Russia’s Geopolitical Role in the Caspian Sea and Its Repercussions on Regional Security

By Mohamed SAKHRI

Abstract

The Caspian Sea has been an important geopolitical arena for Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia’s interests in the Caspian are shaped by its desire to maintain influence in the region, secure access to energy resources, and counterbalance other powers. This article examines Russia’s policies and activities in the Caspian region, focusing on its territorial claims, energy politics, military presence, and relations with littoral states. It argues that Russia sees the Caspian as an area of strategic importance and its actions are driven by geopolitical considerations. However, its assertive policies have also caused tensions with other littoral states, raising issues for regional security. The article concludes that while Russia is likely to remain the dominant power in the Caspian, its influence will be constrained by the increasing activism of other states. Maintaining regional stability will require balancing the interests of all littoral states.

Introduction

The Caspian Sea is the largest enclosed body of water on Earth, spanning around 371,000 square kilometers (143,200 square miles). It borders five countries: Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Azerbaijan. The Caspian holds enormous economic and strategic importance for these littoral states due to its offshore oil and gas deposits. The region also occupies a critical location at the crossroads between Europe and Asia.

Since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the Caspian has become an arena of geopolitical competition between major powers such as Russia, the United States, China, Europe, and the littoral states themselves. Russia in particular has sought to retain influence in what it considers its traditional sphere of interest against the backdrop of rising activism by other regional and non-regional actors. As the largest littoral state with the longest Caspian coastline, Russia’s policies and actions have significant implications for geopolitics and security in the wider Caspian region.

This article examines Russia’s geopolitical role in the Caspian Sea and analyzes the impact of its policies on regional security. It focuses on four key aspects of Russia’s approach towards the Caspian: territorial claims, energy politics, military presence, and relations with other littoral states. The aim is to assess how Russia seeks to promote its interests in the Caspian arena and evaluate the consequences of its behavior for regional security. Understanding Russia’s strategic objectives and actions is essential for formulating policies to enhance cooperation and stability between the five Caspian coastal states.

Russia’s Territorial Claims

One element shaping Russia’s policies in the Caspian is its unresolved territorial claims. During the Soviet era, the Caspian was divided between USSR and Iran based on bilateral treaties in 1921 and 1940. After the Soviet breakup, the newly independent states of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan emerged as additional claimants to the Caspian’s offshore resources. This created a complex dispute over ownership and control. While Iran has insisted on an equal 20% share for each littoral state, Russia argued that its longer coastline entitled it to a bigger share.2

In the 1990s, Russia refused to delineate its maritime borders or recognize the sectors claimed by Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. It pressed for the Caspian to be treated as a “common sea” jointly owned by all five states, which would enable Russia to access resources across the entire area.3 However, the other states opposed this approach and asserted sovereignty over their coastal waters up until the median line. Lacking consensus, the legal status of the Caspian remained unsettled for decades. This allowed Russia to unilaterally develop oil and gas fields in disputed zones claimed by Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, heightening tensions.4

It was only in 2018 that the five littoral states signed the ‘Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea’, which represented a compromise agreement. It grants sovereign rights over territorial waters, fishing zones and seabed areas up until a median line, while designating the remaining area as a “common sea”.5 Russia eventually conceded delimited borders in the Caspian as it aligned with its interest to fully develop its own undisputed sectors. Nonetheless, differences persist over interpretation of the agreement.6 Russia’s past insistence on treating the Caspian as a shared area and intrusions into contested zones were driven by its desire to maintain geopolitical influence. Its territorial assertiveness generated conflict with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, illustrating how maritime boundaries have been contested sites of regional security.

Energy Politics

A second factor shaping Russia’s behavior in the Caspian is energy politics. The region contains huge oil and natural gas reserves estimated at 48 billion barrels and 292 trillion cubic feet respectively.7 Since the Caspian’s resources provide Russia with an important source of hydrocarbon revenues, controlling their development and export has been a strategic priority.

During the 1990s, Russia sought to dominate the energy landscape by leveraging its stronger position. It pressured former Soviet republics to grant its firms lucrative concessions, opposed construction of pipelines that bypassed Russian territory, and imposed Energy export quotas.8 For instance, Gazprom compelled Turkmenistan to sell gas to Russia at below-market prices which it then resold to Europe at a hefty markup.9 Such actions generated accusations of neo-imperial behavior by Russia.

However, the Caspian states eventually succeeded in reducing dependence on Russian export routes by building new pipelines such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline (TANAP).10 Russia subsequently adopted a more cooperative approach, seeking involvement in Caspian projects as a shareholder rather than trying to monopolize them. Its firms part-own assets like the Kashagan oil field in Kazakhstan and have supplied pipelines to Azerbaijan.11

Moscow has also moderated efforts to constrain energy flows, as evident in its agreement to supply gas from Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan to Europe.12 Yet suspicions over Russian intentions persist due to its willingness to use energy as a geopolitical tool, as illustrated by cutoffs to Ukraine.13 The Caspian energy sector remains an arena of complexity where regional security is impacted by the interplay between competition and cooperation over resource control.

Military Presence

Russia has steadily militarized the Caspian to protect its strategic interests and project power. It inherited a formidable military footprint from the Soviet era, including the Caspian flotilla headquartered at Astrakhan.14 During the 1990s, Russia’s declining naval capabilities saw it lose dominance over some areas. But under Putin, Russia revived the Caspian flotilla with new warships, submarines and aircraft equipped with cruise missiles. It justifies this military buildup as necessary response to terrorism and foreign interference.15

However, Russia’s remilitarization has fueled a regional arms race as littoral states acquire new naval capabilities to strengthen their security.16 Its assertive posture led to tensions, such as in 2001 when Iranian ships and aircraft confronted a Russian survey vessel exploring disputed waters, nearly triggering armed conflict.17 While all littoral states maintain a naval presence, Russia’s powerful Caspian flotilla gives it superior reach to deploy forces across the sea at short notice.

Russia’s military capabilities allow it to swiftly intervene in conflicts around the Caspian. Its forces regularly conduct exercises, patrol disputed areas, and demonstrate ability to block foreign access.18 During the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, Russia postured its Caspian flotilla to deter external intervention and underscored it as a leading security actor.19 While Russia justifies its military as stabilizing, its combat deployments and arms buildup are seen as asserting geopolitical dominance. Managing security dilemmas created by militarization of the Caspian remains an enduring regional challenge.

Relations with Littoral States

A fourth facet of Russia’s Caspian policy involves its bilateral relations with other littoral states. Russia wields political and economic levers to preserve its influence in a region it considers a vital sphere of interest. However, its assertive diplomacy has generated tensions as the small states seek greater strategic autonomy.

For Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, Russia is an important political and security partner. It backs their authoritarian regimes, while the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) provides a defense alliance.20 Russia also represents a major trading partner, with sizable investments in their energy, infrastructure and other sectors. However, both states have also pursued ‘multi-vector foreign policies’ to balance Russian influence.21 Kazakhstan has expanded ties with China and the West, while cultivating a mediatory role in Caspian disputes.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan relies on energy exports to Europe and Turkey as a strategic counterweight. Despite this hedging behavior, Russia retains strong bilateral leverage and both states remain within its geopolitical orbit. However, the Ukraine crisis has increased concerns over excessive dependence on Russia.22

By contrast, Turkmenistan follows a policy of ‘positive neutrality’ that minimizes reliance on Russia.23 It has cultivated diverse export routes like the Turkmenistan-China pipeline and sought Western partnerships to develop offshore gas.24 However, Russia remains an important purchaser of Turkmen gas, while Turkmenistan’s non-aligned stance limits its ability to draw external powers into balancing Russia.

Finally, Iran has a complex multifaceted relationship with Russia. They seek to check U.S. influence and forge a multipolar order. But as historical empires, Iran and Russia also compete for dominance in the Caspian region.25 Commercial ties have expanded in areas like energy, yet economic asymmetry favors Russia. While Iran has welcomed Russia’s willingness to accommodate its interests and engaged in naval coordination, it remains wary of Russian encroachment.26 Overall, managing asymmetric yet interdependent ties with Russia poses an enduring diplomatic challenge for all the Caspian states.

Conclusion

This article has demonstrated that Russia pursues multi-faceted policies aimed at maintaining geopolitical influence in the strategically vital Caspian arena. Its assertive approach is driven by ambitions to control regional resources and infrastructure, project military power, and constrain the aspirations of smaller littoral states. While Russia portrays itself as guarantor of stability, its actions have fuelled competitions and security dilemmas.

At the same time, the Caspian states have constrained Russia’s hegemonic aims through coordinated balancing strategies. This was facilitated by the diversification of energy export routes and development of economic ties with external powers like China. Russia in turn has shown some flexibility by agreeing joint ownership frameworks for the Caspian’s resources. However, given the asymmetry in power capabilities, Russia is likely to remain the preeminent player in the Caspian with capacity to shape the region according to its interests.

Therefore, maintaining regional security requires managing Russia’s ambitions and avoiding escalatory scenarios through cooperation and sensitive diplomacy. Constructive engagement can socialize Russia as a responsible stakeholder while respecting the autonomy of smaller states. However, the Ukraine crisis demonstrates that excessive reliance on Russia has risks. Prudent geopolitical and energy diversification strategies can strengthen the sovereignty of Caspian states. While complex dynamics will persist, a careful balancing of competing interests is indispensable for stability in this geostrategically significant region.

References

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SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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