The Militarization of the Caspian Sea is Inevitable: Cooperation is Needed

14 September 2013
A- A A+

There is a strong linkage between energy and security. It can be a factor both for cooperation and conflicts, namely it can push forward for cooperation between two states, while at the same time can create tension between them. This tendency can be applied to Caspian Sea, which contains one of the largest oil and gas areas of the world. The energy diplomacy has been key factor for the political and economic development of Caspian states. The exploration and transportation of energy resources to world markets has been a central element of their foreign policies, and has enabled them to strengthen their sovereignty.

According to the US Department of Energy, the Caspian region contains about 10% of the world’s potential oil reserves, as well as vast unknown natural gas deposits. The majority of the Caspian Sea’s natural gas and oil fields are located in the water territories of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Caspian Sea offers several pipelines opportunities to deliver energy resources of Caspian Sea to world markets. However, discussions continue on opening new pipeline routes, such as Trans-Caspian natural gas pipeline. A Trans-Caspian pipeline which considered for export of Turkmen gas to Europe remains as a geopolitical puzzle. Despite efforts by EU, US and Turkey, Turkmenistan doesn’t make any significant step toward implementation of project.

For that reason, the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso visited Azerbaijan in 2011. Following signing of “the Joint Declaration on the Establishment of a Southern Gas Corridor” by Jose Manuel Barroso and the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, a new agreement have been signed the next day by Gunther Oettinger, European Energy Commissioner, and Natig Aliyev, Energy Minister of Azerbaijan, concerning the creation of a mixed task force (European Commission, Azerbaijan and companies involved) that will facilitate investment plans and will deal with any problems that will come up during the realization of the Southern Corridor project.” (1)

Since, Shah Deniz II finalized the decision-making in favour of Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, the next mission will be the Trans-Caspian puzzle for European Union. The long negotiated Trans-Caspian pipeline project is considered a first leg of the Southern Gas Corridor. However, because of known/unknown reasons project remains frozen. Actually, according many observers project cannot be realized because of Russian and Iranian resistance, or territorial disputes in Caspian Sea between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. However, official circles in Baku currently is also not interested in realization of Trans-Caspian pipeline, and wants to be main supplier for Southern Gas Corridor which means SOCAR is eager to pump natural gas from Azerbaijani fields only rather than other countries’ sources. On the other hand, the much larger gas reserves of Turkmenistan are likely to be exported to Asian markets due to Turkmenistan’s numerous agreements signed with China, Russia, Iran and Afghanistan.

“Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, Caspian was fully dominated by the Soviet Union and all the matters regarding the sea and use of its natural resources were defined by the participation of only two coastal states - the USSR and Iran. Transit and transportation capacity of the Caspian region is not only limited to export of hydrocarbon resources. The Caspian region has great potential for facilitating transportation of cargo and containers in the East-West and North-South directions and development of trade between Asia and Europe.” As it is largely known, the Great Silk Road also passed through the Caspian region. (2)

During Soviet Union, the boundaries of Caspian Sea were subjected to the agreements between Russia and Iran. Following the dissolution of Soviet Union, three former-Soviet republics - Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan - emerged as independent states around Caspian Sea. After gaining their independence, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan signed their first contract with Western energy companies in order to explore the untapped energy resources in the Caspian Sea. Roughly after that, Iran and Turkmenistan raised the territorial claim in the Caspian, which raised the question of “Legal Status of Caspian Sea” again. Thus far, there is not any final agreement which may solve the legal status of Caspian Sea and coastal countries have been sparring over on how to divide it among five states. “Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan trilaterally have agreed on the issue, but Iran’s position is the main problem here. Iran claims its rights for one-fifth part of the Sea, which is unacceptable for other Caspian states. Similar problems exist in the relations between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, as well as between Azerbaijan and Iran. These countries still argue about the borders of their sectors in the Caspian Sea.” (3) The Caspian region is potential spot for turning into point of confrontation and conflict, as Russian defence magazine described the situation in Caspian Sea – “a keg of gunpowder in a sea of black gold”. Recent years, Caspian Sea experienced the increasing military capacity by its littoral states. The Caspian states are rapidly flexing their military muscles.

Russia: Constant Military Power

“Russia’s response to the militarization of the Caspian region appeared in kind way: the regular wide-scale military exercises and the gathering-campaign of the Caspian Flotilla are an important part of Putin’s Caspian Initiative.” (4) Russia is also strengthening its Caspian flotilla by deploying there new missile and landing ships, shore-based supersonic anti-ship missiles, vessels, units of patrol ships, minesweepers, radar picket ships, combat and auxiliary craft of various classes, and boats. “Tsar Peter the Great created Russia’s Caspian Flotilla in 1722, and a quote from him still shines on a plaque at the flotilla’s headquarters: “Our interests will never allow any other nation to claim the Caspian Sea.” (5) “Russia has built a military airfield near Dagestan to receive all types of aircraft, which enables an efficient use of aviation in combination with ships of the flotilla and air defence units of the district.  The naval aviation of the Caspian Flotilla received amphibious airplanes, and patrol and antisubmarine helicopters Ka-25 and Ka-27.” (6) “Russia’s second frigate in the Black Sea flotilla is planned to be transported to the Caspian as part of a plan to add 16 new ships to the fleet by 2020. Russia is building up its naval air forces in the region, and establishing coastal missile units armed with anti-ship rockets capable of hitting targets in the middle of the sea.” (7) Further, Russian Ministry of Defence ordered the construction of three new Buyan-class corvettes to be used in the Caspian. In July of 2012, Russia launched the new military ship “Dagestan,” equipped with SS-N-27 “Sizzler” missiles. This is the first military ship in Russia equipped with this type of missile. With the launching of the Dagestan, the Russian Caspian fleet has increased its number of Gepard-class frigates to two (the first one is the “Tatarstan”).

Iran: Second Caspian Power After Russia

After Russia, Iran owns second largest navy in the Caspian Sea. “Iran has built up its navy on the Caspian during the Soviet era to a force of close to 100 missile boats, two of which are equipped with Chinese C-802 anti-ship missiles.” (8) “Iran owns a Jamaran-class ship in the Caspian. With a displacement of about 1,400 tonnes, the Jamaran is the largest ship in its Caspian fleet, and is designed to host an armed helicopter.” (9) “On 17 March 2013 the Iranian navy launched a new Jamaran-2 destroyer in the Caspian Sea which equipped with modern radars, electronic warfare capabilities, torpedoes and naval cannons, as well as has a helipad. The destroyer features highly advanced anti-aircraft, anti-surface and anti-subsurface systems.” (10)

Kazakhstan: Trying to Catch Up the Militarization Process

Another Caspian littoral state, Kazakhstan, launched a new domestically produced rocket-artillery ship, which features a new rocket-artillery system as well as modern navigation. This year, Kazakhstan will launch two more of these rocket-artillery ships and in 2016; Astana plans to open a marine training station.” (11) “Kazakhstan’s major naval base in the Caspian is the port of Aktau. Since 2004 Kazakhstan has bought several Grif and Kalkan-class patrol boats equipped with missiles from Ukraine. In 2010, 4 US Navy assault boats were delivered to Kazakhstan on a free-of charge basis within the framework of bilateral defence cooperation. Two Super Bars-class missile boats are to be bought from Russia in the near future. Additionally, a cooperation agreement was signed between Azerbaijani’s Special Warfare Naval Unit and Kazakhstan’s Naval Special Forces.” (12) “Kazakhstan has also contracted with South Korean shipbuilder STX to help develop its shipbuilding capacity and country appears poised to buy Exocet anti-ship missiles from European consortium MBDA.” (13) And recently, the Caspian Sea Coast Guard Border Patrol of the National Security Committee of Kazakhstan held special-tactical exercises, in which attended five boundary ships, boats and about 300 military personnel. (14)

Azerbaijan: Rapid Increases in Military Budget

So far, Azerbaijan’s military expenditures focused on land and air forces in order to guarantee its military capability against Armenia to win back its disputed territories (Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent regions) which currently controlled by Armenian Armed Forces. In this regards, “Azerbaijan has used its close relationships with Turkey and the United States to boost its naval forces. The country inherited eight vessels from the Soviet Union, including a frigate and seven minesweepers, but over the last decade the Azerbaijani Navy has received 30 patrol cutters from Turkey and three motor boats from the United States. In addition, the United States has helped Azerbaijan to install maritime radars along its coast and establish a command-and-control centre in Baku and trained Azerbaijani Special Forces sailors to protect oil installations.” (15) “During past five years Azerbaijan increased its military production 115-fold. The Azerbaijani Navy is US equipped with Special Naval Warfare Units, including Triton-1m and Triton-2 mini-submarines, as well as the Sirena self-propelled underwater diver transport vehicle. US instructors also take part in the training of the Azerbaijani Marine Corps.” (16) “Moreover, in 2011–2012, Azerbaijan purchased from Israel defensive arms, such as Gabriel-5 anti-ship missiles, “Heron TP” unmanned aerial plane, “Barak-8” air defence system, and ‘Green Pine’ radar systems, amounted worth 1.5 billion USD.” (17)

Turkmenistan: New, but very Fast Developing Navy Owner

Turkmenistan, which so far has a minimal naval presence in the sea, is also using its good relations with its partners to strengthen its forces. In early September 2012, Turkmenistan conducted its first military drills on the Caspian Sea since gaining independence. The armed forces on sea and in the air, as well as ground troops and special units of the Ministry for Security and Interior Affairs took part in the manoeuvres. Turkmenistan is now expanding its fleet by importing patrol boats from Ukraine and by renting vessels from Iran (18); getting the US-made Point Jackson-class patrol boat (19); purchasing Russian guard ships with guided missiles purchased and two Sobol patrol boats, additionally Turkey-made two rapid patrol boats (20); two Russian-built Molniya-class missile corvettes, Gayratly (Bold) and Edermen (Valiant) featured 16 Uran-E missile systems each. (21) After the breakup of the USSR Turkmenistan also inherited the largest aviation group in the Central Asia. Turkmen Air Force military helicopters patrol Turkmenistan’s water territories.

Never-Ended Territorial Disputes and External Involvement

The dispute between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan appeared to be serious. In 2008, gunboats and helicopters from Azerbaijan’s coast guard made Malaysian and Canadian companies (working for Turkmenistan in oil rigs near the water boundary between those two countries) to withdraw away from the water territories of Azerbaijan. (22) “In 2001, Iranian jets and a warship threatened a BP research vessel prospecting on behalf of Azerbaijan in the Azerbaijani waters. And in 2009, an Iranian oil rig entered waters that Azerbaijan considered its own, prompting Azerbaijani officials to fret that they were powerless against the Iranians.” (23) Iran demands the Alborz oil/Alove fields, while Turkmenistan also claims for Sardar/Kapaz oil fields which both include in Azerbaijan’s water territories. Thus, Ashkabad claims that Azerbaijan captured the Chirag and Azeri fields (the Osman and Khazar in the Turkmen version) and Alov block and Sharg field (Altyn Asyr in Turkmen version) with the assistance of the international consortium. (24)

The U.S. also involved in this arms race, by assisting the development of the navies of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Moreover, sea and air ports in Aktau (Kazakhstan) and Baku (Azerbaijan) as significantly important transit hubs for withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan in late 2014. Tehran is unhappy with the US assistance to Azerbaijan, as it considers that a military build-up against it.

Nevertheless, Russia maintains significant influence over its former colonies’ navies, as well. Most of Azerbaijan’s, Turkmenistan’s and Kazakhstan’s naval equipment was inherited from the Soviet navy, and Russia still maintains close ties to the newly independent countries’ navies. Russian shipbuilding companies appear to win the contracts for Kazakhstan’s new corvettes and patrol boats. It has held counter-terror maritime exercises (including Russian, Kazakhstani, Belorussian and Ukrainian forces) on the coast of Kazakhstan. And Russian officials are criticizing any US involvement in Caspian naval issues.” (25) “In January 2006, the Russian then-defense minister Sergei Ivanov proposed the creation of the so-called CASFOR (Caspian Sea quick-response army). CASFOR would be a multinational army formed from the five littoral states of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Russia and Iran, to prevent terrorism, diffusion of weapons of mass destruction, drug smuggling, etc. in the Caspian Sea region. This sort of proposal from Russia is in response to the Caspian Guard which already proposed by the US.” (26)



By enhancing its naval power in the Caspian Sea, Russia is trying to warn other powers to get serious about Russian interests and ensure that Russia is the strongest naval power in the Caspian Sea and can impose its will, if necessary. Although, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan have already reached mutual agreements on their sectors, many issues remains unsolved about control of the sea and its resources. Russia worries that few years later the Caspian Sea will be a “New Silk Road” for western powers between Asia and Europe by constructing pipeline routes. The U.S. military assistance to the Azerbaijanis and Kazakhstan is an initial signal of what Russia is worrying about. Rapid involvement of western energy companies in the exploration of energy resources in the Caspian Sea didn’t make Russia happy, of course.

The Caspian region offers favourable opportunities for multinational companies as well as governments which eager to secure their oil and gas supply. Thus far, most energy-related issues have been regulated on bilaterally agreement basis between Caspian states and major oil and gas companies. However, except some multi-lateral agreements, the regional cooperation on energy issues among the Caspian, Central Asia and South Caucasus states is very weak. Because, each energy-rich country prefers to follow independent energy policy instead of pursue regional cooperation policy among Caspian littoral states. It would be better if Caspian littoral states could establish an organization which could bring all littoral states together around negotiation table at least two times in a year, rather than waiting for next summit in any country. That might be similar (but not same) to Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation, namely as a “Caspian Sea Economic Cooperation Organization”. Later, they can accept observer countries to this organization. By this way, Caspian littoral states can together negotiate the Caspian-related matters on regular basis. However, scope of this organization must not be limited with only economic issues, but also must include the security matters in and around Caspian sea, such as cooperation for intelligence information sharing, above/under water surveillance, search and rescue trainings, joint military trainings, and etc, in order to combat against transnational threats like terrorism, organized crime, arms smuggling, illegal migration, and the drug trade.  

The Caspian Sea will remain a hot spot in the international agenda for a foreseeable future because of its geopolitics and energy recourses. The littoral states of the Caspian Sea are gradually strengthening their military forces in the Caspian Sea and the era of the militarization in the Caspian Sea has already started. Any military conflict in the Caspian could easily escalate into a full-scale war between the countries, and even spill over into the wider region.


1.Athanassios Papandropoulos, "The Caspian Sea region and its legal status", (February 13, 2011)

2.Farhad Mammadov, "Cooperation in the Caspian Region: National Perspectives and Common Challenges", (June 27, 2013)

3.Papandropoulos, “The Caspian Sea”.

4.Joshua Kucera, “The Great Caspian Arms Race", (June 22, 2012),1


6.Bahman Aghai Diba, "Militarization of the Caspian Sea"

7.Kucera, “The Great Caspian Arms Race".



10.Anar Valiyev, "New Wave of Militarization in the Caspian", (April 2, 2013)


12."Caspian militarization not conducive to gas cooperation", (November 8, 2011)

13.Kucera, “The Great Caspian Arms Race".

14.“Pogranichniki Kazakhstana proveli takticheskie ucheniya v akvatorii Kaspiya”, (August 12, 2013)

15.Hossein Aryan, "Caspian Sea States On Course For Naval Arms Race", (August 3, 2013)

16."Caspian militarization not conducive to gas cooperation", (November 8, 2011)

17.Ilgar Gurbanov, “Hazardakı ve Güney Kafkasyadakı Düşmanımız Kim?”, 2012,

18."Arms Race On the Caspian Sea Heats Up", (September 19, 2012)

19."Caspian militarization not conducive to gas cooperation", (November 8, 2011)

20.Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, "Turkmenistan Beefs up Caspian Presence, Irritating Russia", (October 30, 2011)

21.Joshua Kucera, "Turkmenistan: Ashgabat Quietly Builds Up Caspian Military Might", (July 5, 2012)

22.Gurbanov, “Hazardakı ve Güney Kafkasyadakı Düşmanımız Kim?”.

23.Kucera, "Turkmenistan: Ashgabat Quietly Builds Up Caspian Military Might".

24.Bahman Aghai Diba, "Militarization of the Caspian Sea".

25.Joshua Kucera, "Arms Race on the Caspian?", (August 31, 2010)   

26.Younkyoo Kim and Gu-Ho Eom, "The Geopolitics of Caspian Oil: Rivalries of the US, Russia, and Turkey in the South Caucasus", Global Economic Review, Vol. 37, No.1, March 2008,

27."Modern Russian energy policies in the Caspian basin in context of military strategy", Valdai Club (February 21, 2013)

28."Has militarization of Caspian Sea started?", (September 8, 2009),

Back to Top