On August 1, for the first time over ten years of the post-Soviet history, Moscow started large-scale military exercises in the Caspian Sea. On July 1, the plan was reported to President Vladimir Putin. According to military sources, Putin discussed this plan with his counterparts from the CIS countries during the informal summit between July 6 and 7 in Aktau.
Putin invited all Central Asian leaders to naval exercises of the armed forces of three Caspian states, Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, which were to begin in early August of 2002. Such large-scale exercises were not organized even in the Soviet times. However now there is a different epoch, and according to Moscow, demonstration of force should become the main condition for maintenance of stability in the Caspian Sea.
In late April, when President Putin visited a unit of the Caspian Flotilla in Astrakhan, he announced that in the Caspian Sea the Navy was fulfilling very important functions related to maintenance of stability and security. Big hydrocarbon and fish resources are concentrated there, and it is necessary to exploit them rationally and to guard them. Moreover so, since, due to the unclear status of the Caspian Sea, the coastal countries have disputes, which have sometimes already provoked military incidents. To avoid them, Russia needs a powerful deterrent factor. The Caspian Flotilla is such a factor now.
Navy Commander Vladimir Kuroedov announced that the goals of the exercises included maintenance of stability, protection of interests of the state, struggle against terrorism in all its manifestations, improvement of prevention and liquidation of ecological catastrophes and maritime search and rescue operations, and prevention of drug trafficking into the country. The training sites, areas of firing exercises and bomb dropping were arranged in accordance with these goals.
Of course, the main phase of the exercises is the combat one. Experience of combat operations of the US and NATO forces in the Balkans and in Afghanistan shows that at first the air force and air defense forces will play the main role. The fourth air army of the Air Force and Air Defense Forces of the North Caucasus Military District participates in the exercises. About 100 sorties of the Su-24 reconnaissance airplanes, Su-25 assault airplanes and Su-27 fighters were made from the air bases Privolzhsky, Krymsk and Marinovka. The airplanes should conduct aerial and other kinds of reconnaissance independently and in cooperation with the Caspian Flotilla and, after that, should deliver bomb strikes on ground-based and waterborne targets of a hypothetical enemy, support a landing of assault parties and gain air superiority. Besides the ships and airplanes, participants of the exercises also included other military units of the North Caucasus Military District, regional division of the Federal Border Guard Service, customs office, as well as rescue and ecological services of Astrakhan and Dagestan. The Astrakhan special underwater service, which liquidates accidents at offshore oil fields, rescues, checks and repairs ships, took part in the exercises too. This service is unique, because it fulfills tasks in the interests of all four coastal former Soviet republics around the sea and on the ground down to the 44th parallel, that is, down to the current border with Iran.
About 10,000 servicemen, 60 ships and craft and more than 30 aircraft participated in the exercises on the part of Russia. The Kazakh Air Force assigned Su-27 airplanes, and the Azerbaijani Navy assigned several warships and boats.
It is known that President Putin for the first time announced the exercises in the Caspian Sea at the end of April, after the failure of the summit of coastal states in Ashkhabad, where the President of Turkmenistan spoke definitely about a possibility to begin combat operations over the hydrocarbon fields disputed with Azerbaijan. At that time, the visit of Putin to the Caspian Flotilla looked spontaneous. Meanwhile, sources in the Russian Defense Ministry state that military exercises of the Caspian Flotilla were planned at the beginning of the year. The Ministry was cherishing plans to organize large naval exercises in the region with participation of other forces of the country and navies of other coastal states for a long time. Generals explain the need for such exercises very simply, saying that military force is an important guarantee of security and stability in the sea.
At any rate, it is obvious that the exercises pursue military-economic, rather than purely military goals. All events in July related to the exercises in the Caspian Sea had this very aspect. Initially Tehran and Ashkhabad were averse to the exercises. The US also demonstrated an original stance in an indirect manner. Of course, the US did not touch upon the issues of the military exercises of the Caspian Flotilla proper, but Azerbaijani press reported unofficially that Washington was discontented with intention of Azerbaijani Armed Forces to participate in the exercises. It is understandable why Baku is going to support Moscow in military exercises in the Caspian Sea despite the will of the US. So far Russia shapes policy in the Caspian Basin. Moreover, according to military sources, as one of conditions for signing of the agreement on division of the Caspian Sea, Baku singled out the clause saying that Russia would be a guarantor of military security of Azerbaijan in the areas of drilling and hydrocarbon production. It is reported that Azerbaijan hopes that the clause will be applicable to the disputed territories too.
Meanwhile, Tehran is not happy about this circumstance. Hence, the Russian diplomats had to maneuver in July between the interests of Azerbaijan and Iran, which had very serious differences in views on the disputed oil fields in the Caspian Sea.
During his visit to Tehran on July 18, Andrei Urnov, special envoy and chair of the working group of the Foreign Ministry for Caspian affairs, announced that Moscow welcomed the wish of the Caspian states, especially Iran and Azerbaijan, to settle the disputes in a peaceful way. According to the diplomat, Russia “cannot claim these fields by any means.” The diplomat hinted that Moscow would not support any of the parties in bilateral conflicts and disputes related to the disputed fields, soothing Tehran. This statement was not published anywhere officially, so as not to irritate Baku.
Thus Moscow killed two birds with one stone. After the Russian-Iranian contacts between July 16 and 19, Hasan Ruhani, Secretary of the National Security Council of Iran, announced that his country “does not view the planned military exercises in the Caspian Sea as a threat to national security,” and that Tehran would take part in the exercises as an observer.
Meanwhile, the stance of Ashkhabad still remains unclear. President Saparmurat Niyazov has not given agreement for participation of his observers in the exercises yet.
Thus, military exercises of the Caspian Flotilla were organized in circumstances of serious military-economic disputes. At any rate, Moscow has done and is attempting to do its best to make attitudes of the Caspian states to the exercises positive. It primarily managed to achieve this goal. However, the attempt to demonstrate force indicates that in the South of the CIS Russia is switching to other tougher methods of protection of its interests.