russian government is still concerned that the 2018 convention on the delimitation of the Caspian has not yet been ratified by all the littoral states. Iran remains a holdout, which means the treaty has yet to be implemented fully, and jockeying among the littoral states for control of key oil-rich portions of the seabed continues. Indeed, even if Iran ratifies the current accord, that does not solve the problem of the delimitation of the seabed, where the oil and gas fields are located. Building up its naval presence on the sea gives Moscow leverage over the other Caspian states both to secure ratification of the 2018 pact and to push for an updated and broader one in the future (Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 30).

On the other hand, Moscow is seriously alarmed by developments in the Caspian littoral states. Not only does Russia face an increasingly hostile Kazakhstan and progressively independent-minded governments in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, but the Kremlin is also confronted by serious threats to its security in restive Daghestan and Nagorno-Karabakh. The Russian Federation moved the home base of the Caspian Flotilla to Daghestan to be closer to Nagorno-Karabakh, expanding the flotilla’s ability to project force on land (see EDM, June 7, 2018; July 17, 2018). And Moscow’s worries about instability in the contested territory have increased in recent months (, August 1).

More recently, Russia’s “peacekeeping” presence in Nagorno-Karabakh is being challenged by Baku, Yerevan and even the Armenians of Karabakh itself. Some Russian analysts have argued that Moscow should use the Caspian Flotilla to defend its forces in the disputed region lest they be forced out (, December 3, 2020; see EDM, August 9).

Any one of these factors could explain why Moscow has assigned a larger role to the Caspian Flotilla in its new naval doctrine. Taken together, they mean that this oft-neglected force now deserves to be tracked much more closely.