BACKGROUND: in the 1990s, all Caspian littoral states – Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan – opposed the militarization of the Caspian Sea. Bridging Central Asia and the Caucasus, the sea was expected to be turned into a demilitarized zone. But as the investment of billions of dollars in the exploitation of the Caspian Sea’s vast natural gas and oil resources considerably raised the geopolitical stakes involved, the littoral states reversed their attitudes. Historically, Russia has dominated the Caspian Sea. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, Moscow already possessed a strong military presence in the Caspian Sea, unlike the rest of the Caspian littoral states. Eager to militarily supervise their respective shares of Caspian wealth, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan sought to establish their own navies. These post-Soviet states were incentivized to build maritime forces that would ensure control over their respective national sectors in the Caspian Sea at a time when the very existence of such sectors was questioned by other major littoral states; Iran and to a lesser extent Russia.
Another factor favoring a military buildup was the competition between littoral states over key reservoirs of oil and natural gas, situated in contested areas. Azerbaijan has clashed with Turkmenistan over the ownership of the Serdar/Kyapaz oil field in the middle of the Caspian Sea. A similar dispute has occurred between Azerbaijan and Iran. For Azerbaijan, an important impetus came in the summer of 2001. Then, an Iranian warship threatened two Azerbaijani survey ships, forcing them to withdraw from an area in the proximity of the Araz-Sharg-Alov oil fields in the southwest of the Caspian Sea, contested by Tehran. Since that incident, Baku has given up attempts to exploit these promising oil fields in order to avoid a conflict with the Islamic Republic.
Baku’s plans, endorsed by Ashgabat, to build a gas pipeline linking Turkmenistan with Azerbaijan on the Caspian shelf, have been contested by both Moscow and Tehran on ecological grounds. Intriguingly, Moscow has in the meantime downplayed its significant pollution of the Caspian Sea by means of chemical waste from its heavy industry along the Volga River. While categorically opposing a Trans-Caspian pipeline, Moscow has nevertheless built a similar and ecologically questionable pipeline in the Black Sea, a nearly landlocked water basin similar to the Caspian Sea. This, too, has motivated Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to speed up their military build-up in the Caspian.
During the same period, following the U.S. declaration that the Caspian Sea was a vital zone to its strategic interests, Baku and Astana were flirting with the idea of establishing a collective Caspian fleet under U.S. supervision, to safeguard the national sectors of the littoral states and ensure the completion of their ambitious pipeline projects. The prospects of a Western military presence in the Caspian Sea reinforced the Russo-Iranian alliance in the Caspian, which China, determined to benefit from the Sea’s resources soon joined. Since the early 2000s, the littoral states have invested massively into the build-up and modernization of their navies in the Caspian Sea. Russia’s Caspian Fleet remains the most powerful, counting more than a hundred ships with various dimensions and functions, including amphibious aircraft, anti-submarine helicopters, missile ships, and 20,000 men.
IMPLICATIONS: With all of the above in mind, the Russian Caspian Fleet’s recent launch of ballistic missiles not only served the purpose of demonstrating Russia’s newest weaponry and its ability to reach long-distance targets. It also aimed to solidify Moscow’s foothold in the Caspian basin. Bearing in mind that the effectiveness of missile strikes has not been independently verified – beyond Russian claims of their success – the missile attack had more of a symbolic value than a strategic purpose. Since the Syrian army’s advances have mainly focused on Western-supported rebel groups in and around Aleppo, rather than assaults on the ISIS-held east of the country, the key strategic goal of launching missiles at ISIS targets was likely to counter the West’s claims that Russia has thus far focused on attacking the anti-Assad opposition. Yet, while demonstrating its commitment to fight ISIS to the international community, Russia was clearly also pursuing other strategic goals. Most of all, the purpose of the missile strikes was to show Russia’s neighbors Moscow’s military capacity to deploy long-range missiles on targets well beyond its territory.
This means that the symbolic “show of force” was to a great extent consistent with the Kremlin’s goal of reminding its neighbors in the Caspian of Russia’s military strength. Since Kazakhstan is a member of the Russian-led Eurasian Union as well as a close associate of the Kremlin on regional security issues, and Iran is Russia’s key regional ally with convergent interests in the Syrian crisis, the missile launch aimed most of all to remind Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan of Russia’s military might in the Caspian basin.
The reaction of these two states to Russia’s missile launches has thus far been muted. Nevertheless, following the breach of the Caspian Sea’s status as a demilitarized area, both Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan can reasonably be expected to follow suit by increasing their own military buildup. In light of Russia’s efforts to position itself as a key international power in the Middle East, Turkmenistan will likely retain its neutrality. On the other side of the Caspian, as Azerbaijan is tightly sandwiched between Iran and Russia, Baku’s position is becoming far more precarious. Azerbaijan’s lukewarm attitude toward Assad’s regime contradicts Russia’s and Iran’s outright support for the beleaguered Syrian president, which along with the old-time rivalries in the Caspian exacerbates the tension. Hence, the pressure on Baku and Ashgabat to choose sides is mounting not only with regard to Russia’s confrontation with the West but also in the Syrian crisis.
Russia’s missile launches in the Caspian Sea seemingly caught both the international community and Russia’s neighbors in the former Soviet region by surprise. The implications of this event will likely translate into an increased militarization of the Caspian region. Especially Baku’s concerns over the potential of Russian ballistic missiles passing its territory, particularly in light of reports about missiles landing in Iran, will almost certainly incentivize Baku to increase its investments into its Caspian flotilla.
CONCLUSIONS: However, Russian missile launches from the Caspian Sea was an event that is unlikely to recur, at least as far as the Syrian crisis is concerned. Bearing in mind that the cost of launching ballistic missiles significantly exceeds that of conducting airstrikes, the likelihood of Russia deploying its Caspian fleet for repeated missile strikes on Syrian targets is fairly low. Unlike the Western-led anti-ISIS coalition, which lacks a foothold on the ground in Syria, Russia enjoys access to Assad’s air bases, along with its own newly constructed facilities. This suggests that having achieved its symbolic “show of force”, both on the international arena and regionally, using of the Caspian fleet in the Syrian conflict is neither practical nor cost-effective for Russia. Moreover, despite Iran’s tacit consent to allow Russian missiles passing over its territory, the apparent risk of malfunction will likely dissuade Iran from granting further support for Russia’s trials of its military innovations.
AUTHORS' BIO: Huseyn Aliyev is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Bremen, Germany. His work focuses on democratic institution-building and armed conflicts in the former Soviet Union. He is the author of “Post-Communist Civil Society and the Soviet Legacy” (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming in 2015) and “The Individual Disengagement of Avengers, Nationalists, and Jihadists”, co-authored with Emil Souleimanov (Palgrave Pivot, 2014). Emil Aslan Souleimanov is associate professor of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. His work focuses on the theory and practice of security and conflict in the Caucasus and the adjacent areas of Turkey, Iran, and Russia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in International Security, World Politics, Terrorism and Political Violence, Journal of Strategic Studies, Post-Soviet Affairs, Middle East Policy, etc.
Image Attribution: www.independent.co.uk, accessed on Nov 23, 2015