It has been almost one year since the IV Caspian Summit in Astrakhan, Russia, where the presidents of the five Caspian states signed a political declaration that denied any foreign military presence in the Caspian Sea.
By removing any Western military influence in the region, Russia will be able to maintain the regional hegemony it considers its natural birthright. Examining how scholars have so far in general viewed the Russian orchestration of this decision is both important and enlightening and reveals a plan that has long been in the making.
Sokolsky and Charlick-Paley (1999) studied Russia’s influence in the Caspian region and noted that the littoral states were dependent on Russia for trade, energy supplies, military equipment and training, and internal and external security. Russia also exploited its leverage and the weakness of the littoral states to extract military and economic concessions, including basing rights, participation in energy projects, and favorable decisions on pipeline routes. Menon, Fyodorov, and Nodia (1999) echoed these findings by stating that Russia maintained strong political, economic, and military ties to several littoral states from a position of dominance.
Sokolsky and Charlick-Paley (1999) also predicted that Russia would alter its policy toward the littoral states to a more cooperative and less confrontational policy. They also added that because the littoral states saw Russia as a stabilizing force and feared that Russian disengagement could worsen stability challenges within the region, they tended to view Russia as the region’s peacekeeper. As seen in the IV Caspian Summit, Russia was able to capitalize on that history and nudge the littoral states into agreeing to block foreign militaries from the Caspian region by acting as a supporter, protector, and friend. Russia convinced the states that their militaries were strong enough to defend themselves only if they would have protection from the Russian military as well.
Griffith (1998) also made predictions on Russia’s future motives toward the Caspian littorals. He discussed Russia’s loss of power in the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union as the chief factor behind its motives. The loss of power meant a loss of control over the republics that were once an important buffer zone between the USSR, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Also, Russia saw Western oil industries in the Caspian region as a potential source of competition and threat to Russian economic hegemony and influence. Because of these threats, Griffith predicted that Russia would attempt to coerce the Caspian states into an economic-military-political union, which finally came to full fruition during the IV Caspian Summit.
German (2014) discussed Russia’s views of a foreign military presence in the Caspian region, especially the US and NATO, as a provocative step. Russia was always determined to contain the influence of external actors and maintain the status quo in the Caspian Sea to ensure that its influence was not eroded. Abilov (2012) also commented on Russia’s desire to contain American influence in the Caspian region. The primary ambition of Russia was to preserve its regional power status and impose its political and economic will. Russia also intended to create new regional and international forums in order to maintain its sphere of influence there. German suggested the United States should try to develop its relations with the littoral states while acknowledging the significance of Russia’s role in the region, as well as the vulnerability Russia felt on its southern periphery if it was not the sole hegemonic power in the Caspian.
Thus, as we can see, Russia has been working to gain trust with and influence over the littoral states for years. According to Chufrin (2001), Russia had always strove to work with Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Iran in order to stop or slow the inexorable draw toward the West. In promoting relations with Iran, Russia seemed to be more successful, entering large-scale political and economic cooperation with the Islamic Republic. Even though part of the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) between the United States and Iran is to forego nuclear weapons attainment, without any foreign militaries in the Caspian, Russia might be willing and able to illicitly provide Iran with the necessary materials and technology without American knowledge.
What ties all of these moves together in a disconcerting manner for the Caspian littorals, going back more than fifteen years, is Russian hegemony and its global imposition of strategic interests. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 has many post-Soviet states concerned about Russia’s future desires to reclaim Soviet territory which it feels is its birthright. Kistler (2014) discussed each of the post-Soviet state’s concerns and pleas for help from NATO. The decision to block the US and NATO from the Caspian region makes foreign intervention against any future possible Russian annexations much more difficult.
Russia’s desire for dominance in the region fuels its agenda to keep the littoral states politically dependent while building trust so as to instill a positive global image and influence within its ‘near abroad.’ This slow and steady strategy has culminated in the decision to lock the United States, NATO, and any other foreign military from the Caspian region, thereby allowing Russia to remain the dominant regional hegemon without firing a single shot or putting a single boot onto foreign territory. It was impressive geostrategy, if also unnerving to the West.