Russia’s Caspian Flotilla has been dominant in the inland sea for so long that many have ignored the fact that, over the past several years, it has ceased to be the only national navy that matters. Outside powers, due to the expansion of their navies, are moving to assume a larger role (see EDM, June 24, 2021). However, if that had been possible until this summer due to the fact that most of the littoral states had focused on the development of coast guards rather than genuine navies, that is no longer the case. Indeed, Astana has signed agreements with Ankara on Turkey’s construction of naval vessels in Kazakhstan that not only will make the Central Asian state’s fleet a powerful challenge to Russia’s Caspian Flotilla but will also allow Turkey to project power throughout the region by giving the Turkish government the capacity to be the naval contractor of first resort or even use the ships it builds under the flags of others to promote Turkish goals (EurAsia Daily, July 29; see EDM, August 1).
Moscow officials are increasingly taking notice of these developments with some warning that other littoral states may follow Kazakhstan in naval matters (T.me/aviapro1, August 1; Kz.tsargrad.tv, August 23; Sovsekretno.ru, August 29). A few even go so far as to suggest that this move will allow Turkey to project power far beyond the Turkish world and allow it to become the dominant geopolitical power along the entire southern portion of the post-Soviet space all the way to the borders of China (Rossaprimavera.ru, July 31). While such conclusions are at a minimum premature, they are a clear sign that what Turkey has been doing and, more importantly, plans to do as far as naval construction on the Caspian represents a key new battleground for geopolitical and even military competition. Moscow will likely be compelled to respond lest it lose its historical dominance not only in the Caspian itself but with the other littoral states as well.
As recently as five years ago, Moscow thought it had cornered the market on shipbuilding by others on the Caspian littoral. This was accomplished both through bilateral agreements, which meant that most of these countries, including Kazakhstan, looked to the Russian Federation for shipbuilding, and through the provisions of the 2018 accord of these states on the delimitation of the Caspian, ending conflicts among the littoral countries on these matters which had arisen after 1991 (see EDM, June 7, 2018; August 16, 2022). Neither approach has delivered. Moscow did sign numerous agreements with Kazakhstan and others to build ships. However, it has been unable to see the deals through, prompting these countries to look elsewhere, initially to shipbuilding powers such as South Korea and now increasingly to Turkey (see EDM, October 5, 12, 2021).
According to at least one Russian analyst, Ankara has found a way around the restrictions about the introduction of foreign navies on the Caspian. Yury Lyamin, a senior researcher at Moscow’s Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, according to Sovershenno Sekretno, suggests that “in order to control the oil and gas wealth of the Caspian Sea, and at the same time support their ally Azerbaijan, which is arguing for huge reserves of blue fuel with Turkmenistan, the Turks have come up with the idea of deploying their naval forces here under the flags of their kindred “Turkic” countries, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. [Consequently,] although the 2018 Convention prohibits the deployment of armed forces of non-Caspian countries in the Caspian, Baku and Astana are ready to help circumvent the restrictions imposed by Russia and Iran” (Sovsekretno.ru, August 29). In short, what Ankara is doing now in Kazakhstan is not about that country alone but also about the projection of Turkish power to help its closest ally Azerbaijan, to ensure Turkish access to oil and gas from the Caspian basin and Central Asia and to make itself the dominant power over an enormous region.
If that were not enough for Moscow to take notice, Balmanov continues, Turkey wants to expand its influence within the current borders of the Russian Federation. The Turks, he says, “consider the representatives of peoples living in Russia, certain republics of the Caucasus, the Middle Volga, Kalmykia, parts of the Urals and Siberia” as properly within their sphere of influence. Indeed, he says, Ankara’s talk of “a Turkish world” is an effort to distract Russia and China from Turkey’s longer-term aspirations that would threaten the position of both powers. Yet according to Balmanov, both Moscow and Beijing face a serious challenge now—not so much geopolitical as geo-economic—given that the presence of a Turkish-built fleet in the Caspian will ensure that trade routes bypassing Russia will continue to expand and that Moscow’s ability to trade with Iran and the states on the Indian Ocean could be further reduced (see EDM, April 25).
These dangers have only grown in the past two years, especially since the start of the Kremlin’s so-called “special military operation” against Ukraine, the Moscow analyst says. Thus, “the question now is: will Russia, preoccupied with Ukraine and the sorting out of relations with the West be able to fend off the Turkish challenge in Kazakhstan and Central Asia? If it is not, then in the future, it is impossible to exclude the appearance of yet another state disloyal to Moscow on the long southeastern border of the Russian Federation.” To counter Turkey, the Kremlin is likely to look in the first instance to China and then to Iran. Yet, Beijing may not prove as supportive of Moscow’s interests as it will benefit from the expanded east-west trade that Turkish moves will ensure, even if Chinese interests could be threatened by an expansion of Turkish influence over the long term. That leaves Iran. It thus seems probable that the most likely consequence of the expansion of Turkish influence in the Caspian will be an effort by Moscow to draw in Tehran, Turkey’s longstanding enemy (see EDM, February 25, 2021; November 1, 2022).
As a result, what may seem a minor sideshow in the Caspian Sea region could easily trigger a wider competition not just between Russia and the countries of the region but also with Tehran and the West—a struggle that could presage yet another serious conflict with potentially as many far-reaching consequences as the fighting now taking place in Ukraine.