Russia in the Caspian Region: An Attempt to Preserve an Inherited Role

Tomislava Penkova


The Caspian Sea is believed to account for 10% of world gas and oil reserves, which makes it essential for the global energy market. Despite its energy bonanza and related attractiveness for Europe, Russia and Asia, the main feature of this region is that it has no direct access to the world market, implying that transport of gas and oil is very difficult. In other words, its geographical location is both its blessing (meaning a diversity of customers) and its curse (due to the problematic export of those riches which need an adequate infrastructure). The construction of new energy routes requires the passage through a number of states, which may be a source of tensions between major regional powers or may further fuel existing conflicts. Consequently the Caspian energy riches transform any economic considerations into (geo)political ones and vice versa. In fact, in this region there is an intricate relationship between the interests of producer, consumer and transit countries. For example, the political instability of the Middle East makes oil production in the Caspian region an alternative source for the West, reducing its dependence on the former region. This approach to the Caspian Basin signals a post-Cold War era trend of globalizing oil production. In this process, a chain of complementarity and interdependence is created between the role played by Western governments (consumers) and their multinational energy companies (ensuring movements of capital), producer countries which seek to define better their interests, independence and to increase economic benefits, and finally, transit countries which attempt to exploit their favourable geographic position. Moreover, some transit countries in the Caspian region also extract gas/oil and are therefore not eager to guarantee access to world markets for other regional competitors.1 There is also a question about the development timing of the most convenient distribution and transit of energy resources. Governments and (multi)national energy corporations are flexing their muscles in an attempt to realise their projects and sabotage alternative ones.

Against this multifaceted background, Russia tends to preserve and strengthen its influence over the Caspian region, with energy being its primary interest and focus of action. Other spheres of intervention such as the dispute over the legal status of the Caspian Sea and security concerns play an instrumental and complementary role in achieving its energy objectives. This is clearly stated in Russia’s 2000 Foreign Policy Doctrine[1] [2] which reads “Russia will work for the elaboration of such a status of the Caspian Sea as would enable the littoral states to launch mutually advantageous cooperation in using the region’s resources on a fair basis and taking into account the legitimate interests of each other. Viewing the Greater Mediterranean as a hub of such regions as the Middle East, the Black Sea, the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea basin, Russia intends to steer a purposeful course for turning it into a zone of peace, stability and good neighborliness [to] help advance Russian economic interests, including the choice of routes for important energy flows”. The strong emphasis on energy is due to the lack of other types of significant economic influence or interdependence[3] between Russia and the rest of the Caspian states. This fact explains Russia’s vehement defence of its energy interests and its refusal to be considered a secondary actor in the region. Moreover, Russia’s energy politics are a symbolic expression of its post-USSR identity, sensitivities and perceived role both in the region and in world affairs. In particular, Russia’s Caspian energy policy comprises four goals. First, the aim to maintain control over the development and extraction of Caspian oil and gas reserves, as well as over current or potential export routes from the Caspian Basin towards European and/or Asian markets in order to prevent diversification of supply as intended by the West. Second, to impose Russia’s solutions to regional disputes and promote Russian interests at the expense of those of its competitors. Third, to ensure Russian energy companies’ participation in regional projects and prevent Western rivals (US government and energy firms) from dictating the energy politics of this area. Fourth, to coordinate regional energy politics. Indeed the 2013 Russian Foreign Policy Doctrine affirms the need “to strengthen the mechanism of cooperation among the Caspian states on the basis of collectively taken decisions”[4] and so to rule out any external actor’s involvement in regional affairs. These goals are partly determined by the role and infrastructure that Russia inherited from the USSR but they are also partly due to the challenge that Russia faces today, namely to design its new regional role without losing the positive aspects of its traditional positions.

  • [1] A. Petersen, Russia, China and the geopolitics of energy in Central Asia, Centre for European Reform, 2012,p. 38.
  • [2] For the full text version, see
  • [3] A. Kazantsev, “Russian policy in Central Asia and the Caspian Sea region”, Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 60,issue 6, 2008, p. 1086.
  • [4] For the full text, see http://www.mid.rU/brp_4.nsf/0/76389FEC168189ED44257B2E0039B16D.
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