RUSSIAN NAVAL STRENGTH DISCRETIONARY AND STILL GROWING.

Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 125

On June 26, Russia’s border forces command announced that the Valentin Pikul, a Project 10410 vessel (NATO classification Firefly), will be deployed next month with the Russian coastal guard in the Caspian Sea. This recently launched patrol and combat vessel is stronger than any in Azerbaijan’s, Kazakhstan’s or Turkmenistan’s inventories. It has a displacement of 375 tons, length of 49.5 meters, width of 9 meters, speed of 32 knots, sea endurance of ten days, sailing range of some 2,000 miles, and is armed with a 30-mm caliber and a 76-mm caliber artillery systems. Russia’s coastal guard in the Caspian Sea, however, is second in strength to Russia’s naval force there, the Caspian Flotilla, based in Makhachkala (Dagestan). While all of Russia’s naval fleets and flotillas are decreasing, the Caspian Flotilla is the only one to have seen a net growth of its strength in the last year or two. It has been reinforced with combat units transferred from Russia’s Baltic fleet, it received additional marine infantry (marines), and it is slated to acquire high-speed boats armed with updated Mosquito missiles.

With that, the Russian policy seems in practice to have discarded the earlier stated goal of a demilitarized Caspian Sea. In January 2001 for the first time in the post-Soviet era, and most unusually in a closed sea, Russia’s Caspian Flotilla staged a demonstration of force. Under the flag of Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, commander in chief of Russia’s naval forces, the Flotilla conducted artillery practice with live ammunition in “northern and central parts of the Caspian Sea,” then made a surprise appearance in front of Baku during President Vladimir Putin’s visit there. Inasmuch as Caspian maritime borders have not been delimited, the formula “central parts” suggested that Russia could at any time send its warships into waters that other Caspian littoral countries may regard as theirs. Similarly, the unannounced laying of anchor in Baku seemed designed to suggest that Russia’ s Flotilla could conduct gunboat diplomacy also in Turkmen or Kazakhstani ports.

Kazakhstan owns a few light cutters built at its Uralsk shipyard and a few donated by the United States, in essence for patrol and police duty. Turkey had donated a coastal guard vessel in 1999 and will donate a second one next month, pursuant to Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s request to Turkish President Ahmed Necdet Sezer. For their part, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are virtually disarmed at sea.

On June 15, Moscow offered an “arms-for-gas” deal to Turkmenistan. Igor Makarov, chairman of the Itera gas trading company–a Gazprom offshoot–and Sergei Chemezov, first deputy director of the arms trading firm Rosoboroneksport, discussed in Ashgabat with Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niazov a possible five-year cooperation program. Russia would accept payment in gas for upgrading Turkmenistan’s Soviet-era weaponry and for delivering new military hardware. Niazov was cited as expressing particular interest in naval vessels. Baku is watching attentively because Niazov lays rhetorical claim to Azerbaijan’s Kapaz and Chirag offshore oil fields and the deep-water section of the Guneshli field, all three situated in the central part of the sea.

Also this month, Ukraine sold two patrol boats, armed only with machine guns, to Turkmenistan; the United States donated one Point Jackson-type patrol boat, the Turkmen crew of which had been trained in the United States. These are light vessels not capable of any serious combat. Washington is careful to avoid any move that could be misperceived as fueling an arms race.

On June 16, Azerbaijan took delivery of the first of two vessels donated by the United States; the second is expected by the end of summer. These are 15-meter long speedboats, too small to be armed, and described as “nonlethal” assets. They serve to patrol economic zones and to track down smugglers. Ukraine’s ambassador in Baku, Borys Aleksenko, commented in a statement that Kyiv would consider selling two patrol boats to Azerbaijan–matching Kyiv’s sale to Turkmenistan–provided the move would not violate international restriction on arms deliveries to countries involved in military conflicts. Azerbaijan’s defense minister, Colonel-General Safar Abiev, replied publicly that Russia has ignored any such restrictions in supplying Armenia with weapons.

Apart from Russia, the only country with a naval potential to speak of in the Caspian Sea is Iran. In January of this year, Iran was the only country to issue a protest against Russia’s naval exercises. At present, Iran is the main rhetorical advocate of a “demilitarized” Caspian Sea, by which Tehran means two things: first, no Western (“nonregional”) military presence; and second, reaching agreement on a maritime demarcation line that would keep Russian warships away from Iran’s coast (ANS, June 13, 16; AP, June 15-16; Turkish Daily News, June 22; Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostey, June 26; see the Monitor, January 16).

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