Date: 10 November 2017

Russia’s Internal Sea?

Moscow is consistently increasing its military capabilities in the Caspian Sea. Although Russia is only one of its five coastal countries, it seeks to transform the basin into its “internal sea” in a longer perspective. The stake is high since it will enable Moscow to explore rich hydrocarbon resources and to start its expansion into the Middle East. The current geopolitical situation in the region is conducive to the implementation of Russian plans.

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Russia’s General Staff of the Armed Forces reported that the Caspian Flotilla had acquired a Dagestan rocket ship and three smaller missile units within the framework of increasing military capacities of the war fleet. All of them are equipped with Caliber cruise missiles with a range of up to 2,500 kilometres. The rocket systems have been launched by the Russians several times from the Caspian Sea in order to hit targets in Syria. The Russian command has also informed that a new branch of the “coastal” spetsnaz had been created in the Caspian Flotilla. Its task will be to conduct airborne operations as well as to evacuate reconnaissance groups while supporting them with fire and conducting sudden combat raids. The new spetsnaz branch will also be responsible for the protection and surveillance of maritime bases and coasts. The unit will be armed with Raptor high-speed patrol boats and Tachyon lightweight drones.

Russia has been strengthening its military forces in the Caspian Sea since 2010. This process has recently accelerated. According to the plan to modernise the Russian army, by 2020 the Caspian Flotilla will have obtained up to 90% of new equipment. By that time, the construction of a new major harbour in the city of Kaspiysk will have been completed. It needs to be noted that it has just begun. It will be the most modern naval base in Russia. This autumn, the Caspian Flotilla has also conducted an exceptionally large number of exercises during which more than 20 vessels were engaged. In September, two vessels of the Caspian Flotilla called at ports of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan and thus they marked Russia’s military presence in the region. A strong maritime component will probably soon be expanded by the region’s air defence network. In this way, in the Caspian Sea area, there will be the Russia’s next A2/AD air defense bubble, which have already been constructed in Syria, the Crimea, Kaliningrad and Murmansk.

The most considerable advtange of the Caspian Flotilla is its location, namely direct neighbourhood of the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East. Military speaking, it is a safe area as it is surrounded by either Moscow’s allies (Kazakhstan and Iran) or neutral countries (Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan), which cannot constitute any threat to Russia. So far, the most important thing has been to maintain a strong military presence because of the unresolved status of the waters division in the Caspian Sea, which is important, mainly due to its rich oil and gas resources. Of course, this shows also some pressure on the countries of the region. So is the ability to block the development of the hydrocarbon export (which is going to omit Russia) under the Caspian Sea from Central Asia to Azerbaijan and Georgia. After that, resources will be transported by tankers or pipelines to the Turkish Ceyhan (Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline within the framework of so-called EU-supported Southern Gas Corridor).

The expansion of military capabilities in the Caspian Sea region shows that Russia is paying more and more attention to the southern direction, with a projection to the Middle East. It is an element of strengthening the geostrategic North-South axis, from the Russian Arctic to the Persian Gulf, the opposing East-West axis; an idea advocated by the Western countries and, above all, China, mostly for economic reasons. The Caspian Sea is expected to be Russia’s secure military connection with its assets in the region, currently in Syria, but it also constitutes a sig for countries of the Middle East, including those cooperating with Russia (for instance Iraq) that Moscow will become an important actor, both for political and military reasons.

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