Russia and Iran have announced that they will conduct joint naval exercises on the Caspian Sea some time by the end of the year. The two countries, the largest on the Caspian, have traditionally been rivals on the sea. But with the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of three new countries on the shores of the Caspian. Russian and Iranian interests on the sea have converged.
In particular, Russia and Iran are worried about outside forces establishing influence on the sea. More specifically, although it’s not usually stated explicitly, the two countries want the U.S. to stay out of the Caspian. “Iran and Russia want the Caspian Sea littoral states to protect the security of the Sea without the foreign powers’ interference and they consider the presence of the aliens as a cause of tension and strife,” said Iran’s military attaché to Moscow, Colonel Soleiman Adeli, in reference to this year’s exercises.
The U.S.’s military role in the Caspian has not been very prominent. But it has focused on building up the navies of the three new countries on the sea: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. The U.S. donated old patrol boats to all three countries in the 1990s, and in the beginning of the 2000s attempted a more ambitious military assistance program called Caspian Guard.
Caspian Guard was a $100 million program, launched in 2003, aimed at bolstering the naval capabilities of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan by building up maritime surveillance, command-and-control capabilities and training naval special forces of the Caspian littoral states. It was closely tied to U.S. oil and natural gas interests in the region, developed shortly after the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, and later a parallel gas pipeline, taking resources from the Caspian to Europe. Those projects broke Russia’s monopoly on oil and gas transport from the Caspian, and remain perhaps the most successful geopolitical effort by the U.S. in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Perhaps for that reason, though, those countries became uncomfortable with the attention that the program got and the spotlight it put on military ties with the U.S., and it foundered. Assistance today is more modest. The U.S. continues to advise the three new Caspian states on their naval development, a fact that Wikileaked U.S. State Department cables have made clear. In a 2009 standoff with Iranian vessels in waters that Azerbaijan considered its own, officials in Baku at all levels coordinated their response with U.S. military and diplomatic officials, with Americans providing intelligence and Azerbaijanis asking for advice. And as recently as 2011, State Department documents describing international security assistance programs highlighted efforts to promote Caspian security.
Even more recently, as the U.S. has prepared to ship its equipment out of Afghanistan, the Caspian has taken on a new strategic importance. Some portion of the so-called “retrograde transit” is shipped by rail through Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan’s port of Aktau on the Caspian, then carried by ship across the sea to Baku and onward to Europe. Kazakhstan has actively promoted the U.S.’s use of Aktau for Afghanistan transit, hoping that military transit will help develop the port as a hub for commercial traffic.
The transit is carried out by private companies, and there is little to no U.S. military footprint on the ground along most of the route, known as the Northern Distribution Network. Nevertheless, even this modest presence alarms Moscow. In an analysis (in Russian) recently published in the New Eastern Review, Russian security experts warned about the NDN route over the Caspian. “Such close cooperation of the Caspian states with the U.S. has made many experts come to the conclusion that a U.S. naval base can appear on the Caspian, which could be called a “transit hub.” For Russia such a development would be unacceptable,” wrote the piece’s author, Victoria Panfilova. “The first U.S. Navy flag in Aktau, on a ship of whatever size, will immediately and forever change the entire military-strategic balance on the Caspian,” said Alexander Sobyanin, head of the Association for Border Cooperation. “Trust in Kazakhstan as a reliable ally will vanish forever.”
That is likely alarmism. For one, the U.S. has evinced no interest in a formal military presence on the Caspian; secondly, the geography of the Caspian Sea allows Russia a large degree of control over what is in it. The only way for a boat to access the sea from the outside is via Russia’s Volga River, giving Moscow a de facto veto over the presence of any ship that isn’t built on the Caspian itself.
Nevertheless, Russia’s reaction points to the extreme sensitivity of U.S. activity on the Caspian. Russia and the West are still fighting pipeline battles on the Caspian, and Moscow seems to want to make sure that the U.S. doesn’t have any military force backing it up.