Russian gunboats during a 2011 exercise on the Caspian Sea. (photo: mil.ru)
The foreign ministers of the countries surrounding the Caspian Sea met in Moscow on Tuesday, in preparation for a summit this fall. Diplomatic activity around the sea is not new, and the major dispute -- how to divide up the sea between the five countries -- remains unresolved. But as with everything else in the post-Soviet space, the crisis in Ukraine has changed the calculations in the Caspian, making for an unusual amount of turbulence in the normally stagnant diplomatic waters.
The most interesting potential storyline of the meeting was that Russia had convinced the other four countries -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan -- to agree to forbid the military presence of any other country on the sea. This was based on a report in Russian newspaper Kommersant, which quoted a "diplomatic source from one of the Caspian countries" saying that "Moscow managed to convince its partners that no outside power should influence decisions about the Caspian. In particular, the issue is about limiting the deployment of military forces of third countries, especially the U.S., to the Caspian."
It's not clear to what extent the issue came up at the meeting. At a press conference afterwards, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was asked about "the intention of some non-Caspian countries to gain a presence, including military, without taking into account the interests of the countries in the region?" Lavrov answered: "Responsibility for the state of affairs in the Caspian region rests with the Caspian countries... We are open to cooperation with outside countries, if they are ready to do so on the basis of the rules and principles that the five Caspian countries agree on among themselves."
Iran, which never fails to mention the threat of "third powers" when the discussion comes to the Caspian, seemed to make the strongest statement: "The transformation of the Caspian Sea into a sea of peace, friendship, and stability, abstaining from an arms race, refusal to use military force and the unacceptability of military force of non-littoral countries -- these are the fundamental preconditions for the guarantee of peace and maintenance of stability in the region," said Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. (Interestingly, in the Russian military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda's report on the meeting, this comment by Zarif was placed higher than Lavrov's more moderate statement.)
But Azerbaijan appeared to push back against any notion of formally banning outside military powers from the Caspian. A pro-government Baku analyst and journalist, Tofik Abbsov, said in an interview that "President Ilham Aliyev more than once has said that cooperation with the U.S. is only on the economic level. With respect to military-technical cooperation, this is solely in the framework of the NATO Partnership for Peace program," adding that the same was true of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. "Yes, there are some programs, according to which rearmament of the naval and coast guard forces are being carried out, but this is no cause for alarm that some Caspian country could be a corridor for the military presence of other countries in the Caspian region," adding that reports to the contrary were common in the Russian media and served to "escalate the atmosphere of non-existent trends of tension."
In general, there seems to be more optimism than usual that the five countries could be close to an agreement on the delineation of the Caspian. Pro-Kremlin analyst Sergey Mikheev expressed "hope" ahead of Tuesday's meeting that the issue could be resolved by this fall's summit, but after the meeting Lavrov said that wouldn't happen.
One reason for the increased optimism, though, is Iran, which has been probably the most intransigent country on the Caspian. But under the new presidency of Hassan Rouhani, Tehran may be softening, Caucasus analyst Ilgar Velizade told Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "The rhetoric of the Iranian leadership on the delimitation of the national borders has softened somewhat. So, if earlier Tehran was insisting unconditionally on the adherence to the principle of equal shares of the delineation of the sea, now Iranian experts close to the negotiations speak about a fair approach, which takes into account the interests and opinion of the other sides."
Another factor is that the crisis in Ukraine has caused Europe to rethink its reliance on Russian natural gas, and so long-dormant dreams of a pipeline carrying gas from Turkmenistan across the Caspian to Azerbaijan and westward to Europe seem to have been revived. Last week, the president of Azerbaijan's state oil company SOCAR visited Turkmenistan, which followed the visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister to Baku the week before. Thwarting a trans-Caspian pipeline has been one of Moscow's top priorities in the Caspian; now it seems possible its actions in Ukraine could have the unintended consequence of weakening its position in the Caspian.
In this atmosphere, Russia chose an interesting time to conduct its first-ever snap inspection of the military readiness of its Caspian Flotilla. The exercises began Wednesday and are scheduled to last seven days and involve around ten vessels and 400 sailors.