Vol. 6, No. 14 (July 15, 2013)

Naval competition on the Caspian heating up

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

The first-ever joint Russian-Iranian naval exercises on the Caspian Sea, exercises that are taking place even though there has been no agreement on the delimitation of the seabed, suggest that there may be a serious naval competition on the Caspian for the first time in nearly a century between Russia and Iran, on the one hand, and other countries in the region, including Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, which have developed closer ties with NATO and the West, on the other.  Indeed, one Moscow newspaper earlier this month characterized the Russian-Iranian naval maneuvers as heralding a new “anti-NATO Caspian alliance” and warned that other littoral countries will have to respond to this new reality. [1] 

Over the last two years, both the Russian Federation and Iran have increased the size of their naval presence on the Caspian, exchanged fleet visits, and now have conducted joint exercises, a trend that has prompted regional observers to ask whether “the neighbors of Russia and Iran in the Caspian basin should be concerned about this?  Or whether on the contrary the strengthening of the military-political influence of the two powers will strengthen stability in the Caspian region and block the penetration of that region by outside players?” [2] 

Both Russian and Iranian officials have made clear that they are concerned about the growing activity of NATO and the United States in the region and especially the transit of military supplies via Aktau in Kazakhstan and military cooperation talks between Azerbaijan and the Western alliance.  Russian commentators in particular have spoken about “the problem of the militarization of the Caspian” and the need to prevent this by an agreement among the five littoral states, something the latter have not succeeded in reaching even on the delimitation of the seabed despite talks that have been going on for more than a decade.

Both have also insisted that the strengthening of the Russian and Iranian presence on the Caspian is “not directed against Azerbaijan,” but that rather, in the words of Russian military analyst Vladimir Popov, this trend reflects “the common geopolitical interests” of the two powers, interests which he says “are much closer than the interests of Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan” which are more interested in involving NATO and the United States rather than keeping outside powers out of the region. [3] 

Not surprisingly, Azerbaijan and other littoral states feel they have no choice, but to develop their own naval capacities lest Russia and Iran use their power to “resolve disputes on the Caspian by military means.”  That is the typical logic of naval competitions throughout history, and it is one that no country concerned with the defense of its national interests can afford to ignore.  Azerbaijan is no exception: it is developing a navy with ever-greater capacity to defend its coastline and protect the passage of its own and other countries’ shipping on the Caspian.

Unfortunately, each country is eyeing what the other is doing, a pattern that presages a naval competition on a sea that has not seen one since 1920 when Russia’s White Army Caspian flotilla withdrew in the face of the Bolshevik advance.  But as Moscow analyst Sergey Mikheyev points out, “this is an extremely dangerous logic which can lead to unpredictable consequences and which threatens a potential catastrophe.”

According to Mikheyev, “Russia is calling for the creiton of a regional organization, which will be a space for the resolution of contradictions and the coordination of efforts on both political and military relations;” something that Kazakhstan has indicated some interest in, but that Azerbaijan like Turkmenistan does not, at least at present.  But this Russian proposal and both the costs and the dangers of a naval competition are likely to open the way to more talks among the littoral states, something each of them will be watching closely as will the outside powers that Moscow and Tehran want to keep outside of the region.


[1] See http://ng.ru/armies/2013-07-03/2_alliance.html (accessed 14 July 2013).

[2] See http://kavpolit.com/kogo-stoit-opasatsya-azerbajdzhanu/ (accessed 14 July 2013).

[3] See http://ng.ru/armies/2013-07-03/2_alliance.html (accessed 14 July 2013).