The presidents of the five Caspian countries held a summit meeting–the first in this format–on April 23-24 in Ashgabat. Long in the making and elaborately prepared by working groups, the summit nevertheless failed to bring the parties any closer to a consensus on how to divide the Caspian Sea. The failure had generally been expected, leading many commentators to question the wisdom of holding the event in the first place.
More notable than the summit itself is its aftermath, which is still unfolding. President Vladimir Putin has announced that Russia will continue beefing up its naval forces in the Caspian Sea and will soon hold large-scale military exercises there.
Putin’s decision is clearly unrelated with the summit’s failure to arrive at a five-party consensus. Both before and after the summit, the Russian president repeatedly expressed satisfaction with the progress of bilateral negotiations with Russia’s Caspian neighbors, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, on sectoral delimitation in their respective parts of the sea. Putin considers the mere holding of the summit a Russian success, hoping to build on the precedent and institutionalize a “Caspian Quintet” forum, in which Russia could perforce play first violin. His order to conduct the military exercise continues his established policy, using military muscle to pursue regional dominance in the absence of economic muscle.
Russian naval capabilities in the Caspian Sea have grown apace since Putin became president. In January 2001, Russia’s Caspian Flotilla staged a massive show of strength in front of Baku, as a backdrop to Putin’s official visit there. The Russian squadron entered Azerbaijan’s coastal waters and lay anchor, before bothering to request Azerbaijan’s permission. Azerbaijan, with a high political stake in improving its relations with Moscow, did not protest. Last year, Russia’s Caspian Flotilla conducted an exercise with artillery practice in the “central part” of the Caspian Sea.
On April 25, returning from the Ashgabat summit, Putin visited Astrakhan and the naval base nearby. There he issued orders for a combined-arms exercise to be held by Russia’s Caspian Flotilla, border guard cutters, units of naval infantry [Russian marines], and land-based combat aviation, in the “northern and central parts of the Caspian Sea,” in combat-like conditions. In remarks shown live on Russian television, Putin declared, turning to the naval commander in chief, Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov: “We must strengthen our [military] presence as an essential factor in promoting our political and economic interests in the Caspian Sea. Our flotilla constitutes a unique instrument in promoting the interests that I just mentioned.” In another televised sound bite, Putin termed that naval force “an active instrument of Russia’s policy in the region.”
Predictably, Putin added the terrorism rationale: He described the Caspian Sea as “located in immediate proximity to Afghanistan, where terrorists persist;” coined the term “bioterrorism” to mean illegal fishing; and argued that the Caspian Sea serves as a route for narcotics–“to Western Europe,” he added for its benefit–all this necessitating in his view a deployment of Russian military power. He appeared unconcerned with the record in that respect of Russia’s troops in Tajikistan, which are supposedly tasked to stop the drug traffic–also “to Western Europe”–but are themselves a part of that problem.
Russia’s coastal guard alone dwarfs anything the other Caspian countries possess in terms of naval capabilities. Nevertheless, Putin assured the military commanders that the buildup of the Caspian Flotilla and of the coastal guard would continue. This, along with the military exercises, “will undoubtedly strengthen Russia’s leading role in the Caspian region,” he said.
In another phase of his visit to Astrakhan, Putin visited residential areas he described as “decaying tenements,” in which “people live in inhuman conditions. It is shameful to live like this in the twenty-first century,” Putin said. His priorities seem clear, however: Spending on useless and dangerous naval overkill in the Caspian Sea takes precedence over public housing. Putin’s appointee as Astrakhan governor, Anatoly Guzhvin, applauded the military buildup and planned exercises with the argument that “Russia has dominated the Caspian for centuries until recently, when its limp diplomacy allowed the Caspian to be claimed by certain countries from across the ocean.”
While in Astrakhan, Putin chaired a high-level conference that focused on the summit just held and economic development prospects for the Caspian Sea in general and its northern Russian section in particular. The officials in attendance included a strikingly high proportion of military brass, alongside regional governors–several of them generals in the first place–and business managers. Commenting on the military overrepresentation, Putin said that the “meeting’s composition is no accident, considering that [Caspian] problems should be approached in their complexity” by the regional administrations, the armed forces, border troops and businessmen.
In all, the summit’s aftermath illustrated the Kremlin’s general propensity to apply military instruments to nonmilitary problems, and its apparent decision to overawe Caspian Sea countries militarily. Potential targets of intimidation are pro-Western countries, not Iran, which ranks a very distant second to Russia in terms of military strength in the Caspian basin. At the summit in Ashgabat, Putin held a bilateral meeting with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and declared that “Iran has made a positive contribution of its own to the common struggle against terrorism.” Putin went on to praise “Iran’s positive joint work especially against terrorism in Afghanistan.” While crediting Iran, the Russian president again omitted–as he had the preceding week–any mention of the United States (Interfax, RIA, ORT TV “Vremya,” RTR TV “Vesti,” April 24-27; see the Monitor, April 24).
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