Author: Ilgar VELIZADEH, political scientist
Azerbaijan's role in the military-political plans of Russia and the United States is increasing. The recent visit of the Russian Minister of Defence, Sergey Shoigu, to Azerbaijan and his negotiations with the political and military leadership of Azerbaijan, the visit of the Azerbaijani Minister of Defence, Zakir Hasanov, to Brussels to attend the summit of defence ministers of countries contributing to the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, as well as the meeting of defence ministers of Azerbaijan and the US initiated by Americans are clear evidence of this fact.
This was most likely due to the growing importance of Azerbaijan in the Caspian region. The US considers the route through Azerbaijan, which also means the Caspian, vital in the context of the supply of goods to Afghanistan. Because the southern route through Pakistan has long been considered problematic given the tension between Pakistan and the US, the route through Azerbaijan and the Caspian is actually the main one.
On the other hand, the Caspian becomes an increasingly important part of the Russian military strategy in the region because the region is in close proximity to zones of military-political tension (the Black Sea and the Middle East), where Russian interests are most clearly expressed. Thus, the processes taking place in and around the Caspian are particularly relevant today.
According to peace treaties between the Russian Empire and Persia (the 1813 Gulustan Peace Treaty and the 1828 Turkmanchai Peace Treaty), only Russia had an exclusive right to keep a military fleet in the Caspian Sea. The same clause was agreed in the Soviet-Iranian treaties of 1921 and 1940, according to which the parties agreed to assign the Caspian a status of an internal reservoir, excluding the presence of any ships of other states.
"Militarisation of the Caspian Sea" as a term
The situation changed only with the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the previous agreements maintaining the status quo of the past two centuries began to change significantly. The appearance of four new states in the Caspian, including Russia, urged the creation of individual military fleets. For obvious reasons, the same was true for Iran.
Experts would later define the process of military construction in the Caspian as "the militarisation of the Caspian Sea." This process has been active since the second half of the 2000s, according to national plans for the development of navy in the Caspian, based on both tactical and long-term vision of the national interests of regional states. At the same time, the decision of the Caspian Five to prevent the operation of military vessels of the third countries in the Caspian oblige them to rely solely on their own forces in matters of security.
Significant difference in the size, population, domestic and foreign policy priorities of the littoral countries directly affects the requirements for the establishment of regional navy. Therefore, the issues related to the establishment of the navy in the Caspian are of exceptional importance for countries such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, since they do not have access to oceans and their armed forces are designed for limited use.
Meanwhile, Iran is likely to see the Caspian Sea used as a platform outside the range of its potential opponents to ensure effective protection from a possible strike. According to experts, under the existing conditions and with a well-equipped military navy in the Persian Gulf, Iran can quickly dispatch its military vessels from the south increasing the size of its navy in the Caspian by almost twice.
On the other hand, amid the growing tension in relations with Ukraine and NATO, Russia with its powerful navy in the Black Sea has recently practiced the transfer of a group of military vessels from the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea through the Volga-Don Canal.
Located in close proximity to the Black Sea, the Persian Gulf and the north-eastern part of the Middle East, the Caspian Sea is an important geostrategic position for the armed forces of Russia and Iran.
Remarkably, Russia is transforming the role of its navy in the Caspian in order to strengthen its influence in the east of the Middle East and Central Asia. Small missile ships capable of launching small and medium-range cruise missiles increase Russia's military and political interests both in the Middle East and in the Caspian-Black Sea basin.
The development of the Caspian security system
Thanks to Azerbaijan's strategic position between Russia and Iran, and well-equipped and mobile navy, the country is trying to distance itself as much as possible from the US-Russian and US-Iranian confrontations. At the same time, Azerbaijan takes an active part in the development of a regional security system that prevents the presence of the military forces of third countries in the Caspian Sea and envisages strengthening the security between all five littoral states.
Back in mid-October, the commanders of the naval forces of the Caspian littoral states signed a memorandum of understanding. The signing ceremony was held as part of the third working meeting of the representatives of the Caspian Five in St. Petersburg. Experts note that the document significantly strengthens the evolving system of Caspian security, providing for cooperation in the fields of security, training, technical and marine rescue services.
On November 18, 2010, Baku hosted the third summit on the security issues attended by representatives of the littoral states. The breakthrough decisions made during the summit in this sensitive area were reflected in the convention defining the political and legal status of the Caspian Sea. In particular, an agreement on cooperation in the field of security in the Caspian Sea.
The agreement clearly stated that a set of security measures should be taken to ensure the fight against terrorism, organised crime, smuggling, illegal trafficking of weapons of any kind and ammunition, explosive and toxic substances, and military equipment. This also includes combating the illicit trafficking of drugs, psychotropic substances and their precursors, money laundering, safety of maritime navigation, fight against piracy, etc. Azerbaijan took a leading role in the implementation of all these points and is considered as the most important partner by all actors.
To strengthen the security system in the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan also interact with non-regional players, particularly the US. Back in 2018, the Kazakh Senate approved the use of the sea ports Kuryk and Aktau for the transfer of US military cargo to Afghanistan through the Caspian Sea. Later, the Kazakh Minister of Foreign Affairs Kayrat Abdrakhmanov stated that there were no plans to deploy US military bases in the Caspian: "Our agreement assumes commercial railway transit of non-lethal cargo through Kazakhstan to continue operations necessary to support the Afghan government... It is not about any military bases in the Caspian," the Kazakh diplomat said.
Thus, in partnership with Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan creates conditions for various partners to cooperate in terms of ensuring security in the Caspian Sea by preventing conflict of interest and increasing their interest in maintaining regional peace and stability.
Position of Baku
Earlier this year, Joshua Kucera, an American journalist specializing in security issues in Central Asia, wrote for Eurasianet: "From the American perspective, the Caspian Sea is particularly strategically sensitive because it borders Iran, and the U.S. has long quietly worked to help Azerbaijan stand up for itself against the significantly stronger Iranian Caspian military presence." He recalls a tense 2009 standoff between Iranian and Azerbaijani vessels, which was a turning point that demonstrated "the U.S.'s deep involvement in helping Azerbaijan with its maritime security."
However, Baku has its own opinion on this matter. In October 2019, the acting Commander of Navy, 1st rank Captain Zaur Hummatov (Azerbaijan) assured to the 1st Region Commander of Navy, 2nd rank Captain Mujtaba Mohammedi (Iran) that the cooperation between both countries in the Caspian Sea is constructive at all levels. Baku has no intention to be a rival to any of the neighbouring Caspian countries. The agreement concluded between Iran and Azerbaijan to conduct joint military operations and exercises also confirms the conditions of effective cooperation between both countries.
Azerbaijan remains committed to the same position in its relations with Russia. It is no coincidence that Baku was among the first countries informed about the operation of the Russian military space forces against ISIS terrorists in Syria, carried out from the Dagestan missile cruiser. This is an indicator of the high level of trust established between Baku and Moscow over the past years. It is this level of trust that makes one of the cornerstones of security in the Caspian and plays an important role in ensuring peace and stability in the region.
In general, security in the Caspian is a rapidly emerging military-political phenomenon, which is of great importance for both regional relations and world politics. Azerbaijan continues to play an increasingly prominent role in this process every year.