Caspian Delimitation and its Likely Consequences
On December 4-5 foreign ministers from all the Caspian Sea’s littoral states are scheduled to convene at Russia’s initiative in Moscow. The obvious agenda will be work on a draft convention establishing a legal demarcation for the Caspian Sea. And the announcement of this meeting occurred amidst complementary reports that the five littoral states: Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, are close to a long-awaited agreement on that demarcation. If demarcation, which has been discussed for almost 25 years, is about to become a reality it is worth speculating as to what that might mean for these states.
First, it would mean that Russia and Iran had largely brought the other states around to their views that would exclude non-littoral states from Caspian energy commerce and presumably other forms of commerce traversing that sea’s common waters. While the littoral states might be able to explore for energy off their coasts in their territorial waters; there would be no maritime route available to bring hydrocarbons from one end of the sea to another. In other words, all hope of a trans-Caspian gas (and oil) pipeline would disappear, further confirming Turkmenistan’s and Kazakhstan’s dependence on pipelines traversing Russia for energy exports to Europe.
Second, not only would Russia and Iran be successful in persuading if not enforcing their views on the other states, such an agreement would further consolidate the overall strategic partnership between Moscow and Iran. Apart from the obvious manifestations of that partnership in Syria, the Middle East more generally, bilateral energy deals, and Russian arms sales, this would offer Russia and Iran the real possibility to open up their vaunted North-South trade route program to India without traversing either Azerbaijan or Central Asia. That outcome reduces tariffs that might accrue to those states. And if major land-based infrastructural projects ensue through Azerbaijan-the likely candidate for such programs- to Iran from Russia and thence to India, they would go far towards moving Baku towards greater harmony with both Tehran and Moscow and greater receptivity on its part to Russian economic pressure. Moscow has long, albeit unsuccessfully, to induce Azerbaijan to join the Eurasian Economic Community. A tripartite link-up with Iran and Azerbaijan would stimulate further such pressure and back it up with real material clout that Moscow would undoubtedly not hesitate to use. Azerbaijan’s ties to Iran, which have steadily improved since 2012 would also improve further and Iran would gain an alternative outlet to Western markets through Azerbaijan, not the least of which might be Western energy markets. But that development would also mean substantially more Iranian influence in Azerbaijan. If, indeed, these developments come to pass, they would exert a considerable momentum towards diverting Azerbaijan away from its independence in foreign economic and foreign policy and its self-professed leanings to the West.
Third, assuming that Moscow and Tehran can persuade other littoral states of their view that would exclude foreign naval presence in the form of not only deployments (which are, in any case extraordinarily difficult for navies in an enclosed sea) but of arms sales and training programs. If we assume that Moscow sees the Caspian as essentially a Mare Clausus, a closed sea, and taking into account the big naval base it is building at Kaspiisk that can dominate the entire Caspian littoral and project long-range strikes for hundreds of miles beyond it into the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and possibly into the Gulf then the strategic implications of this agreement become clear. Essentially both Iran and Russia will have closed the Caucasus to Western military presence and would also be jointly restricting it in Central Asia except for the U.S./NATO presence in Afghanistan that they are, in any case, attempting to subvert through their support for the Taliban. Moscow would also be able to hold at risk opposing militaries in the Middle East with a capability that might extend even into the Persian Gulf.
None of these outcomes benefits either the Central Asian states, Azerbaijan, or Western interests. But if this agreement ensues it will be due to the stubbornly persistent but incredibly myopic Western strategic neglect of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Such neglect is in no way benign. Indeed it is quite malignant. But it is largely by such strategic inattention that Moscow and Tehran have continued to advance their agendas and until it is reversed they will continue to do so.