It seems that the conflict in the Caspian Sea associated with the unsolved problem of its status is entering a military phase. The actions of the Iranian Navy against Azerbaijani civil ships served as an example. It is known that on July 23 an Iranian military airplane was flying in circles above the Azerbaijani ships “Geofizik-3” and “Alif Gadzhiev,” and an Iranian military ship moved closer to them and demanded that they retreat five miles northward. According to Azerbaijani military experts, flying at a speed of 500 kilometers an hour at an altitude of 200 meters the airplane could photograph the Alov-Sharg-Araz field, of which Iran claims the development. After flying above this territory the airplane attempted to maneuver towards Baku, but within few minutes it left the airspace of Azerbaijan without any warnings.
Azerbaijan is developing the Araz-Alov-Sharg fields in alliance with British oil companies. These unexplored fields are located in the central part of the Caspian Sea, 50-80 kilometers to the north of the Astara-Gasankuli line, which was formerly a maritime border between the USSR and Iran. Meanwhile, Iran says that these fields belong to it too.
Iran is demonstrating force, and this is alarming. The Iranian Navy is actually the strongest in the Caspian Sea after the Russian Flotilla. If they wish, they can evidently defend their position in the sea. According to treaties between czarist Russia and Persia as well as the USSR and Iran, Tehran was prohibited to have a navy in the Caspian Sea. However, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Iran considers itself to be free of formerly signed treaties. Anzali is the largest port of Iran in the Caspian Sea, but other ports like Now Shahr, Bandar-e Torkaman and Babolsar can be used for military strategic goals in the future. Their arrangement and creation of reliable military infrastructure will not require much time. According to available information, the Iranian navy plans to organize an operational-tactical squadron in the Caspian Sea to be able to conduct combat operations in certain areas of the sea if necessary. According to the project, the squadron will include several divisions (or brigades) and separate units of waterborne and underwater ships, as well as support forces (naval aviation and marines). The purchase of the Varshavyanka submarine by Iran from Russia in December 1995 (deployed in the Persian Gulf), the training of officers for the Iranian Navy at the Baltiysk navy base (Russia), and the in-depth cooperation in other military fields manifests Tehran’s serious intention to provide for its security with military methods. Against this background the conflict between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan also looks serious. Thus, Ashkhabad says that Azerbaijan captured the Osman and Khazar fields (Chirag and Azeri in the Azerbaijani version) and in 1998 Alov block including Altyn Asyr field (Sharg in the Azerbaijani version) with the assistance of the international consortium. Recent negotiations failed, and Ashkhabad announced that it would protect its interests by all available means.
It is known that officially Turkmenistan has no navy. However, according to unclassified information, Turkmenistan recently bought 20 fast boats from Ukraine. Half of them were 40-ton boats armed with heavy machine guns. After the breakup of the USSR Turkmenistan also inherited the largest aviation group in the Central Asia. Turkmen Air Force military helicopters already patrolled the disputed territories. Unlike Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan has its own Navy. The headquarters of the Soviet Caspian Flotilla was deployed in Baku until 1992. As a result of the Caspian Flotilla division in 1992, Azerbaijan received about 25% of waterborne ships and a significant part of the infrastructure. However, the most valuable equipment and a part of armament was previously dismantled and returned to Russia. The major part of ships and infrastructure given to Azerbaijan was in bad condition. Nonetheless, more than a century of the Caspian Flotilla basing, as well as the presence of the powerful military infrastructure make it possible to consider the Baku and Astrakhan navy bases as the largest in the Caspian Sea. Thus, the conflicting parties have military potential for probable combat operations. Russia and Kazakhstan are also building up their military potential in the Caspian Sea.
The Russian Defense Ministry included the Caspian Sea in the “Caucasus sector” of the border (space from the Black to the Caspian seas). The Caspian Flotilla, Volga River Fleet, coast guards, aviation, air defense and border guards defend this region. After the official division of the Soviet Caspian Flotilla in 1992 between Moscow and Baku, Russia received 75% of surface ships with personnel. Twenty-five percent of the shares in this quantity were offered to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, but they “refused” them in favor of Russia. Everything that Russia received was moved to Astrakhan, where the new headquarters of the Russian Caspian Flotilla were deployed.
The strength of the Caspian Flotilla does not exceed 20,000, including personnel from coastal bases. At present, the flotilla has several units of patrol ships, minesweepers, radar picket ships, combat and auxiliary craft of various classes, missile and landing hovercraft, logistics ships and the necessary infrastructure. The arrangement of the port and the navy base and the strengthening of the coastal infrastructure began in Astrakhan after the redeployment of the Caspian Flotilla. The shipyards of Astrakhan are repairing old ships. Ships of the flotilla have low combat capabilities and belong to the third and fourth ranks.
It is planned to reinforce the flotilla with ships of a higher rank. The aviation of the North Caucasus Military District and the Caspian Flotilla established this collaboration. A military airfield was built near Kaspiysk (Dagestan) to receive all types of aircraft, which enables an efficient use of aviation in combination with ships of the flotilla and air defense units of the district. The naval aviation of the Caspian Flotilla received amphibious airplanes, and patrol and antisubmarine helicopters Ka-25 and Ka-27. The flotilla also has a hydrographic service and a marine brigade.
Military services supporting seafaring of the Caspian countries are deployed on the Chechen and Tuleny islands (near Dagestan). According to the agreement of 1992 between Russia and Ukraine on the division of the black Sea Fleet, Russian naval units (mainly border and coast guard units) are subject to reduction were they are redeployed to Astrakhan. Logistics units can also be moved to Astrakhan to reinforce the Caspian Flotilla. The Caspian Flotilla closely cooperates with units of the Caucasus Special Border Guards District. They prepared a special joint program aimed to increase the combat capabilities of coastal units of the flotilla and border guards. Under the program the partners developed the Bereg mobile coastal gun mount, the supply of which to the troops has already begun.
Kazakhstan is also increasing the number of its military ships in the Caspian Sea. Kazakhstan has no navy as such yet. Initially the customs committee of Kazakhstan performed the functions of the Caspian zone protection. Since January 12, 1998, the entire seabed in the limits of the national border became the zone of operations of the specially established Bars rapid reaction service. Meanwhile, border guards forces organizationally subordinated to the Armed Forces of Kazakhstan have been operating in the Caspian Sea since 2000. These forces unite border and coast guards. Their strength is not reported, because they are currently being organized.
Personnel of the naval forces deployed in the Caspian Sea, which was included in the border guards forces since November 1997, is 3,000 men strong. It is armed with ten coast guard boats and 2 small hydrographic boas, and three Mi-8 and Mi-2 helicopters. They are based in Aktau and Atyrtau ports in the eastern and northern parts of the Caspian Sea. According to the agreement between the defense ministries of Russia and Kazakhstan (January 1996), Russia supplied five boats to Kazakhstan with a view to develop its coast guards. Russia also undertook a provision of assistance in the purchase of ships, the checking of the coastal infrastructure and its upgrading. Kazakhstan signed agreements to train naval officers in naval higher education institutions of Russia, Turkey and Ukraine. The Kazakh Navy was formed due to the assistance of not only Russia but also the US and Turkey. Thus, during the official visit of the Kazakh military delegation, which was headed by General Staff Chief Colonel General Alibek Kasymov, to Turkey in July, the Turkish party presented another patrol boat to the Kazakh Armed Forces at the navy base in Gulcuk.
Thus, the militarization of the Caspian Sea and its unclear legal status create preconditions for conflicts, including those that use weapons. This circumstance shows that the summit of the Caspian countries that is to be held in Ashkhabad in October should solve the important problems arising from the provision of security in the Caspian Sea. It will be very difficult to define the zones in the sea that are to be controlled by different states. However, it is evident that it is high time for such a dialog.