Author Oleg Gerasimov.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union did not contribute to the world’s stability, but rather brought a large number of contradictions in an enormous melting pot of potential conflicts, which were basically caused by the presence of non-regulated zones and the spheres of bilateral relations.
Today, mass media pay great attention to armed conflicts in the Eastern regions of Ukraine and in the Middle East, but put no special emphasis on a potentially dangerous zone – the Caspian Sea region that includes not only the Caspian Sea, but also the nearest territories. Historically, these territories were the arenas for battles and geopolitical clashes between various empires at all times, where the Ottoman Empires fought Persia and the Russian Empire threw the Ottoman Empire back with Great Britain and other countries acting on the background with their own interests and intrigues.
Today, the Caspian Sea region countries include: the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Azerbaijan.
What Makes This Region So Important?
First of all, a lot of hydrocarbon material resources are available in different zones of the Caspian Sea. According to some estimates, explored and confirmed potential oil and gas resources total 50 billion barrels and over 8 billion barrels respectively.
Second, there are enormous sea biological resources the total amount of which is no less than 3 million tons, including 90% of world’s sturgeon resources.
Third, there is an extended network of sea and land pipeline routes that make an integral part of the Eurasian transportation network.
Forth, this region is considered to be an integral part of the “North-South” strategic transport corridor. Though, the channel construction through the entire territory of Iran may look like a fantastic project today, but who knows what will happen tomorrow?
Key Trend – Regional Safety Assurance
All countries included in the Caspian Sea region are trying to create a stable foundation for social and economic development. There is the required potential for this development, but we should mention here a serious problem related to the situation in the region that is under a great pressure of other countries or non-regional political players such as the USA, EU countries, China, and Turkey. Taking into account the region’s importance as an oil and gas stockpot, many world oil majors are intensifying their activities in the region. These are Chevron, Exxon Mobil (USA), British Petroleum, British Gas (Great Britain), Shell (Great Britain/Netherlands), Total (France), Eni (Italy), CNPC (China) and other companies. All these companies are taking part in oil and gas projects in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.
However, the influence of all these “external players” is not limited by forms of economic interests only. Actually, the situation has left the economics domain long time ago and made a smooth transition to political aspects. These political players intensively use contradictions existing among the Caspian Sea region countries by implementing an old proved principle: “Divide and conquer”.
The USA are interested to a greater degree in control over the countries that own energy resources and traffic flows for energy transportation, rather than in oil and gas production. Within the scope of military and technical cooperation, they are making intense efforts to develop The Caspian Guard Initiative program. By 2022, the USA is planning to complete the implementation of their influence upon the countries in the Eurasian region through the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Taking into account terrorist activities growing worldwide, the military campaign against ISIS and the civil war in Syria, which was substantially aggravated by the USA, in the nearest future, Washington is going to take a very suitable position to influence the Caspian Sea region.
The EU countries traditionally purchase the Caspian hydrocarbons. Basically, the EU policy is formed with regard to development of energy and transportation projects. However, the recent tendency indicates that there are some political aspects of cooperation with the countries located in the Caspian Sea region. A vivid example here is striving for development of the Trans-Caspian - Trans-Black Sea energy corridor for transportation of the Caspian Sea energy resources (the Nabucco project).
Unlike the USA, China applies a very careful, we would say, a “soft” approach for its policy in the Caspian Sea region. The Sleeping Dragon is aggressively investing in the extractive industries and transport infrastructure of this region. Basically, China uses the Caspian Sea region not only as a raw material source, but also as a promising market in Central Asia. The Silk Road Economic Belt project is being implemented.
As the national security issues in this region are equally acute for China and the Caspian Sea region countries, Beijing considers the possibility to establish “support bases” in the region.
Turkey is making efforts to intensify its military and technical cooperation with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Besides, Turkey supports Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia and flatly refuses to recognize the Armenian Genocide at the beginning of the XX century. The contradictions between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan over the disputable hydrocarbon deposits are intensively used. No doubt, the implementation f the “Neosmanism” policy affects the stability in the region.
The only possible solution to prevent adverse consequences of such rivalry is that five countries located in the Caspian Sea region should work out their joint optimal strategy related to the region. In our opinion, this is a very difficult task for now.
Which Country Has the Strongest Naval Forces in the Region?
In recent years, the general military and political situation in the Caspian Sea region has been under a constant pressure because of a number of problems, such as:
- the USA and NATO military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq and complicated mutual relations between the West and Iran due to the Iranian nuclear program;
- growing competition between Russia and the West in the field of Caspian gas supplies to foreign markets;
- crisis in Ukraine that has drastically heightened tensions between Russia and the West;
- political regimes existing in the Caspian Sea region – now, the West cannot put up with any of them, that is why all of them may become targets for carrying out “color revolutions”;
- sudden aggravation of tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh this year, which has led to a direct armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
In these conditions, the Caspian Sea region countries continue to increase their naval potential intensively.
Let’s get a glimpse at available naval forces of the Caspian Sea region countries. Our quick overview will be based on ships that belong to class 2 and 3.
Included in the Russian Navy, the Caspian fleet (stationed in Astrakhan and Makhachkala ports) has drastically changed in recent years.
Old missile and gun boats taken out of service have been replaced with small gunships under Project 21630 (Astrakhan, Volgodonsk, and Makhachkala ships), small missile ships under Project 21631 (Grad Sviyazhsk, Uglich, and Veliky Ustyug ships) and class II missile ships (Tatarstan and Dagestan ships). Assault landing ships and surface effect ships have been replaced with the Serna- and Dyugon-class landing ships. The naval command is planning to reinforce the group of landing ships with the Murena-class surface effect ships (Project 12061). Similar ships have already been included in South Korea’s Navy.
The group of mine warfare ships is a weak spot of the Caspian fleet. It is evident that two coastal-type minesweepers mine ships and five harbor minesweepers are not enough to ensure anti-submarine defence.
Against the odds, a sufficiently strong striking force of naval attack missile weapon carriers has been formed for operation in the Caspian Sea, including the above-mentioned Tatarstan, Dagestan, Grad Sviyazhsk, Uglich, and Veliky Ustyug ships. All these ships, except the Tatarstan (armed with the Uran cruise missile system with maximum range of 130 km) may carry cruise missiles included in the Kalibr-NK system. This system uses the 3М-54 anti-ship missile with the range of up to 350 km, i.e. 3 times longer than the range of the potential enemy’s missiles. The 3М-14 missile (included in the same system) is intended to hit fixed ground targets and has guaranteed range of 1,500 km.
In 2015, this group of naval ships demonstrated its force and combat effectives of the onboard missile system by delivering a number of missile strikes on the ISIS positions in Syria.
“We need to use the available partnership potential more effectively. We are interested in launching of large-scale joint projects, mutual investments encouragement, creating new jobs, and strengthening of international contacts. I’m sure together we’ll be able to change our region into a dynamically growing market that is the common market for about 250 million people.” President of Russia Vladimir Putin
The Kazakhstani naval forces are stationed in Aktau, Atyrau and Bautino ports. The main battleships are the Project 0250 missile and gun boats (Kazakhstan, Oral, Saryarka boats) and Project 0300 patrol boats (Sardar, Sakshy, Zhenis, Semser, Sarbaz boats). These boats are suitable for patrolling and guarding of the marine economic zone, but absolutely unfit for full-scale combat operations at sea because they are not equipped with any guided missile weapons.
Things may be getting better if Kazakhstan purchases the Russian Tornado-class gunboats (Project 21632). The acceptance of a series of six such ships was intensively negotiated, but, unfortunately, the matter did not get any further. The Kazakhstan government was likely to be deterred by high cost of these ships.
The Turkmen naval forces (Turkmenbashi port) are now undergoing an intense upgrade. The government has selected the “minimum expenses – maximum efficiency” approach.
The main attack battleships are two Project 12418 missile boats (Edermen and Gayratly).
Each large missile boat carries 16 cruise missiles included in the Uran-E onboard missile system (with range up to 120 km). This makes them a very significant striking force in the Caspian Sea.
Since 2010, Turkmenistan and Turkey have been involved in a contract to build NTPB-class high-speed patrol boats. Under this project, eight boats have been built so far (according to unconfirmed data, two additional boats are under construction).
We’d like to give a more detailed description of another interesting project. In 2015, Dearsan Shipyard (Turkey) signed a contract to supply six 33 m long small patrol boats under the new project for the Turmen Navy.
Ordered for the Turkmen Navy, the boats are 33.05 m long and 7.1 m wide and have the draught of 1.4 m. The main power plant includes two MTU M93L diesel engines with two water jets operating at the full speed up to 43 knots while the endurance is up to 350 nautical miles at 35 knots. The boats are armed with two launchers of the MBDA Marte Mk 2/N light anti-ship missile system and a single Aselsan STOP forecastle 25 mm remotely controlled gun mount with the Aselsan ASELFLIR electronic and optical fire control system. Although, the range of anti-ship missiles is not longer than 30 km, for the time being, these “mosquitoes” make a threatening naval force in the Caspian Sea.
The distinctive feature of the Azerbaijani naval forces (Baku port) is their numerous but obsolescent fleet.
The flagship is the G-121 Gusary frigate (former Project 159A SKR-16 Bakinetz frigate) built as far back as 1967. Three Project 205P missile boats are conditionally classified as missile boats. The Termit system missiles were removed from these boats as far back as the 1990s.
The Azerbaijani Navy also include patrol boats, mine sweepers and assault landing ships. But new projects have been launched recently. In 2014, a new shipbuilding plant of the Coast Guard of the State Border Guard of Azerbaijan was open in Turkan, a settlement near Baku. This project has intensified the construction of missile boats under such projects as the Shaldag Mk V and OPV 62 (Saar 62). Both boats were developed in Israel.
The Shaldag Mk V-class boats are armed with the Rafael Typhoon forecastle remotely- controlled automatic gun system (probably, equipped with a single 2А14 23 mm automatic gun removed from the ZU-23-2 system), two Rafael Mini remotely controlled systems with 12.7mm machine guns, two 7.62 mm machine guns and a four-round guided missile system. This system is likely to be the Rafael Spike-NLOS missile launcher.
Being currently under construction for the Azerbaijani Coat Guard, the Project OPV 62 ships have the full displacement of 470 tons, length of 61.79 m, width of 7.62 m and draught of 2.77 m. The three-shaft diesel power plant provides the full speed of 32 knots. The endurance at 13 knots reaches 5,000 miles and 3,200 miles at 16 knots. For the time being, six boats have been built under this project.