The Geographical Lynchpin: Great Power Jockeying in the Caspian


Zbigniew Brzezinkski defined “Eurasia” as one of the most important geopolitical concepts. He observed, “Ever since the continents started interacting politically, some five hundred years ago, Eurasia has been the center of world power. A power that dominates “Eurasia” would control two of the world’s three most advanced and economically productive regions.

A mere glance at the map also suggests that control over “Eurasia” would almost automatically entail Africa’s subordination, rendering the Western Hemisphere and Oceania geopolitically peripheral to the world’s central continent. About 75 per cent of the world’s people live in “Eurasia”, and most of the world’s physical wealth is there as well, both in its enterprises and underneath its soil. “Eurasia” accounts for about three-fourths of the world’s known energy resources.”               

In the Western sense, when political scientists talk about “Eurasia”, they generally mean Russia. Russia has been marginalized at the edge of a Western-dominated political and economic system and in recent years has begun to stress a geopolitics that puts Russia at the center of a number of axes: European-Asian, Christian-Muslim-Buddhist, Mediterranean-Indian, Slavic-Turkic, and so on. A strategy towards Eurasia is paramount in deterring any Russian aggression in Eurasia. Russia is one of three states running interference against American objectives in Eurasia, the other two being Iran and China. Russia poses the biggest threat against American objectives in the region due mainly to a supposed historical security imperative to control the Eurasian landmass. However, this explanation doesn’t fully fit the evidence. Russia does not act the way it does based on centuries-old habits. Instead the strategy lies in the much newer habit of senior Russian policymakers who belonged to the all-Union elite before 1991 and have the tendency to see the post-Soviet Eurasian states as though they were still Soviet Socialist Republics, that is, still largely geopolitically beholden to the power of Russia.

Probably the biggest and often most overlooked region in Eurasia is the Caspian Sea. If the U.S is to have a grand strategy to deal with Russia and an emboldened Iran, policymakers in Washington cannot ignore the Caspian region for the sake of convenience. The Caspian Sea is important for many reasons and beyond a doubt Russia and Iran are the two biggest actors in the region. Furthermore, China has invested heavily in a number of infrastructure projects in Central Asia and Moscow is keeping a close eye on Beijing’s motives in the region and views Beijing as a potential competitor for influence in the region in the same way Russia sees Iran. They are Russian partners, but partners with a tinge of rivalry and tension.

The United States has four primary goals in the Caspian region: assisting the Caspian in becoming a stable and secure transit and production zone for energy resources; checking Russian and Iranian meddling in the region so the countries in the region are stable, sovereign, and self-governing; keeping radical Islam out; and resolving the frozen conflicts in the region because Moscow exerts most of its influence through these conflicts. However, even with these interests, U.S. engagement in the region remains minimal. Due to the proximity of the Caspian Sea, out of the five Caspian littoral states of Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan, it is easy to see how the regional powers of Iran and Russia are able to exert significant influence in the region. Even Turkey, who is not a Caspian littoral country, is able to exert significant influence. What are China’s motives in the region and how do they compare to those of Iran and Russia?

China is always looking for new economic and energy opportunities and that is the main motivation behind its presence in the region. However, as the country becomes increasingly embedded in the Caspian region, the U.S. can expect Beijing to exert considerable influence in the future. Beijing is investing billions of dollars in projects, not only to upgrade and modernize rail networks, pipelines, and roads, but also to encourage cultural exchanges-all with the goal of maximizing Chinese influence in the region. Iran, Russia, and China, in their quest for dominance in the region, are increasingly marginalizing Western influence.

For the most part the actions of these three “quasi-adversarial” states are individualistic. The goals of Moscow in the Caspian today and for the foreseeable future are the following: marginalize Western influence in the region; integrate the countries in the region into Russian-backed organizations; discourage outside investment in Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan that could facilitate the flow of oil and gas to Western markets by bypassing Russia; increase economic activity with the other Caspian states; and maintain regional hegemony over Iran. Iran is less active here than it is elsewhere in the Middle East but Tehran is not idle in terms of activity in the Caspian region. Tehran’s policy toward the region relies on three things: more financial resources; less dependency on Russia; and more confidence on the international stage. Now that Iran and the U.S. have reached a compromise on a nuclear deal in Vienna, Iran will have the resources to increase its influence in the Caspian region. Also this will mean less dependency on Russia for support, undermining Russia’s interest in the region.

Without a doubt, Russia has a more visible presence in the Caspian region. Russia has the strongest navy and military activity in Caspian waters tends to reflect its strength. Russia participates in virtually every military drill and operation there and much of the equipment used is made by Moscow. The strategic importance and hydrocarbon interest of the Caspian Sea brings all nations involved into semi-tense conflict with each other. As the interest of the countries involved diverge, so too do their naval strategies. Caspian Sea states can and will lead to imminent conflict but the states will also always try to maintain stability as best they can because they understand that instability could invite external intervention-something none of them want. Luke Coffey, an expert from the Heritage Foundation, offers a list of steps that America can take to safeguard its political, economic and security interests in the region. He states the U.S. should:

  • Show a more visible presence in the region
  • Support a peaceful and speedy resolution of Caspian Sea ownership
  • Strike a balance between promoting human rights and safeguarding other U.S. strategic interests
  • Offer political support for the construction of the TAPI
  • Offer political support for the construction of the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline and the Southern Gas Corridor project
  • Encourage Caspian countries to diversify their economies
  • Encourage countries in the region to stay away from Russian-dominated organizations
  • Promote economic freedom in the region
  • Engage more with Azerbaijan
  • Help regional countries to improve their security and defense capabilities
  • Counter the rise of Islamist extremist in the region
  • Monitor the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia’s close ties with Russia
  • Discourage Europe from becoming dependent on Iranian oil and gas
  • Provide military and security assistance to all deserving allies in the region

As implied, Russia and Iran have the most influence in the region. Beijing, in its quest for economic and energy opportunities in the region, will soon have considerable influence in the region given its growing status in the world. Russia and Iran have different priorities but both share the same goal of reducing the influence of the West. The Caspian region has been, is, and will continue to be an area of geopolitical importance and competition. If the U.S. is to have a grand strategy to deal with a resurgent Russia and an emboldened Iran and to improve Europe’s energy security, policymakers in Washington must recognize that the geographical lynchpin of this future hinges in the Caspian.


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