Russia is upping the ante in the Caspian Sea with talk of bolstering its naval forces. The move reflects Moscow’s frustration over the inability of the five Caspian littoral states to define the sea’s boundaries.
Since the Soviet collapse in 1991, the littoral states – Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan – have been unable to agree on a Caspian pact that would delimit the sea and prevent its militarization. Not surprisingly, continuing disagreement on the territorial issue is now encouraging the countries involved to prepare themselves militarily to defend their claims.
Turkmenistan has proven to be a fickle negotiating partner, but it is Iran that has been the main stumbling block. Tehran has stubbornly stuck to a demand for an equal, 20-percent share of the sea, even though Iranian shores comprise a much smaller percentage of the Caspian coastline. Under a formula favored by Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakshtan, Iran would have a roughly 13 percent share. The settlement of territorial questions would pave the way for the expansion of energy development in the Caspian Basin, including the construction of an undersea pipeline.
Since the five states first started wrestling with territorial issues in 2002, Caspian negotiations have gone nowhere. At the last Caspian summit, held in November in the Azerbaijani capital Baku, the parties seemingly reached agreement on how to proceed on drafting a legal convention on the Caspian. But a week after the meeting concluded, Iran disavowed the tentative pact, saying it did not recognize the validity of two Russian bilateral agreements – one with Azerbaijan, the other with Kazakhstan – covering the Caspian territorial issue.
Russia now appears to believe that a military build-up, or at least the threat of one, may be able to break the existing stalemate. In early May, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said Russia’s 148-vessel Caspian Flotilla needed to be modernized. "The fleet that is currently in service in the Caspian Sea could be characterized as outdated and uncompetitive," the RIA-Novosti news agency quoted Ivanov as saying. The same report noted that Russia’s Caspian fleet would soon add a second Gepard-class frigate, capable of engaging “surface ships, submarines and air targets.”
Ivanov’s Caspian buildup comments are consistent with an overall Russian effort to bolster the country’s naval warfare capabilities, an initiative rooted in the Kremlin’s desire to protect its energy interests -- not only in the Caspian Sea, but also in the Arctic and Pacific oceans.
Playing the military card isn’t new in the Caspian. Russia staged naval exercises in the region in 2002, and four years later proposed the creation of a multilateral naval security force. The 2002 maneuvers were designed to induce Iran to be more flexible on its negotiating position, while the 2006 initiative sought to inhibit the growth of US influence, achieved in part through assistance provided by Washington to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan for upgrading their Caspian defense capabilities. Neither Russian move accomplished its goal.
Even if Russia’s military build-up moves forward as planned, possibly sparking a Caspian arms race, few experts believe a conflict on the sea is an imminent possibility. Yet the lack of clearly defined borders, and ongoing disputes involving the control of energy resources, seems to heighten the chances of an accident triggering a violent episode. At the very least, the inability to agree on a Caspian pact will continue to inhibit the development of sea-based energy resources.
The impulse to militarize, given the failure of negotiations so far, is understandable. But it is also undesirable, even dangerous. The Caspian Sea isn’t a region that can easily handle a significant escalation in tension, especially when taking Iran’s nuclear program into consideration.
Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.