Russia’s New Caspian Naval Base
Moscow has begun building a new naval base at Kaspiisk in Dagestan to control the Caspian Sea. It will accommodate all of the Caspian Flotilla’s guided missile vessels and ensure rapid deployment for use of high-precision strike assets. This base is supposed to become the most advanced of all bases compared to those in the Arctic, Black, and Baltic Seas. Clearly, this is the latest example of Russia’s consistent strategy to dominate not only the former USSR but also to project long-range military power into the Middle East as well. Indeed, we saw the previous use of Caspian flotillas ships to launch the deadly Kalibr sea-launched cruise missile into Syria.
Russian expert Sergei Mikheyev openly stated the reasons for this base. He observed that “The region is of growing interest for third countries. It is rich in oil and gas. Besides, an alternative corridor from Central Asia to the West via post-Soviet Transcaucasia can go through it. The idea is promoted by the Americans and the Europeans but Russia and Iran are against it.” In other words, now that China is building its belt and road through Central Asia and the Caucasus to Europe and the gas corridor from Azerbaijan to Europe is simultaneously gearing up, Moscow intends to protect the former and threaten the latter. This move also deserves to be seen in the context of the recent announcement of joint Irano-Russian energy exploration in the Caspian and of the possibility of the return of Russian oil exports to Azerbaijan apart from the preparations for the TANAP-TAP pipeline bringing Azeri gas to Turkey and Europe after 2019.
Thus the construction of this base represents part of Moscow’s long-term strategy to shelter the Caucasus and Central Asia behind an impenetrable series of land, naval, and air defense networks and bastions. It is quite clear as a result of these developments that Moscow, if not Tehran, will also not accept any delimitation of the Caspian that allows for gas and oil transmission across that sea from Central Asia to the West. This essentially means a freeze or continuing lack of legal resolution of the status of the Caspian because the other littoral states: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan cannot accept that the Caspian become a Mare Clausus, i.e. a closed sea, dominated by Russian naval power. This base and the augmentation of the overall capability of the Caspian Flotilla represents therefore an overt statement of Russia’s permanent capacity and intention to threaten and hold at risk Azeri, Kazakh, Turkmen, and Uzbek energy shipments or territory from long-ranges, i.e. not only by using ground forces. We can also expect that Moscow will soon also announce an accompanying air defense network to add to this base and to the other air and ship defense “bubbles” that encase the so called southern tier of the Black Sea, Caucasus, and Central Asia. These bubbles comprise the land, air, and ship-based anti-air defenses at Gyumri in Armenia, the Black Sea and around Ukraine and in Syria. Indeed, it already is the case that Turkey, for all practical purposes is encircled by Russian forces to its north, east and south in the Black Sea, Caucasus, and Syria. The new base will only increase that encirclement.
Similarly this new base expresses Moscow’s ongoing determination to project long-term and long-range military power into the Middle East and even close to the Persian Gulf. The Mediterranean Eskadra, a successor the Soviet version that was similarly named, began permanent deployments in 2013 and has steadily grown since then and now has the modernizing Black Sea Fleet to support it as well. It has for some time showed this intention with prior statements and actions to ensure a network of bases from Cyprus and Syria to Egypt where Moscow has expressed an interest in a base, Libya, where we can expect a request for a base once that country is stabilized, and in Yemen where Russia is aiding the Iranian-backed Houthis. The Russian Ministry of Defense has long since proclaimed its desire for this regional network of naval bases and experts are no less candid in explaining the strategic justification for this policy. Thus Mikheyev also said the Caspian Sea is a valuable asset for the Russian military as it is located close to the Middle East and directly borders on Central Asia. “The Syrian operation showed that the Caspian Sea is a safe launching pad for cruise missiles. It can accommodate our warships armed with high-precision weapons. The sea is out of reach for potential adversaries and third country navies,” he said. Ultimately, clearly, Moscow is not content merely to dominate the Caspian and Black Seas and their littorals. It also wants to project lasting and long-range military power into the Middle East and connect it to those installations it is now building in the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East. Bearing this in mind it is worth asking how many strategists in foreign countries actually grasp Moscow’s grand strategy or design and what it means? More pointedly what will foreign governments do to counter this threat to their interests?