Naval component of the geopolitical processes in the Caspian basin at present stage

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Baku, 11 April 2013 –

Along with the issue of delimitation of the Caspian Sea, one of the commonly known pressing problems of the Caspian basin is its demilitarization. Albeit military-naval policy of littoral states is aimed at securing their national interests both on the coasts and internal waters, as well as open seas, outstanding distinct differences between some states with respect to delimitation of the Caspian Sea spearheads the arms race and creation of new military-navy installations in countries around the Caspian Sea. The course of building up military-navy capacity by the littoral states is a destabilizing factor fraught with unpredictable consequences.

Presently, powerful force of the region is the Caspian fleet of the Russian Navy. It is composed of some 30 vessels and boats of various types. Most prominent ones are the two "Gepard” (Cheetah) class frigates – "Tatarstan” (fleet flagman) and "Dagestan”, capable of carrying significant artillery and torpedo armament, and missile systems. Apart from the two, the fleet has military vessels of other classes. In fact, just the patrol vessels and other smaller missile equipped boats are sufficed to control the good half of the Caspian Sea. 847th fleet also includes coastal missile division "Astrakhan”, 77th Marines brigade ("Caspiysk”) and a helicopter squadron. The rest of the Caspian Sea nations are in a handicap both in terms of the number of vessels and the armament compared to the Caspian Fleet of the Russian Federation.

According to Russian experts, composition of the navy of the littoral states is not entirely homogenous both with respect to quality and quantity. Moreover, there is a difference in the system of forming of operational units of Russian and Iranian navy. Russia for example, aims to provide the Caspian fleet with missile and artillery capability ships, whereas Iran prefers building a "mosquito fleet”, composed of fast and maneuverable missile carrying boats and mini-submarines for brisk attacks against enemy vessels.

The reasons are obvious since, at the time, the Caspian fleet of the USSR Navy was less prioritized than others – Northern, Baltic, Black Sea and Pacific fleets. Therefore, overhaul initiated several years ago included significantly increased capacity building efforts of the Caspian formation. Iran’s choice of provisioning the Caspian fleet with specific vessels has to do with the consolidation of the main navy force of the country in the Persian Gulf. Judging by the presence of "mosquito fleet” in the Caspian, Iran does not view Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan as potential threats that deserve to be "shielded against” by a massive fleet. Nevertheless, in March 2013, Iran introduced its first domestically built destroyer - "Jamaran-2”, equipped with guided missiles system that joined its Caspian navy fleet. It is also outfitted with advanced radar and communication systems and a helicopter launching pad. It is a multipurpose vessel, capable of handling a wide range of missions both in the coastal area and the open seas.

All the littoral states are concerned with potential use of their territory by the third countries in the event of outbreak of large scale conflicts. Concerns were reflected in the Final Declaration of the Second Caspian Summit signed by the Presidents in Tehran on 16 October 2007. The document also underscored remarks of President Putin of Russia: - "No littoral state must allow other countries to use its territory for acts of aggression or other military operations against any party”.

As far as the major stakeholder countries are concerned, here too, we see divergence of positions on the issue. Russia under the circumstances deems demilitarization of Caspian inexpedient while opposing to excessive build up of military capacity by a certain littoral state. It is becoming apparent that further militarization of the Caspian and its uncertain legal status form prerequisites for military-political conflicts among the littoral states, which only attest to the need of finding mechanisms to ensure the security of the region. The question is to what extent the countries of the region are interested in the demilitarization of the Caspian Sea and how realistic it is to reach consensus among the 5 countries with respect to total elimination of the navy the move to leave their shores exposed.

In general, in terms of traditional geopolitics, Caucasus-Caspian geopolitical space is interpreted from the positions of tellurocracy "Earth” (Russian empire-USSR-Russia) and deemed an element of continental leverage while from the position of thallassocracy "Sea” (U.S., NATO) it is viewed as a springboard for expanding into Eurasia and securing geostrategic and geo-economic control.

Therefore, it is not at all surprising that this region has always been the scene for both latent and overt clashes of the geopolitical interests and hundreds of years old relentless rivalry between the U.S., Great Britain and Germany on one side and Russia on the opposite. For centuries, the nations of the region have remained hostages of the situation.

On the whole, the situation may deteriorate in light of the impasse in negotiations on delimitation of the sea, and given the fact that scenario of military confrontation between some littoral states is not excluded, a conflict that may play into the hands of external players – chiefly, the U.S. and China. For the U.S. and its close allies this would serve as a pretext and justification for further arming its regional partners, paving the way for American military presence in the region. As far as China is concerned the aggravation of the military-naval situation in the Caspian Sea would entail ebbing of West bound transportation of energy resources from Central Asia, ultimately leading to redirection of those volumes towards the Asian-Pacific markets.

Although, there is a latent conflict situation with regard to the Caspian basin, it so far lacks military-political component. However, dramatic developments unfolding in the Greater Middle East may not leave the Caucasus unaffected. On the backdrop of ever worsening military-political situation in the Middle East intense geopolitical rivalry between geostrategic centers being forged, by the way, with active involvement of the naval forces, brings about quite realistic prospects of transformation of the entire Black Sea-Caucasus-Caspian Sea space into a decisive "theatre of military operations” in the Atlantic-Eurasian geopolitical standoff of the XXI century.

Parvin Darabadi,

D.Sc. (Hist.), Professor at the International Relations Chair of Baku State University

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