Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit to Azerbaijan is further evidence that Russia is trying to increase its influence and block Western ambitions in the Caspian region.


Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (left). Photo: AP / RIA Novosti

During the visit of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to Azerbaijan, Baku and Moscow agreed to establish a system of collective security in the Caspian region. One of the key steps will be to hold joint emergency response services exercises in 2016. In light of the recent Caspian Summit which took place on Sept. 29 in Astrakhan, such a move potentially has implications for Russia’s relationship with NATO, the ability to combat the spread of jihadist terrorism, and the future of alternative pipeline projects in the region.

Shoigu’s visit to Baku became the first active contact between the two nations after Azerbaijan and Russia could not reach an agreement extending the lease of the radar station in Gabala. Now the period of disagreements seems to have been overcome with varying degrees of success. That also includes the results of the Caspian Summit.

This time, the heads of Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan attended the summit. The main problem for the Caspian littoral states, as was the case in the past, continues to be a problem of dividing the Caspian shelf. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Caspian Five agreed on the division of the water areas, bottom, subsoil, shipping regime, and fisheries of the Caspian Sea. Most of the Caspian waters will remain in common use by all sides.

Moscow also proposed that the participating countries hold joint emergency response services exercises in 2016. The summit adopted a political declaration, signed by the heads of the Caspian Five. The parties involved in the summit agreed that, by 2018, the question of dividing the Caspian shelf would be finally resolved and the relevant document signed. This document, after exactly 20 years of negotiations on the Caspian Sea, will lock in the legal status of the Caspian, and finally define the principles for the exploitation of its resources by the littoral states, as well as provide a delineation of its bodies of water.

Yet, the results of the summit of the Caspian countries in Astrakhan can hardly be regarded as a “breakthrough” or “epoch-making” – or even as a meeting that finally removed all outstanding obstacles for collaboration between the political leaders of these countries. Nevertheless, there was an important decision regarding the issue of dividing up the Caspian shelf that was adopted and recorded in the political declaration of the summit. The decision of the Caspian Five provides for a 25-mile zone for each of the participants – 15 miles in the area of responsibility of each of the littoral states, for the development of Caspian resources (primarily hydrocarbon reserves) and 10 miles – for fishing and navigation.

The special representative of the President of the Russian Federation, Igor Bratchenko, announced the original position of Russia: The Caspian Sea should be available for common use. This position was supported by Iran, which is, to one degree or another, a strategic partner of Moscow. Nevertheless, some participating countries, like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, were in favor of a 25-mile zone of responsibility. No final decision was made at the summit in Astrakhan concerning the division of the shelf – only declared intentions, which they wished to finalize in a document at the next summit in two years.

However, this does not detract from the importance of this summit for Russia and the other players involved in “Caspian affairs.” For Moscow, this summit proved important in terms of the fact that there is a real opportunity to negotiate the exploitation of mineral resources of the Caspian Sea by all Caspian Five powers. To make this reality, Russia showed diplomatic flexibility on this difficult matter.

Why should the West be interested in the Caspian Summit?

As regards other external players – the United States, the EU, Turkey and Israel - who either have their own important interests in the Caspian Sea, or cooperate with some countries of the Caspian region – these players do not consider the issue as having been definitively solved. It is no coincidence that U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki, commenting on the results of the Astrakhan Summit, said it was just a declaration of intentions.

However, in fact, Washington was closely following the course of the meeting, as the Caspian Sea remains a priority area for the national interests of the United States, as well as for Turkey and other NATO countries. The reason is that energy projects involving hydrocarbon exports are being promoted by the United States and other Western countries (including Turkey) as alternatives to similar Russian projects focused on large oil and gas reserves in the Caspian shelf.

Washington has already proposed (and continues to propose) that some countries – including participants of the summit, and in particular, Azerbaijan – be used for basing a “rapid reaction force.” These forces, based around the participation of U.S. troops, would be used “for the protection of pipelines under construction” in Western energy projects.

The implications of the Caspian Summit for the Middle East

As for the countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, this summit is above all important in terms of attracting the attention of such large international organizations as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), in which countries like Russia and Kazakhstan are members. For the Middle East region, also important ​​is the expressed intention of the parties to fight international terrorism. This is especially important today, in light of the war being waged in the vast territories of Syria and Iraq by the Islamic State (IS).

According to recent information, that organization is supported by a terrorist group in Central Asia – the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), whose fighters are involved in terrorist activities in the territories of Afghanistan and Pakistan.


The presidents of the five Caspian nations signed a joint statement on Sept. 29 that outlined future prospects for regional cooperation. Photo: AP / RIA Novosti

Why is the Caspian Summit important for Russia?

The most important result of the summit in Astrakhan is that Moscow has outlined the priorities of its policy in this very important region for Russia – both in terms of energy projects with Russian financing, and from the point of view of strengthening the political position of Moscow in summit countries such as Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Today, the role of the Caspian Sea to Russia’s national interests has substantially increased in value. Especially important is the role of the region in connection with removal of the main part of NATO and American troops from Afghanistan, the acute political crisis in Ukraine, and reorientation of the foreign policy vector of Russia towards Asia.

Moscow will have to take all of this into account in the promotion of its policies in the Caspian Sea, given the collision of positions of Russia and the West, especially in the context of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. The Caspian Sea also factors into the foreign policy calculus of how to proceed with Western sanctions on Russia and Iran. Will the U.S. ever view Iran as a strategic partner after the cancellation of all Western financial and economic sanctions that were imposed on Tehran for the development of its nuclear program?

Still, the main risk for Russia in the Caspian Sea is the high probability of alternative Western hydrocarbons transportation projects in some littoral countries, as well as their political reorientation towards the West, with the possible deployment of contingents of Western military units and ships in the Caspian Sea.

In this regard, Moscow’s proposal to the summit countries to hold joint emergency response services exercises in 2016, are most likely a response to the already mentioned military exercise “Rapid Trident 2014” in western Ukraine. This is to demonstrate the readiness of Russia, jointly with partners comprising the Caspian Five, to respond to NATO countries coming closer to Russia’s borders, including in connection with the events in Ukraine.

This is confirmed by the agreements reached in the course of yesterday’s visit of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Azerbaijan, and the results of his talks with the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev.

Russia and Azerbaijan team up despite past differences

Russia and Azerbaijan agreed on the prospects of establishing a collective security system in the Caspian Region. This system would include the participation of all littoral states, based on the principle, confirmed at the summit, of allowing only armed forces and armaments of the Caspian Five on the Caspian Sea, and no outside countries. In so doing, the participants of the Astrakhan Summit signed an agreement to conduct joint military exercises of the two countries in 2015.

Many in the Russian media were quick to call these arrangements a “Caspian Breakthrough.” This was surprising to many experts, who believed that Baku was more focused on partnerships, including military ones, with the United States, Turkey and Israel. As such, Baku was unlikely to have agreed to take part in such joint exercises with Russia, not to mention the creation of a collective security system of the Caspian Five.

It looks like Baku has seriously reviewed its security needs in light of recent events in Ukraine. Obviously, concerned about the prospects of a Ukrainian-style Maidan occurring in Azerbaijan, as well as the more real Islamist and jihadist threat unleashed by ISIS (that could possibly spread to Azerbaijan), Baku reconsidered.

The remaining question is Turkmenistan, which is most likely playing a great game with the West. Turkmenistan evidently wishes to export its own raw hydrocarbons (primarily gas) by actively participating in Western pipeline projects that are alternatives to Russian pipeline projects.

However, the rise of the Islamist threat in the Central Asian region, again, in the light of possible joint terrorist activities by the ISIS and Taliban, may encourage Ashgabat to participate in the collective security system in the Caspian Sea proposed by Russia. That is when, it seems, we will be able to talk about Russia beginning to untie the difficult “Caspian Knot."