Russia and Iran will conduct joint naval exercises on the Caspian Sea some time this year, Russian and Iranian military officials have announced. Iran sent a small naval flotilla last week to Astrakhan, the base of Russia’s Caspian fleet, and on Saturday Nikolay Yabukovsky, deputy commander of Russia’s Caspian Fleet, said that “Port calls and joint exercises with the forces of the Caspian Fleet are planned for the second half of this year.”
Particularly interesting was the statement of Iran’s military attache to Moscow, Colonel Soleiman Adeli, who told the Fars News Agency: “Iran and Russia want the Caspian Sea littoral states to protect the security of the Sea without the foreign powers’ interference and they consider the presence of the aliens as a cause of tension and strife.”
As usual, “foreign interference” on the Caspian seems to refer to the U.S. Blocking U.S. influence on the Caspian is a longstanding strategic goal of Russia and Iran, and probably their strongest shared interest on the sea. In that regard, an interesting analysis was published in the Russian journal New Eastern Review arguing that of all of the Northern Distribution Networks through the former Soviet states, Russia is most concerned about those transiting the Caspian. That is centered around Kazakhstan’s port of Aktau, which the government of Kazakhstan has aggressively promoted as a military transit hub, in the hopes that that will help them raise its profile as a commercial transit node, as well. For now, the U.S. military cargo that passes through Aktau arrives there by rail via Uzbekistan, and then is shipped across the sea to Baku and then onward through Georgia to Europe.
“Special attention is being paid to the Western route,” wrote the piece’s author, Victoria Panfilova. “First, it is still the most undefined. Secondly, it passes directly through the extremely complex, famously controversial Caspian basin.”
Then the warnings get darker:
Such close cooperation of the Caspian states with the U.S. has made many experts come to the conclusion that a U.S. naval base can appear on the Caspian, which could be called a “transit hub.” For Russia such a development would be unacceptable. “The first U.S. Navy flag in Aktau, on a ship of whatever size, will immediately and forever change the entire military-strategic balance on the Caspian, in the CSTO and on Russia’s perception of Kazakhstan as the core of Eurasian economic integration. Trust in Kazakhstan as a reliable ally will vanish forever,” said Alexander Sobyanin, head of the Association for Border Cooperation.
The appearance on the Caspian of a third country (whether the U.S., some other, or a group) would quicken the arms race already underway among the governments of the basin. “The problem of the militarization of the Caspian needs to be regulated in the format of five-country agreements, the Caspian states need to sign a security agreement,” said Sergey Mikheev, general director of the Institute for Caspian Cooperation.
All of this fear, if it’s genuine, is certainly unnecessary. That hypothetical U.S. navy vessel in Aktau, for example, would have no way to get into the Caspian other than with Russia’s permission to transit the Volga River. And with the apparent death of the Nabucco gas pipeline, the prospects for the trans-Caspian pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan also would seem to have dimmed. That will lessen the (already small) Western strategic interest in the Caspian. Nevertheless, it’s interesting that Moscow (and Tehran) still seem pretty concerned about the U.S. encroaching on the Caspian.