Central Asia

Russia makes waves in the Caspian
By Sergei Blagov

MOSCOW - Although Moscow has repeatedly described its August 8-15 naval maneuvers in the inland Caspian Sea as an important measure to safeguard regional stability, some littoral states remained wary of their unprecedented scale.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov traveled to the Caspian Sea to observe the Russian Caspian Flotilla exercises in which 60 vessels, some 10,000 servicemen and 30 aircraft took part.

The maneuvers included training in the protection of civilian facilities - an oil rig, in one such exercise - and ships from terrorist attacks, and were due to culminate in an assault to destroy a large militant group trapped by the sea on a barren 750-hectare Tyuleny island, some 300 kilometers south of Astrakhan. However, according to Russian press reports, the assault failed to materialize and the maneuvers took the form of ID checks of five Tyuleny residents, supposedly bemused.

Officially, Moscow claimed the naval exercises of the Caspian Flotilla were required to combat drug traffickers, organized crime and terrorism. The maneuvers should not be viewed as a show of force by Russia, Ivanov announced in Astrakhan on August 8. The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the Russian military presence in the Caspian posed no threat to other littoral states.

Moscow managed to secure support of some littoral states, notably Kazakhstan. On August 10, Ivanov told the journalists in Kaspiisk, Dagestan, that a joint military force, including Russia and Kazakhstan, could be created to safeguard Caspian security.

Last July, President Nursultan Nazarbayev stated that the Kazakh Navy would take part in the August naval exercises; moreover, Kazakhstan held its own Caspian maneuvers, "Sea of Peace 2002," on Mangyshlak peninsula August 7-16. Some 3,000 servicemen - or roughly all of the country's naval personnel - took part in the exercises, which involved some joint action with Russia's Caspian Flotilla.

On August 11 Ivanov met with Kazakh Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbayev, who traveled to Makhachkala, Dagestan, to observe the Caspian maneuvers. According to a statement of Kazakh defense ministry, Ivanov pledged to supply Russian military hardware, including one naval vessel, to Kazakhstan at Russia's domestic prices. It is understood that Russia's pledge of discounted arms sales serves as a reward for Kazakh support of Moscow's Caspian policies.

Historically, Russia's Caspian Flotilla has been a force for coastal defense and waterways patrol. Following the division of the Soviet Caspian Flotilla in 1992 between Moscow and Baku, Russia kept three quarters of the naval vessels and personnel. The withdrawal of the flotilla from its former base in Baku, Azerbaijan, forced Russia to build a new base in Astrakhan.

The Kazakh navy is based in the Aktau and Atyrtau ports in the eastern and northern parts of the Caspian, respectively. Kazakh naval forces include some 3,000 personnel, and armed with ten imported coast guard boats and five smaller vessels, as well as three Mil helicopters.

Tehran was prohibited to have naval forces in the Caspian Sea, according to treaties between czarist Russia and Persia as well as the USSR and Iran. However, in the wake of the Soviet collapse, Iran has been reported to mull turning its Caspian ports into naval bases.

Officially, Turkmenistan has no naval forces at all. However, Turkmenistan reportedly procured 20 patrol boats from Ukraine. Turkmenistan has 20 Ukraine-built patrol boats, as well as one US-built vessel.

Unlike Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan owns naval facilities in Baku as well as a quarter of the former Soviet Caspian Flotilla. However, Russia reportedly acquired the best vessels while the naval facilities in Baku remain in disrepair.

The Caspian Flotilla is Russia's sole naval force that has recently seen a growth of its strength. In the past five years, Russia reportedly doubled its Caspian naval force, which now includes two frigates, 12 major patrol vessels and about 50 smaller vessels based in Astrakhan, as well as some 20,000 personnel.

Seeking a larger share of the Caspian Sea, Turkmenistan and Iran have disagreed with Russia's plan for splitting the Caspian bottom along a "modified median line" while keeping the waters in common. Kazakhstan agreed and clinched a separate deal with Russia last May, while Azerbaijan still mulls signing a similar agreement.

Turkmenistan, which proclaims neutrality and presumably feels threatened by the maneuvers, declined to take any part in the naval war games. On August 6, Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov issued a statement that "as a neutral state Turkmenistan does not and will not take part in any military maneuvers in the Caspian, either as a participant or as an observer." Turkmenistan, the statement continued, believes that "large-scale naval exercises in the Caspian should not have been carried out because none of the littoral states, except Russia, has sizable naval forces there".

Iran somewhat backed down from its initial reservations about the maneuvers. Last month, Iranian official media had warned against unilateral action such as Russian maneuvers in the Caspian and argued the exercises were detrimental to "finding a comprehensive and fair legal regime" for the Caspian. However, Tehran eventually accepted the idea. On August 5, Iran's special envoy on the Caspian, Mehdi Safari, was quoted by the RIA news agency as saying that Tehran viewed the maneuvers' stated goals, ie, fighting terrorism and crime, as legitimate, and that Iran did not feel offended by the maneuvers.

Moreover, unlike Turkmenistan, Iran dispatched military observers to watch the maneuvers. Admiral Muhammad Dekhani, head of the Iranian observer mission at the maneuvers, told journalists on August 10 that Iran did not view the maneuvers as connected with problems of the Caspian division. However, he warned against possible "militarization" of the sea.

Presumably, Iran ended up in believing that the Caspian maneuvers were directed against growing Western influence in the region. Russia is trying to flex its muscles at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) through war games in the Caspian Sea, former Iranian foreign minister Ali-Akbar Velayati reportedly commented on August 6 in a meeting with academicians of Mashhad's Ferdowsi University. He said he believed was trying to tell NATO that the Caspian Sea is its own security zone and that they were not welcome there.

As for the coastal Caspian states, Russia seems to be pursuing the time-honored policy of carrot-and-stick, in which its friends receive discounted arms sales while its opponents (and neutrals) receive the certain knowledge that Moscow retains the growing ability to order its fleet without notice into waters they regard as theirs.

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Aug 16, 2002

A series by Pepe Escobar (Jul, '02)

Part 1: The rules of the game

Part 2: The games nations play


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