Armed Caspian becomes dangerous
By Victoria Panfilova, an NG observer, exclusively for Vestnik Kavkaza
At the end of September – early October, Russia and Iran will carry out joint military drills in the Caspian Sea to train maritime security-enforcement operations. Iranian military attaché to Moscow Col. Suleiman Adeli said: “Iran and Russia want Caspian states to maintain maritime security without interference of foreign states. They consider presence of foreigners a source of tensions and conflict.”
When they mention “foreign interference”, they usually keep the US in mind. Although, it is not only the US that has political, military-strategic and economic interests in the region. The EU and China have own palates. The reason why Caspian states arm themselves is terrorism, extremism, separatism and expansionism of the West. These are the new threats of the Caspian Sea. The US strategy in the Middle East remains a sensitive issue for the Caspian Sea, but the steps made in the Middle East to disrupt the balance of power by pressing on Syria may cause problems for all Caspian and Trans-Caucasus states.
“The Caspian Sea Region is on the edge of changes. Changes in the Middle East and Afghanistan may aggravate problems in the Caspian,” assumes Jakhangir Karami, a professor of the Tehran University. Sergey Mikheyev, Director of the Institute for Caspian Cooperation, has a similar opinion: “The West is trying to connect the maritime path through the Caspian to the transit route for transfer of US cargo from Afghanistan. They are working on different options. They use the Kazakh section of the Caspian. Some other countries may join it. At the same time, there are rumours that some weapons will be left for countries that help withdraw from Afghanistan through their territories. It would be fair to suppose that the countries intensify cooperation with the West in military terms. In any case, presence of third states in the Caspian (be it the US or any other group) will augment the armament drive among Caspian states.” According to Mikheyev, the problem of militarization of the Caspian should be regulated in a five-sided format and concluded with a security agreement.
Natural riches of the Caspian Region make the situation more complicated. There is a fierce struggle for energy resources and its pace keeps escalating. Serijan Mambetalin, head of the expert council of the Foundation for Preservation of the Caspian Sea, said: “When there are large quantities of oil and big American interests, there is always a risk of a big war.” He supposes that infrastructure of Port Aktau will be used for transshipment of US cargo from Afghanistan.
Mambetalin expressed fears lest the US base at the Aktau Port should have permanent presence. The expert says that it will be a good opportunity for Americans to call the northern area of the Caspian its zone of economic and monitor water areas of the Caspian and northern part of Iran. Chevron and Exxon Mobil are working on the Kashagan Field.
China bought 8.3% of the Kashagan project in September. China owns the Karajanbas Field in the western part of Kazakhstan. However, China has not entered the Caspian Sea yet. The deal may become a problem for Moscow and Astana.
Considering all the network of interests, the armament drive and regular independent and joint military drills become evident. What aggravates the situation is that the five Caspian states have not come to an agreement on the status of the hydrocarbon-rich sea. Its hydrocarbon resources are distributed unevenly along the coast, so every country claims for more area. They tend to show their strength and try to involve non-regional players to have them join their side. Further studies of the armament drive of the Caspian states makes fears of experts more reasonable. Specialists say that the situation is under control, but leaders of the five Caspian states should discuss the problem of disarmament, especially in the light of the Caspian Sea being the “sea of friendship.”
The Caspian Flotilla of Russia has 27 ships and dozens of vessels. Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Naval Forces, told journalists that the Caspian Flotilla will get 16 new ships before 2020. The Zelenodolsk Shipyard named after Gorky has put the stealth Dagestan guard ship to the Caspian Fleet. It is the most powerful ship in the Caspian Sea. It has a water displacement of 1500 tons. The ship is armed with the Kalibr-NK missiles (range of 300km) capable of hitting targets in the sea and coast. The Tatarstan guard ship, for comparison, is the flagship of the Caspian Flotilla is armed with the Uran missile system capable of hitting targets in the sea at a range of 130km.
Kazakhstan is building a naval base at Aktau. It has about 17 motorboats. The first missile ship produced in Kazakhstan has a water displacement of 250 tons. It was launched in spring 2012. Several more warships will be built in the next couple of years. Kazakhstan is planning to turn the Aktau Port into a transportation hub for military cargo from Afghanistan, bypassing Russia. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, over 15,000 containers passed the port in 2009-2011, the majority of cargo shipped through the Northern Transportation Network. Yermek Kojamberliyev, Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Kazakh Naval Forces, has recently told the journalists that “the monitoring and communication system along our coast will be completed by 2016, allowing us to carry out full monitoring of the Kazakh sector of the sea and will be put into the basis ACS of the Naval Forces. In Astana, we will be able to sea the real situation in the Caspian Sea.” Kazakh sailors will get two more ships by the end of the year. Kazakhstan is also expecting the US to help with development of maritime aviation.
Iran has the second strongest fleet in the Caspian Sea. It used to have no missile ships until recently. Its Jamaran-2 destroyer introduced changes to the fleet’s potential. The Iranian Flotilla of the Caspian has 90 more motorboats and mine-sweeping vessels. The Iranian Naval Forces are planned to be further enforced with anti-ship missiles, artillery systems and a helicopter. Iranian Vice Admiral Abbas Zamini, Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Iranian Naval Forces, said in June that Tehran was planning to launch light submarines in the Caspian Sea.
Azerbaijan has 30 patrol boats produced in Turkey and three in the US. Besides, the US helped Azerbaijan build radar stations along the coast and a center for operative control in Baku. Azerbaijan has recently announced signing of an agreement for construction of several ships, including two submarines.
Turkmenistan started building up its naval potential in 2009 when President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov announced plans to build a naval base to protect maritime borders of the republic. Earlier, Turkmenistan purchased the Kalkan-M and Grif-T patrol boats in Ukraine and rented 7 motorboats and a destroyer in Iran. It purchased three guard ships with remotely-operated missiles in Russia in 2008 and two Sobol patrol boats in 2009. Ashkhabad bought two patrol boats in Turkey and the Molniya missile boats in Russia in 2012. The latter carry 16 Uran-E anti-ship missiles (range 130km). motorboats are the optimal vessel to maintain security, because cruising radius in the Caspian Sea is unessential. Turkmenistan signed a contract worth $130 million with Hyundai Amco (South Korea) last year to build a shipyard and a ship-repairing facility in Turkmenbashi to start constructing own Arkadag patrol boats.