Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 198

Russia pushes for joint naval force in Caspian

On October 24, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov briefed President Vladimir Putin on Lavrov’s just-completed visit to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In the briefing’s televised part, Lavrov reported on his effort to advance Moscow’s proposal for a joint naval force of the Caspian Sea countries, to be designated as CasFor. Such top-level attention and publicity seems designed to signal that Moscow is prepared to start campaigning for this proposal (Interfax, October 24)

The proposal’s televised launching notwithstanding, its details have yet to be fleshed out. Russia first aired it semi-officially during a meeting of the five countries’ naval commanders in Astrakhan in July, and then officially on October 6-7 during a routine meeting in Baku of the five-country working group on the Caspian Sea’s legal status. At the Baku meeting, the Russian delegation called for setting up a joint naval operations group, CasFor, of the five countries, purportedly for protection against terrorism and trafficking in arms, narcotics and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) components in the Caspian Sea (Interfax, Turan, October 7, 8).

The proposal rules out participation of other countries — i.e., the United States — through provision of equipment, technical assistance, intelligence sharing, personnel training, or other inputs. Those roles would be reserved for Russia. This exclusionary approach is CasFor’s defining characteristic.

Inasmuch as Casfor is planned as a conventional naval force, it would appear to be unsuited to the Russian-declared mission of facing nonconventional threats and challenges. That declared mission looks, rather, like a politically correct excuse for bringing the fledgling naval and coastal guard assets of other Caspian countries into a Russian-controlled structure. Given Russia’s overwhelming naval dominance in the Caspian Sea, with assets far exceeding those of the other four riparian countries combined, Russia would heavily dominate any “joint” grouping.

In Ashgabat on October 20, Lavrov — according to his report to Putin — elicited a promise from President Saparmurat Niyazov to consider the possibility of Turkmenistan’s participation in CasFor and attendance at the upcoming planning conference. Niyazov, moreover, reassured Lavrov on live television that neutral Turkmenistan would not host “foreign” (i.e., U.S.) military bases, and that Ashgabat would ban foreign military flights carrying components of WMD and missiles through Turkmenistan’s air space, and would support such a ban over the Caspian Sea as well. Four days later, a session of the People’s Council of Turkmenistan [the supreme representative body] adopted a statement banning such flights through Turkmenistan’s own air space (Turkmen Television Channel One, October 20, 24). Although Turkmenistan cannot detect such air cargoes, much less enforce the declared ban, it can use it for political purposes and as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with other countries.

Also on October 24 (the day of his briefing to Putin), Lavrov discussed this subject in Moscow with the visiting minister of foreign affairs of Iran, Manushehr Mottaki. The recently appointed Mottaki seemed to receive the proposal with caution (Interfax, October 24). While Tehran invariably supports Russian proposals to exclude “non-regional powers” from regional affairs, Iran had tabled its own proposal, “Stability and Trust in the Caspian Sea,” prior to Russia’s CasFor proposal.

Azerbaijan has turned down the CasFor proposal from the moment of its first official Russian airing at the five-sided Baku meeting. Azerbaijan’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Khalaf Khalafov countered by referring to his country’s earlier proposal for demilitarization of the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan, moreover, takes the position that it is capable, with assistance from friends of its own choice — i.e., the United States — to provide for the security of its sector in the Caspian Sea.

Baku’s proposal for Caspian Sea demilitarization remains officially on the table, but Russia resists it on the pretext that terrorism and associated threats necessitate the presence of strong military and naval capabilities in the Caspian basin. On the other hand, Russia opposes a “naval race” or “arms race” in the Caspian Sea — terms by which Moscow means U.S.-assisted strengthening of coastal guard and naval assets of other riparian countries to deal with those unconventional threats.

Azerbaijan has joined the U.S. Caspian Guard initiative, and Kazakhstan is prepared to join as well. Russia’s CasFor proposal is meant in part to thwart Caspian Guard. However, it would be erroneous to regard Moscow’s proposal as a reactive move. It is a familiar “zone of peace and security” proposal, designed to create a sub-regional security organization under Russian dominance by excluding the main Western actors. At the moment, Moscow proposes to set up just such a naval force in the Black Sea, by reforming the existing BlackSeaFor into an exclusionary naval grouping of the riparian countries. The BlackSeaFor and CasFor proposals follow this common pattern. Moscow plans to host a CasFor planning conference on November 22.