The Caspian littoral countries pursue very different and sometimes conflicting regional policies. Understanding what the motivation of each country is will help decision makers in the United States formulate policies in America’s interests.
The Caspian Sea and its surrounding region has been strategically important for centuries. The Caspian is located in the heart of the Eurasian landmass and lies nestled between two energy consuming markets: Europe and Asia. Key global transit routes have crisscrossed the region for millennia. Today billions of dollars, mainly as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), are being invested to connect the region to the rest of the world. Like spokes on a wheel, new roads, pipelines, and rail lines are being constructed, connecting the Caspian to Europe, East Asia, and India. The latest example of this is the Kars-Tbilisi-Baku rail line that officially opened just last year.
The Caspian is located in an area of significant natural resources, which serve as the main drivers of regional economic activity. The abundance of natural resources is also one of main reasons the region is prone to outside influence. Today, more outside actors are in the region than ever before. Turkey, though not a Caspian littoral state, maintains very close cultural, linguistic, historical, and economic links to the region. China is investing heavily in the region’s infrastructure as part of its BRI. The United States showed a lot of interest in the region immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall and again after the tragic events of 9/11, but has placed the region on the back burner in recent years. Europe is also involved, but has little influence in the region. This is extremely shortsighted considering the economic and energy potential the region could offer Europe.
Added to the region’s geo-political complexity is the fact that three of the five Caspian littoral states are young: Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. These states gained independence in the early 1990’s. The other two, Russia and Iran, see themselves as having a special role in Caspian affairs due to their past hegemony in the region, which lasted for centuries. Russia in particular, struggles to maintain its power, using energy policy, defense sales, and frozen conflicts to exert maximum control in the Caspian region. Iran, emboldened by the 2015 Nuclear Deal, is becoming increasingly active in the region, much like it was in the 18th century.
The Strategic Importance of the Caspian for the U.S.A.
The Caspian region is a place where a multitude of challenges and opportunities converge for the U.S. On the one hand, the region is prone to many of the problems the U.S. faces around the world: a resurgent Russia, an emboldened China, a meddling Iran, and the rise of Islamist extremism. On the other hand, there are many economic opportunities between the U.S. and the region, oil and gas resources, which can help reduce Europe’s dependency on Russia, and the potential for close connections with regional partners who could help solve larger problems such as the conflict in Afghanistan and the fight against extremism.
Unlike many of the other actors in the region, the U.S. is a relative newcomer to the Caspian. Today, U.S. interests in the Caspian region derive primarily from its security commitment to Europe’s NATO members, the war against transnational terrorism, and the desire to balance Chinese, Russian and Iranian influence in the region.
While none of the Caspian countries is in NATO, meaning the region receives no security guarantees, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan are members of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. All have helped NATO operations in Afghanistan to varying degrees,
Turkmenistan probably the least, and Azerbaijan the most. Azerbaijan currently maintains 90 soldiers for the NATO-led operation there. Azerbaijan is also a regular contributor to NATO exercises, although it recently and unexpectedly pulled out of the U.S.-led Nobel Partner exercise in August 2017.
America’s primary goals in the Caspian region can be summed up with five “S”: sovereign, secure, self-governing, secular, and settled:
A sovereign Caspian. There are cases across the Caspian of illegal occupation undermining national sovereignty. Between Armenia’s occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and Russia’s occupation of Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia there is an estimated 25,000 sq km under illegal occupation in the broader Caspian region. Many of the region’s important pipelines, highways and rail lines run within mere kilometers of these areas of occupation. Furthermore, these frozen conflicts are the means by which Moscow exerts most of its influence in the region. The U.S. should support policies and initiatives that help end these occupations and bring stability to the region.
A secure Caspian. The U.S. should promote polices in the Caspian region that augment regional security. A secure Caspian region brings many economic, trade, and energy opportunities. Assisting the Caspian in becoming a stable and secure transit and production zone for energy resources will greatly benefit America’s interests and that of its allies. A secure Caspian will also encourage much needed foreign investment.
A self-governing Caspian. It is in America’s interests that Caspian countries remain self-governing with little or no influence from outside or regional powers. This is particularly true of Russia’s malign influence and hybrid tactics in the region. Strong and stable governments resilient to outside influence are in America’s interests in the region.
A secular Caspian. Radical Islamist movements, with the exception of those in Iran and the Republic of Dagestan—a federal subject of Russia, which accounts for two-thirds of Russia’s Caspian shoreline—have not established a presence in the Caspian region the same way they in the Middle East and North Africa. This is mainly due to do the secular nature of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. It is in America’s interest that the situation remain this way.
A settled Caspian. The leaders of the five Caspian nations signed the Convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea after 22 years, 52 working group meetings, and five Caspian Summits. This agreement paves the way for the completion of the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline potentially linking Central Asian energy markets with Europe, bypassing Russia and Iran. While this agreement outlines how and by whom the Caspian can be used, it failed to address many of the delineation issues in the Caspian that have been the source of tension in recent years. It is in America’s interests that these bilateral disagreements regarding the delineation of the Caspian are resolved.
U.S. engagement in the region remains minimal despite these five very important goals. One of the biggest challenges facing Washington with Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan is the perceived transactional nature of relations between the U.S. and these states.
By the late 1990s, the U.S. lost much of its enthusiasm for engaging with the Caspian region that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. sought to reengage with the region to secure transit and basing rights for operations in Afghanistan. Some countries in the region sent troops to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, opened transit routes, and offered basing support to the U.S. and NATO. While the countries in the region were looking for a long-term relationship, once the Afghan drawdown began in 2014, the U.S. pulled back from the region. It became clear that the U.S. was not interested in building enduring relations.
The region could become very important once again for the United States in light of President Trump’s Afghan strategy. A key plank of the Administration’s Afghan strategy is pressuring Pakistan to end its support for the Taliban and associated groups. A consequence of this approach with Islamabad might be that the ground and air resupplies transiting Pakistani territory could be cut or stopped altogether. If this happens, the Caspian region could become very important for the military effort in Afghanistan.
The Obama Administration had little meaningful engagement with the Caspian region outside the context of Afghanistan other than setting up the “C5+1” dialogue. (The C5+1 initiative is a U.S.-led effort created by former Secretary of State John Kerry. The primary goal is to create a multilateral format for the five Central Asian republics and the U.S. to build relations.) In 2012 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Azerbaijan. In November 2015 Secretary of State John Kerry visited all five countries in Central Asia, including the Caspian states of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. However, nothing from these visits marked a major change in U.S. policy toward the Caspian region.
The Trump Administration, distracted by domestic issues, has not formulated an apparent strategy for the region and U.S. engagement remains minimal. On a positive note, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held a C5+1 meeting in New York City during this year’s United National General Assembly meeting. At a minimum, this shows that the U.S. will continue with this Obama era initiative—which is generally viewed as positive. Recently U.S. National Security Advisor, John Bolton, visited Baku.
The way forward
The four central pillars of a sensible U.S. strategy for Caspian region should be security, economic cooperation, energy, and good governance. For too long, the U.S. has focused too much on just one of these four issues, usually at the expense of the others. This is not a healthy or sustainable way to advance U.S. interests in the region.
Furthermore, the U.S. needs to develop a strategy for engagement in the Caspian region that promotes friendship and mutual respect, economic prosperity, regional stability, and the wise-use of energy resources, while remaining conscious of the consequences of increased Russian, Iranian, and Chinese influence in the region. Fostering realistic and pragmatic ties with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan with the goal of these two countries being the anchor of U.S. influence in the region on their respective sides of the Caspian should be at the heart of this strategy.
In conjunction with political support for major infrastructure projects, the U.S. should promote economic policies in the region that lead to diversified local economies. The areas of focus should be in the agriculture, manufacturing, and services sectors. This is especially important in light of recent oil prices. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan are strategically poised for economic growth because they supply raw materials to the Chinese and East Asian markets, which are expanding. U.S. businesses should take advantage of opportunities in the Caspian region, as Russia and China are already doing.
The transactional nature of America’s relationship with Caspian countries following 9-11 was shortsighted for two reasons: first, it created the perception with countries in the region that as soon as the U.S. gets what it wants, it moves on. Second, it has diminished any good will that the U.S. created in the region. Regaining trust in the region in the coming years will prove more difficult as a result of these past actions. Considering how important the region is to a broader Eurasia strategy dealing with Russia, China and Iran, this will have negative consequences for U.S. policy.
It is not too late for the Trump Administration to change course and engage with the region. The Caspian region has always been, and will remain an area of geopolitical importance and competition. If the U.S. is to have a grand strategy to deal with a resurgent Russia and an emboldened Iran and to improve Europe’s energy security, policymakers in Washington cannot ignore the Caspian region.
Sources: All Things Considered (NPR), AKIPress News Agency, Fitzroy Maclean, To Caucasus: The End of All the Earth, Al Jazeera, Jamestown.org, Odkb.gov.ru, The Diplomat, Turkmenistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, AzerNews, Russia Beyond, Eia.gov, Middle East Policy Council, The New York Times, The Journal of Armenian Studies, Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan, RadioFreeEurope RadioLiberty, Forbes.