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Militarization of the Caspian Sea


By Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD International Law of the Seas


The Caspian Sea is not so peaceful as it looks.  The Caspian region has the potentials for turning into point of confrontation and conflict.   The littoral countries of the Caspian Sea have not solved their problems and they have taken steps in line with militarizing of the region, while issuing declarations to the contrary.  Even the countries that have signed bilateral agreements have left many issues unattended.


The division of the Caspian Sea still remains a thorny problem in the relations of the littoral states.  In the last couple of years, the littoral states made efforts (like Ashgabat Summit Conference) and failed in finding a collectively agreed solution.  Following the failure in the collective diplomacy, the bilateral efforts gained a new weight.  The result was conclusion of several treaties between the Russian Federation, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and these two.  But the so-called southern states of the Caspian Sea, i.e. Iran and Turkmenistan have declared them as null and void, while acting to the contrary. 


Even those states that have concluded bilateral treaties have not solved all issues.  The concerned treaties are concentrated on the division of the seabed on the basis of the modified equidistance or median line, leaving many other issues unresolved.  The formula, which is devised by the Russian Federation, leaves the waters of the Caspian Sea free for shipping of all littoral states (there is nothing clear about the shipping of the non-littoral states).  The littoral states, except than the Russian Federation do not have any important naval units or commercial ships in the Caspian Sea.  So it is clear that the formula used in the concerned bilateral treaties is devised according to the interests of the Russian Federation.  Also, there is distinction between the military and commercial shipping.  This leaves the door open for all kinds of disputes.


If the rules of the international law of the sea regarding maritime areas is used for the Caspian sea, then there are many issues that should be addressed, such as:


The territorial water, baselines, internal waters, river mouths, bays, ports, islands and their territories, low-tide elevations, innocent passage of commercial and military units, submarine traffic, passage through Volga-Don waterway, sea lanes or traffic separation schemes, nuclear powered ships, warships of the littoral and non-littoral state, responsibility of the flag state, hot pursuit, safety of life at sea regulations, certification of seaworthiness, indemnity for damages of the shipping and pollution, contagious zone, research and survey activities, economic zones, regulations foe laying pipelines, responsibly for accidental and operational oil and nuclear  pollution and so on.        


Iran and Turkmenistan do not even agree with the criteria used for the division of the seabed in the Caspian Sea.  Iran insists that the division of the Caspian Sea must be based on equitable and just principles giving at least equal shares to all five states.  Iran, which could not convince others to accept the common administration of the sea, now is insisting on the equitable division of the whole Caspian Sea.  According to Mr. Safari, the Representative of Iran in the Caspian Affairs, (an interview with the Iranian TV, on the 10th of April 2004) Iran has prepared documents that explain 20.4 % of the Caspian Sea must be the Iranian share according to the international law.  These documents have not been publicly available.  Iran demands the Alborz oil/Alove fields that Azerbaijan is claiming that too.  Turkmenistan insists at least on the separate arrangements for certain oil fields (Sardar/Capaz) that Azerbaijan is also claiming them.


If you mix these regional issues to the existence of undemocratic, corrupt, and unstable governments in the littoral states of the Caspian Sea, and the inclination of the great powers to use the Caspian oil as rival or alternative to the OPEC oil, and the expansion of NATO to the East, then you see the picture of oil, blood and politics, as Alfred Noble saw it a century ago.


During the last couple of years, the militarization of the Caspian Sea has been a hot subject in all of the meetings of the regional states in various levels, including the last session of the foreign ministers (April 2004) in Moscow.  Undoubtedly, it will be an important issue in the upcoming Summit Conference of the Caspian Littoral states, which most probably will be convened in the current year in Tehran.  What the littoral states have done up to now in order to confront the issue of the militarization in the Caspian Sea is limited to pointing the finger at each other as the responsible party for escalation of this trend.


The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) organized the conference entitled 'National and Regional Security of the Central Asian States in the Caspian Sea Region', on September 22-23, 2000 in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  One of its topics was:


"The Problems of military security of regional states and efforts undertaken by them individually and collectively to ensure this security."


The conference concluded, inter alia, that:


"The Central Asian region is now a zone of acute political instability and the national security of regional states is challenged by a wide variety of political, military and socio-economic threats, both from within the region as well as from the outside...  The main domestic threats are associated with the declining state of living standards of the majority of the local populations, as well as with growing inter-ethnic and inter-confessional tensions and conflicts, while the main external threats to national and regional security are posed by religious extremism supported from abroad, international terrorism as well as illegal trade in arms and drugs.  Among other major threats and risks to national and regional security was the unresolved issues of the legal status of the Caspian Sea, problems of transportation of oil and gas to the world market, as well as territorial and border problems between regional states."


Also, the SIPRI, organized a conference on US-Russian Interaction on Security in the Caspian Sea Region, held on February 17-18, 2001 in Moscow, Snegiri.  The conference concluded that:

"The Caspian Sea region is and will remain high on the agenda of both Russian and US foreign and security policy.  The major sources of conflict and instability in the region - international terrorism, extremist and separatist movements, drug trafficking - are clearly areas in which Russia and the USA can and should cooperate.  Other important causes of regional conflict include such social factors as a dramatic fall in living standards over the last decade and widespread poverty and unemployment.  They are causing increasing public discontent with the present governing regimes.  The continuing political and security instability in the region has resulted in its militarization.  This is reflected in the rapidly growing military expenditure of regional states."


The Russian Federation was the forerunner in the militarizing the Caspian Sea.  In fact, the Russians have indirectly used the demonstration of military power for convincing the others to accept the certain type of bilateral treaties that they prefer.  According to a valuable source (Timothy L. Thomas, Russian National Interests and the Caspian Sea, Perceptions, 1999-2000, Vol. IV, No.4, PP. 750-96):


"The growing complexity of political-economic interests in the region has forced Russia to change its position on the Caspian's status on more than one occasion.  Not only are the Caspian's resources at stake, but also transportation networks, commercial operations, the status of the Sea itself and the issue of military control over the region... The military issue has developed into an area of intense concern of late...  Such an arrangement would greatly heighten tensions in the Caspian region and could lead to war...  The increased US and NATO attention toward the region prompted one Russian General to claim that the greatest threat to Russia is not China or Islamists but the possibility of Desert Storm II starting on the shores of the Caspian over economic issue...  The strength of the Caspian Flotilla does not exceed 20,000.  At present, the flotilla has several units of patrol ships, minesweepers, radar picket ships, combat and auxiliary craft of various classes, missile and landing hovercraft, and logistics ships...  A military airfield was built near Kaspiysk (Dagestan) to receive all types of aircraft, which enables an efficient use of aviation in combination with ships of the flotilla and air defense units of the district.  The naval aviation of the Caspian Flotilla received amphibious airplanes, and patrol and antisubmarine helicopters Ka-25 and Ka-27.  Military services supporting seafaring of the Caspian countries are deployed on the Chechen and Tuleny islands (near Dagestan)."


As usual, the Americans are there too.  The post-9/11 strategies of the USA, especially the security of Israel, combat against terrorism and control of oil resources, have opened a new stage in the role of the USA in the region.  Economically, the Americans are as interested as Russians to get the Caspian oil to the Western markets as soon as possible. At the same time, from the military point of view the Americans are interested in moving their forces to the places closer to hot spots (Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Persian Gulf, and Caspian sea).  The new bases of the American military operations will be small, but equipped and ready to go forces in the region.  The new generation of the American bases is ready to move in the Caspian region.  After this stage, many of the older types of bases, like the one in Turkey's Incirlik (which proved useless in the case of Iraq), will be closed.


Azerbaijan Republic is the first place for the American presence.  The Azeris have been asking for the US presence in the last decade in every possible way.  Recently, US Coast Guard Vice-Admiral Thomas V. Barrett attended the ceremonial handover of the American vessels in the Azeri capital...  The US officials have said:


"The new units would be used by Azerbaijan's maritime border guards to patrol its borders in the Caspian Sea, preventing smuggling, poaching and helping to combat terrorism.  The US ambassador to Azerbaijan Reno Harnish, has said: This program is but one component of a broader US-Azerbaijan partnership to secure peace and stability in the region and to combat international terrorism.   The patrol boat, formerly known as the Point Brower and now renamed the S-201, is the fifth vessel given by the US since 2000 to help bolster Azerbaijan's naval force. The vessels are part of a package of US aid to Azerbaijan's security and law enforcement forces, which in the 2003 fiscal year alone was worth about 12.5 million dollars.

According to Azernew, the U.S. military began training Azerbaijani military forces in specialized tactics to protect offshore oil platforms.  The Defense Ministry told that the aim of the training is to improve Techniques for safeguarding offshore oil fields and drilling rigs in the Azerbaijani sector of the Caspian Sea.  The exercises involve eighteen U.S. military experts, forty-five Azerbaijani military personnel and two Patrol boats.  The joint training held in accordance with the U.S.-Azeri bilateral cooperation program will last through February 6, 2004." (


Also, the same source ( has declared:


"Abiyev [Azeri defense Minister] said the visits of the American military delegations to Baku laid groundwork for Azerbaijan's closer cooperation with NATO and the United States.  Goodwin [a US official], underlined that his country was very pleased with participation of Azerbaijan in anti-international terrorism programs, especially in military operations in Iraq.  The Counter-Admiral noted that the goal of his visit was to ensure the sustainability of the U.S.-Azerbaijan and NATO-Azerbaijan cooperation." 


A Russian publication (Russian Military Analysis, Issue No.89, 03 Aug 01) has pointed to several important issues in the field of the Caspian Sea militarization:


"As a result of the Caspian Flotilla division in 1992, Azerbaijan received about 25% of waterborne ships and a significant part of the infrastructure."


Tehran is unhappy with the US assistance to Azerbaijan, complaining that it represents a military build-up against it.  Iran is also locked in a dispute with Azerbaijan over ownership of an oil-rich corner of the Caspian Sea.  An Iranian warship clashed with an Azeri oil research vessel in 2001.  A real threat of Iran to Azerbaijan may reveal the role of Russia in this process in a new light.  Russia will not support Azerbaijan in the open, but will not quarrel with Iran too.  Most likely it will play the role of a peacekeeper.  At any rate, this circumstance does not indicate that large-scale bloodshed for Caspian energy resources may be avoided.


The Russian publication has pointed to several important issues in the field of the Caspian Sea militarization from Iranian point of view:


"Anzali is the largest port of Iran in the Caspian Sea, but other ports like Now Shahr, Bandar-e Torkaman and Babolsar can be used for military strategic goals in the future. Their arrangement and creation of reliable military infrastructure will not require much time.  According to available information, the Iranian navy plans to organize an operational-tactical squadron in the Caspian Sea to be able to conduct combat operations in certain areas of the sea if necessary.  According to the project, the squadron will include several divisions (or brigades) and separate units of waterborne and underwater ships, as well as support forces (naval aviation and marines)."


Justin Burke ( in his article under the title 'Kazakh pundit' says militarization of Caspian region inevitable, has written:


"Dosym Satpayev, director of the risk assessment think-tank, has suggested that militarization of Caspian region inevitable.  He
said that Russia had started stepping up its military presence in the
Caspian to ensure security there because it believes the European Union,
the USA, China and Japan plan to lessen their dependence on OPEC in the
future...  In turn, this will prompt the USA, Iran and China to step
up their activities there to defend their strategic interests in the
Caspian region."


Russian Military Analysis (Issue No.89, 03 Aug 01) has pointed out:


"The conflict between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan also looks serious.  Thus, Ashkabad says that Azerbaijan captured the Osman and Khazar fields (Chirag and Azeri in the Azerbaijani version) and in 1998 Alov block including Altyn Asyr field (Sharg in the Azerbaijani version) with the assistance of the international consortium.  Negotiations failed, and Ashkabad announced that it would protect its interests by all available means.   Turkmenistan recently bought 20 fast boats from Ukraine. Half of them were 40-ton boats armed with heavy machine guns.  After the breakup of the USSR Turkmenistan also inherited the largest aviation group in the Central Asia.  Turkmen Air Force military helicopters already patrolled the disputed territories."


Vladimir Mukhin, in the article 'the Military Challenges of the Caspian Sea', dated 19 Jan. 2004, published in the Nzaavisimaya Gazeta, Moscow, has written:


"... In 2004 the Pentagon and NATO member states might use the airfield network of Azerbaijan and Georgia not in the anti-terrorists operations in Afghanistan and Iraq alone, but with the purpose or reconnaissance flights in the vicinity of Iranian and Russian borders...  Within the framework of the Foreign Military Finance program, for 2004 the US has plans to allocate $3.4 million for purposes of military assistance ($2.5 million to Azerbaijan and $700,000 to Turkmenistan).  This money will be used to purchase US-made military equipment and arms, as well as defense services and professional military training. Kazakhstan will have its share, too. In 2004, the USA will continue financing the state contracts on construction of military objects in this country (to the amount of $2.9 million) and will increase the spending on training Kazakh military by $113,000.

According to Colonel Vladimir Raikhel, chief of the Main Department for International Programs of Kazakhstan, from January 1, 2004 the United States launches the program on upgrading the Kazakh coast of the Caspian Sea...the` strength of the Kazakh navy will be increased from 3,000 to 5,000. Several Grif-type patrol boats (with the length of 24 m) and four Kalkan-type patrol boats (with the length of 10 m) will be purchased from Ukraine.

Russia will also continue to enhance the strength of its forces and military equipment.  The 77th Guard Marine Brigade will be transferred on the professional basis.  Upgraded Mi-24 and Mi-8 helicopters, as well as Su-24 and Su-25 aircraft will reinforce the aviation of the Caspian Flotilla.  The flotilla will also get a new sentinel ship named Tatarstan.  Until 2010, the flotilla is expected to get most up-to-date ships, researched subject to the peculiarities of the Caspian Sea. The weak antiaircraft weaponry of the Russian ships will be made up for with a powerful air cover and S-300 antiaircraft missile complexes.

Iran has aimed at sharp enhancement of its military presence at the Caspian Sea at the expense of moving its naval troops from the Persian Gulf.  The naval troops in the Caspian Sea will be increased by at least 50%...  The naval command also announced its plans to deploy new Mowj-type gunboats in the Caspian Sea. Quiet possibly, four hovercrafts will be transferred there from the Persian Gulf."


The Caspian Sea will remain a hot spot in the international affairs for a foreseeable future.  This importance is the result of regional and global geo-politics, oil recourses, and terrorism and narcotic drugs.  The littoral states of the Caspian Sea are gradually inclined to strengthen their military forces in the Caspian Sea and the era of the militarization in the Caspian Sea has already started.  The increase in the militarization makes a bad mixture with the regimes all around the Caspian Sea deeply plunged in undemocratic and instable dictatorships, full of corruption, violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms, discrimination, nepotism, social gaps and ethnic rivalries.

About the author:
Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD Int. Law, is a consultant in international law to the World Resources Company in the Washington DC area.

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