Vol. 3, No. 14 (July 15, 2010)

Azerbaijan and naval competition on the Caspian

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Because 20 percent of its territory is currently occupied by Armenia, Azerbaijan has—not surprisingly—devoted most of its attention in recent years to developing its land-based armed forces in order to be able to counter and if necessary end that occupation.  But even as it has done so, Baku has not neglected the development of a naval presence on the Caspian Sea, a reflection of its own key interests there and the challenges presented by the four other littoral states. 

But because Azerbaijan’s navy is far and away the junior service to the army, coverage of it has been fragmentary and incomplete, with stories appearing in the media only when there is a particular crisis or when one of the other littoral countries does something to which Azerbaijani officials feel compelled to respond.  That pattern has had the effect of distracting attention from the steady development of the post-Soviet Azerbaijani navy and its successful fulfillment of the numerous tasks laid on it.

The Azerbaijani navy came into existence following the demise of the Soviet Union and the division of the Soviet fleet among four of the five littoral states—Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and the Russian Federation.  The Russian Caspian fleet remains the largest and most modern, but Azerbaijan’s navy is the second largest, exceeding not only the navies of Kazakhstan—whose recent orders for ships will bring it to near equality with Azerbaijan—and Turkmenistan which is far behind both, but also the Caspian fleet of Iran, although Tehran has the capacity to transfer by rail submarines and other smaller craft from the Gulf to the Caspian in the event of a crisis.

At present, Azerbaijan has approximately 20 warships, two dozen support vessels and 5,000 naval personnel.  (In addition, in the event of a crisis, Baku could rely on some but probably not all of the 80 ships of the Azerbaijan government’s ferry system, KASPAR).  In addition to its brigade of surface vessels, the Azerbaijani navy has a mine-sweeper division, a search and rescue service, a training service, a security brigade, an intelligence service, and coast guard vessels.  Those divisions reflect the Azerbaijan navy’s primary activities: providing security for offshore oil and gas facilities, preventing smuggling and piracy, and backing Azerbaijan’s claims for a section of the Caspian Sea.

In the judgment of Azerbaijani and international experts, Azerbaijan’s navy is fully capable of handling these tasks even if it is not yet in a position to project power farther afield or cope with a major action by another littoral state.  But Baku has been working to bring its naval forces up to the point where it could by doing three things:

First, it has devoted additional resources to overcome some of the maintenance problems that had plagued the fleet it inherited from Soviet times. 
Second, it has brought into service several new ships provided by NATO. (These have arrived via the Volga-Don canal system).
And third, and probably most important over the longer term, it has sought to recruit, train and retain a new generation of officers who not only have the skills to operate the most modern equipment but also to interact with naval personnel of other countries.

Not surprisingly, Azerbaijan has reacted particularly sharply to challenges emanating from the other littoral states.  Since the 1990s, Baku has had few occasions to be concerned about the Russian flotilla in the Caspian, but it has expressed concerns about the development of the navies of the other three littoral countries, seeing these steps as a possible challenge to Azerbaijan’s own position on the landlocked sea.

In August 2009, many officials and commentators in Baku expressed concerns about Turkmenistan’s plan to create a naval force dramatically larger than the 16 patrol boats Ashgabat currently has in service.  More recently, Azerbaijanis were clearly shaken by Kazakhstan’s announcement of plans to purchase three patrol boats and three corvettes, a step that would bring Astana into rough naval parity with Baku.  But there are two reasons why this step may not be as destabilizing as some fear or have implied.  On the one hand, the two governments conduct regular consultations on naval matters.  And on the other, Azerbaijan is fully capable of responding to Kazakhstan’s plan and maintaining its current relative advantage.

Of greater concern is possible action by Iranian naval forces.  While those are currently smaller than Azerbaijan’s, they could be quickly supplemented from Tehran’s naval forces in the Gulf, and Iran’s coastal ships could be used in an offensive manner if relations between the two countries deteriorated.  Were that to happen, it could present a challenge to the Azerbaijani navy, albeit one that Baku likely could counter without enormous difficulty.

Consequently, barring something unexpected—and naval developments are by their very nature relatively slow moving given how long it takes to build ships and train personnel—the Azerbaijani navy almost certainly will remain in a position to cope successfully with all of its responsibilities, notwithstanding all the “birthing” problems of an institution that did not even exist two decades ago.