The Caspian Sea is the world’s largest inland body of water, located between Europe and Asia. It borders five countries – Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Iran. The Caspian holds enormous oil and gas reserves, estimated at 48 billion barrels of oil and 292 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. This makes the Caspian region highly strategic for the energy hungry powers of the world.
Russia has traditionally held the dominant geopolitical role in the Caspian Sea region. As the successor state to the Soviet Union, Russia inherited a powerful military and economic presence in the area. The collapse of the USSR initially weakened Russia’s position, but under Vladimir Putin the country has reasserted its influence. Energy resources are a major driver of Russia’s interest in the Caspian. By controlling regional energy flows, Moscow gains political and economic leverage over its neighbors. Regional security is also a priority for Russia, which views instability in the Caspian region as a potential threat to its own security.
This article will examine Russia’s geopolitical role in the Caspian Sea and analyze how its power projection affects regional security dynamics. The discussion will review Russia’s historical presence in the region, its current political and economic strategies, military posture and security initiatives like the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). It will also explore the perspectives of other littoral states towards Russia’s activities. The geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the West over Caspian energy resources and pipelines networks will also be discussed.
The analysis will demonstrate that Russia seeks to dominate the Caspian region in order to control its abundant oil and natural gas reserves. By establishing itself as the primary security provider in the region, Russia aims to reduce Western influence and prevent further expansion of NATO. Its power projection creates spheres of influence that limits the sovereignty of its neighbors. But Russia also provides a degree of stability through the CSTO security bloc. The other littoral states have mixed views towards Russian policies, both appreciating Russia’s economic investment and military support while fearing its hegemonic ambitions. There is potential for regional tensions due to competing security initiatives by external powers including the United States, China and Europe. Managing these dynamics represents an ongoing challenge to stability in the Caspian region.
History of Russia in the Caspian
Russia has played a leading geopolitical role in the Caspian Sea for several centuries. The first major Russian move into the region was the annexation of territory along the northern Caspian in the 16th century. This was part of Russia’s steady expansion southward to gain access to warm water ports. The Caspian became fully incorporated into the Russian Empire during the 19th century. Russia fought prolonged wars against Persia to establish firm control over the western and central areas of the sea. Russia’s dominance was secured through conquest of key ports like Baku, which bolstered its regional maritime power.
In the early 20th century, discovery of major oil fields in Azerbaijan attracted foreign firms like Shell and Standard Oil to the region. The Bolshevik revolution ended this foreign exploitation, as the Caspian became part of the new Soviet Union. Moscow retained centralized control of Caspian oil and gas deposits, built major pipelines and developed the economies of the littoral Soviet republics like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. The Soviet Navy also maintained a sizable Caspian Flotilla headquartered at Baku.
After the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the newly independent states around the Caspian inherited shared regional interests along with territorial disputes. Russia’s economy experienced a severe downturn during the 1990’s which weakened its military presence. This created a power vacuum that saw increased Western oil investment and diplomatic activity in the region. But under President Putin, Russia reorganized its armed forces and benefited from an oil revenue boom to revive its regional influence. Moscow came to view NATO expansion into former Soviet states as a security threat, making it determined to reestablish dominance in the Caspian. Securing control of the region’s ample energy resources also became a Russian priority.
Current Geopolitical Situation
Russia maintains a strong political, economic and military presence across the Caspian region today. It exerts the most influence in Kazakhstan, where it has taken ownership stakes in strategic oil and gas projects and operates Baikonur Cosmodrome spaceport. Russia has aligned closely with Azerbaijan and Armenia to preserve influence. Moscow provides security support to Armenia, which is involved in a territorial conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh with Azerbaijan. But Russia also maintains friendly ties with Azerbaijan and seeks to mediate tensions.
Turkmenistan follows a policy of positive neutrality, but relies on its large gas exports to Russia. The relationship has fluctuated due to payment disputes and China becoming a major customer. Russia also controls nearly all exports for landlocked Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. However, China’s growing investment across Central Asia has increasingly competed with Russia’s economic interests. Access to Caspian energy is a major incentive driving Russian foreign policy. Moscow is focused on sustaining its vital oil and gas revenues by dominating pipeline networks in the region.
Russia’s resource ambitions and desire to limit Western influence has led to a resurgence of military power under Vladimir Putin. The Russian Navy Caspian Flotilla has been upgraded with new warships, submarines and anti-aircraft systems. Russia’s Khmeimim airbase and Tartus naval base in Syria allow sustained air and sea operations in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. The CSTO provides a Russia-dominated security framework for responding to regional instability. Russia has leveraged the threat of terrorism and Islamic radicalism to justify its military presence and intervention in places like Syria.
Moscow used its expanded military capability to exert hard power in Georgia during 2008 and in Ukraine starting in 2014. Russia demonstrated a willingness to use force and intimidation to prevent further NATO enlargement. Its occupation and recognition of breakaway regions prevented Georgia and Ukraine from joining NATO. Ongoing instability in Ukraine continues to draw Russian land, air and naval forces away from the Caspian. But Moscow maintains anti-access and area denial capabilities through integrated air defense systems and coastal missile batteries.
Overall, Russia views restoring its traditional sphere of influence in the Caspian as a strategic imperative. Control of regional energy flows provides economic leverage, while military dominance deters Western expansionism. Russia shapes regional security dynamics through bilateral partnerships, the CSTO and military aid. But tensions remain with Western governments who accuse Russia of imperialist behavior by coercing its neighbors. The Kremlin in turn faults NATO for provocative enlargement efforts that threaten Russian security. This geopolitical rivalry directly impacts security across the Caspian region.
Perspectives of Other Littoral States
The other countries bordering the Caspian hold mixed views on Russia’s assertive geopolitical posture. They appreciate Russia providing stability and economic investment, but fear its ambitions could restrict their sovereignty.
Kazakhstan has the closest ties to Russia among the group and is a founding CSTO member. The large Russian minority population helps keep the countries aligned. Kazakhstan relies on Russian transportation links for exporting oil and minerals. But some resent Russia’s economic dominance and its leasing of the Baikonur spaceport. President Nazarbayev followed a multi-vector foreign policy to balance relations with the U.S. and China as a counterweight to Moscow. Still, Russia taking an escalating authoritarian turn under Putin provides political cover for Nazarbayev’s own authoritarianism.
Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev cooperates with Putin on energy policy, security and mediating conflict with Armenia. Russia’s military support is valued. But Aliyev still resented Moscow intervening during Azerbaijan’s 2020 war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan also chafes against Russia dominating regional gas exports. Baku has thus welcomed Western investment from oil firms and pipelines to Turkey as strategic alternatives. But Azerbaijan’s lack of progress on democratic reforms limits deeper cooperation with NATO.
Turkmenistan’s official neutrality policy means it avoids military alignments. But declining Russian gas purchases led President Berdymukhamedov to allow more exports to China. This shift sparked accusations of betraying relations with Russia. At times Russia has used its leverage over gas imports and transport links as coercive pressure on Turkmenistan. But Turkmenistan’s isolationism also restrains opportunities for the West to expand influence.
For Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, alignment with Russia relates to economic survival and security assistance. Their lack of oil and gas resources increase dependence on remittances from migrants working in Russia. The impoverished countries are also vulnerable to drug trafficking and Islamic extremism along the Afghan border. Russia provides military aid and support for their authoritarian leaders to keep Central Asia stable. But China’s expanding regional clout presents a dilemma for balancing relations with these competing powers.
Iran’s Islamic regime limits its ability to cooperate with either Russia or the West. But Tehran has accepted Russia’s military dominance as preferable to an expanded U.S. presence. Iran relies on Moscow providing technology and nuclear power investment. Russia has defended Iran’s nuclear program and resisted sanctions over its militant proxy activities. Lacking other allies, Tehran cooperates with Moscow on select economic and security initiatives. Ongoing tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan remain a shared concern.
Overall, most non-Russian Caspian states accept Russia’s lead security role as in their best interests. They continue receiving Russian military aid and benefiting from economic partnership. But fears persist that Russia’s assertive foreign policy could further infringe on their sovereignty. This leaves room for Western powers and China to expand political and economic ties in the region, increasing strategic competition with Russia.
Geopolitical Rivalry with the West
Russia’s establishment of dominant influence across the Caspian Sea basin conflicts directly with the geopolitical ambitions of Western nations. The U.S. and Europe see Caspian energy resources as vital to reducing dependency on Middle East oil imports. The West also views the region as an important strategic frontier between Europe, the Middle East and Asia. But Russian control of regional energy flows and military networks impedes Western access.
The European Union has attempted to draw Caspian states westward by offering deeper economic ties and development aid. The Southern Gas Corridor project sponsored by the EU was intended to enable Central Asian gas exports to Europe while bypassing Russia. Washington has aimed to isolate Iran and counter Russian leverage over Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan by promoting Western energy firms. It has also pressured regional states to participate in sanctions against Moscow following its interventions in Ukraine and Syria.
But the West’s efforts have achieved minimal success in shifting the geopolitical alignment of Caspian states away from Russia. Moscow has worked aggressively to limit Western energy projects that might compete with its pipeline monopoly. Russia’s military presence also dissuades regional powers from aligning with NATO. Tensions persist as NATO has increased naval exercises in the Black Sea and accused Russia of naval aggression. Moscow extended its regional ballistic missile capabilities and surveillance as countermeasures. Russian experts criticize NATO’s eastern growth as betraying assurances given as the Cold War ended and warn of a potential wider conflict.
China’s rising influence in Central Asia also raises concerns among Russian officials about losing their traditional primacy in the Caspian region. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has brought major investment in infrastructure and energy projects to connect with Europe. Beijing’s cyber and space capabilities offer an alternative sphere of economic and communication links less dependent on Russia. While the countries aim to cooperate officially through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, both likely seek to balance the other’s power.
Russia’s successful obstruction of trans-Caspian pipelines and hostile reaction to Georgia and Ukraine growing closer to NATO demonstrate Moscow’s determination to be the preeminent force shaping regional security. But the West’s continuing efforts to bring Caspian states into its orbit ensures ongoing geopolitical tensions. Russia’s military dominance and willingness to intervene forcefully cannot fully eliminate Western influence and economic competition over the long-term.
Implications for Regional Security
Russia’s strategic objective of controlling the Caspian region significantly impacts the security dynamics between the littoral states. Moscow looks to limit Western influence by being the main provider of military assistance and security guarantees. But its policies also create spheres of influence that impose limits on the independence of regional states. This mixed role has repercussions for stability in the Caspian area.
On the positive side, Russia provides useful deterrence and defense against external threats through the CSTO and arms supplies to friendly states. It targets violent extremism, terrorism, drug trafficking and other transnational dangers through multilateral cooperation. Russia also contributes peacekeepers to prevent conflicts among former Soviet states from escalating, as seen in Nagorno-Karabakh. Its military capabilities help deter overt foreign aggression. Russia’s presence provides a measure of superpower stability missing after the Soviet collapse.
However, Russia has demonstrated a willingness to use military force and intimidation against its neighbors in pursuit of political aims. Its armed interventions in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine violated international law, undermined territorial integrity and provoked accusations of imperialist aggression from NATO. Critics argue such behavior by Russia actually generates regional instability. Dependence on Russian security guarantees also allows autocratic rulers to exercise internal repression without fearing external consequences.
Russia’s aim to control access to Caspian energy supplies similarly puts it in conflict at times with the economic and resource nationalism of regional states. Efforts to monopolize pipelines and use its leverage over gas imports and transport links are viewed unfavorably. Russia’s economic Project power can constrain development options for smaller states. Its influence over Kazakhstan in particular has sparked fears sovereignty could be gradually ceded to Moscow.
There is also a risk that competition for power and influence between Russia and outside states could turn the region into an arena for geopolitical rivalry and proxy conflicts. Russia has proven wary of China’s economic advances and resists a greater security role for the U.S. and Europe in what it views as its rightful sphere of influence. Such distrust could inhibit coordination on pressing transnational issues like terrorism, drug trafficking and managing Afghanistan’s stability as foreign troops withdraw.
However, the Caspian littoral states have managed to pursue productive multilateral engagement through organizations like the Caspian Five forum. Russia and Iran have hosted summits that focus on issues of common interest like maritime security and resource rights disputes. The West also continues cooperation with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan on energy projects, bypassing Russia. But maximizing stability will require restraining hegemonic ambitions and accepting shared interests.
Russia’s enduring geopolitical dominance across the Caspian Sea region has proven both a stabilizing force and source of instability. Its desire to control regional energy resources and military security dynamics has generated recurring friction with independent-minded neighbors and Western powers. But Russia also provides useful deterrence and defense capabilities through bilateral ties and the CSTO that smaller regional states depend upon.
President Putin has reasserted Russia’s traditional primacy along the Caspian littoral through expanded political, economic and military power projection. But its efforts to impose spheres of influence have met resistance from states aspiring toward greater sovereignty and partners like the U.S. and EU. China’s rise as an energy importer and infrastructure investor also challenges Russia’s aim to be the sole regional hegemon.
Ongoing competition for access, influence and alliances between Russia and other global powers in the Caspian region will require active diplomacy and confidence building measures to prevent greater instability. Regional states like Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan can balance relations with Russia and the West to maximize their autonomy and development. But in the near-term, Russia’s entrenched geopolitical role across the Caspian Sea will continue to heavily shape the area’s complex security dynamics.
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