Militarization of the Caspian Sea: Naval Arms Race and Conflicting Interests

Azad Garibov


The Caspian Sea has recently witnessed rapid naval build-up unprecedented in the history of the region. Despite the speed of the current build-up, naval- military history of the Caspian is relevantly new. The first standing flotilla appeared in the Caspian in the beginning of 18 th century when Russia established of a navy-base in Astrakhan. Two wars fought between Iran and Russia in the beginning of 19th century formally established the Russian monopoly over military power in the Caspian Sea. With the demise of the tsarist Russian empire, Soviets recognized Iran’s right to maintain a navy in the sea, however until the collapse of the Soviet Union Iranian military power has never matched that of Soviets in the Caspian.

The collapse of the Soviet Union introduced profound changes in the geopolitics of the Caspian region. As a result four new naval powers emerged in the Caspian basin: Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. March 1992 agreement divided up the Soviet Caspian Flotilla among them. Discovery of the significant hydrocarbon resources in the sea after the collapse of the Soviet Union and location of substantial portion of them often in the areas claimed by the several coastal states, as well as absence of the agreement on legal status of the Caspian created fertile grounds for naval competition in the sea. Naval build-up was present in the sea over the course of the 1990s, however in the smaller scale. Littoral states simply did not have enough funds to invest in naval armament for that period and 4 of them were still trying to recover from the economic shock of the Soviet collapse. However, economic resurgence, due to the increased energy revenues during 2000s, effectively completed the list of all conditions conducive to the naval build-up. Since the end of the 2000s, fueled by the Russian policy of strengthening its naval forces, rapid militarization process started in the Caspian Sea that is still going on by the involvement of all littoral countries. In the absence of the hopes for achieving the agreement over the legal status of the Caspian anytime soon that can settle down many geopolitical and economic discords in the sea, this militarization process seems to be likely accelerated in the upcoming years.

Though nowadays chances of open military engagement are negligible in the Caspian, there are areas which have the potential for escalation of tensions among the littoral states that might potentially lead to unintended conflicts. The most outstanding disagreement lays over the legal status of the sea which makes Caspian states to ultimately rely on their own naval power in order to back their claims in the sea. It is particularly important for Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and to certain degree Turkmenistan which explore significant hydro-carbon resources in the Caspian seabed. Some oil and gas field are disputed by the littoral state which sometimes leads to power show off by the riparian states to discourage neighbors from exploration works in the fields. Western energy comes have built extensive energy infrastructure in and around the Caspian, which might also become a target for terrorist attacks. Finally, rising smuggling and illegal fishing is another source of concern for the littoral states that demand them to have substantial capability to guard water of the Caspian against illegal activities.

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