The Warming of the Caspian Cold War

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by Casey_Michel on 7/2/2012 · 7 comments

The Caspian Sea first crept into the world’s cognizance sometime in 1873. Utilizing machinery constructed in nearby Bibi-Heybat Bay, jutting to the south of Baku, oil workers installed the world’s first offshore and machine-drilled wells, setting their engineering skills on the viscous black gold roiling underneath the Absheron peninsula. Gas-lit lamps and foreign nationals soon peopled the Azeri capital, and, by 1900, Baku boasted more than 3,000 of these primitive pump-derricks.

The Great Caspian Boom had begun.*

*Other major events of 1873: The Khanate of Khiva signs a peace treaty with Tsar Alexander II, turning the khan’s kingdom into a Russian protectorate; slaves are freed in Puerto Rico; and Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis receive patents for plugging copper rivets in denim pants, a harbinger of America’s dominant fashion over the next 150 years. One of these is clearly more important than the others.

Broken only by the October Revolution and consequent collapse some 70 years later, Baku’s spent over a century pumping a wealth of the world’s oil, relegated especially within the post-Soviet sphere. Privatization saw the pools gobbled by a few international players, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline – in which BP, Chevron, and Statoil grab nearly 50 percent of the earnings – stretches some 1,100 miles into the Mediterranean, channeling up to one million barrels of crude per day. (It’s the second-longest pipeline in a former Soviet land, falling only to the blithely named Friendship Pipeline.) Even though Azerbaijan’s not quite as reliant on the fields as it once was, and even though the rising sea level will make the oil harvest marginally tougher, Baku realizes that there’s still gold in ‘em waters.

Of course, the rest of the littoral nations – Russia, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan – realize this as well, which has given Joshua Kucera ample room to detail the growing naval arms race swirling the Caspian:

While the world focuses on the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran, a little-noticed arms buildup has been taking place to Iran’s north, among the ex-Soviet states bordering the Caspian. Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union created three new states on the sea, their boundaries have still not been delineated. And with rich oil and natural gas fields in those contested waters, the new countries – Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan – are using their newfound riches to protect the source of that wealth.

The arms-growth, as can be imagined, is a bit peculiar. Russia and Kazakhstan – the latter of which is the largest land-locked country in the world – share notably warm relations; Turkmenistan’s displayed little bellicosity during these nascent decades; and Azerbaijan should, as Kucera points out, be preoccupied with maintaining its western front in Nagorno-Karabakh. Iran, meanwhile, sees itself marginally propped through Russia’s unwillingness to cater to any wholesale embargo of Iranian oil, and both have shown strong alliance in maintaining Assad’s goons outside Damascus.*

*This Russo-Iranian relationship is fascinating, and speaks to Putin’s marked, if mendacious, diplomatic skills. The man’s both carrot-and-sticking Tehran, balancing Syrian arms transport with deceptively strong rhetoric as to why Russia’d long prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The duplicity’s breathtaking, deft, and unpredictable.

The underlain thesis of Kucera’s article, mentioned toward the end, is that each nation ratchets its increasing arms potential as a nominally defensive measure. I’ve not yet seen any notion of First-Strike Capability, the kind buttressing US-Soviet Cold War rhetoric, bandied about the Caspian; rather, all weaponized increase is played as a means of counteracting a neighbor’s purportedly offensive move. Everyone’s claiming territorial integrity, and nothing more. They’re just protecting their own.

This is, of course, bunk. Just as in any arena in its near abroad, Russia views the Caspian as its backyard. The former Soviet satellites – while nominally entrusted to Moscow’s protection – will continue to distance themselves from any Russian irredentism: their people won’t have it, and their pockets won’t risk it. And Iran, caught between ever-converging rocks and hard places, cannot afford to let any border go untouched – hello, submarines – especially in light of increased Israeli-Azeri cooperation. The countries are feigning defense, to no one’s deception.

And suddenly, where was once theorized a potential conflict, we may now see the fruits of this arms race. Last month Turkmenistan sent off an exploratory vessel to conduct seismic experiments near the Kyapaz oil and gas field, estimated to hold up to 50 million tons of oil. (Ashgabat refers to it as the Serdar field.) The vessel was picked up by an Azeri patrol boat and promptly rerouted it back to its point of origin. The Turkmenistani Foreign Ministry called the return part of a series of “illegal measures,” accusing Azerbaijan of “provocations.” Baku’s ABC news agency, meanwhile, wrote, “Turkmenistan is clearly ready to unleash war with Azerbaijan.” (Propagandizing is nothing especial in this area, but you gotta admire a bit of the surety here.)

Now, in the latest diplomatic maneuver, Turkmenistan, the hermitic recluse, has taken an interesting step and reached out to third-party moderators. Oil and Gas Minister Kakageldy Abdyllayev said that Ashgabat was planning to take its claims for the oil fields – which also include Guneshli/Omar and Chirag/Osman – to the United Nations’ International Court of Justice. Azerbaijan’s claimed that the two nations had negotiated a moratorium on exploring disputed areas. Turkmenistan’s playing dumb, arguing that no agreement ever existed – and that such exploratory missions are thusly fair game.

Of course, if the surrounding nations can’t even determine whether to term the Caspian a “sea” or a “lake” – though this is a bit understandable, as there are oil-field implications depending on either definition – it’s tough to believe that an agreement between Baku and Ashgabat existed about the Kyapaz/Serdar field. Likewise, it’s tough to imagine that Turkmenistan would purposefully provoke the notably stroppy Azeris, especially if they’d already had an agreement set upon. Still, RFE/RL concurs with Baku, writing that “[i]n 2008, the two countries’ leaders signed an agreement calling for the two Caspian littoral states to refrain from exploratory or extraction activities in the area until the dispute is resolved.”

As it is, it’s unclear as to how the UN will rule on the matter – it’ll likely find a path of least resistance in implementing the EU-proposed trans-Caspian pipeline between the two nations, which could circumvent Russia’s current stranglehold on Caspian oil. That being said, given the UN’s relative impotence in the region, a ruling may have little to no effect on the nations’ encroachment. Russia’s in a sound position as mediator — but it will likely, viz. Syria, deter any quick resolution, all the likelier if it means delaying the potential underwater pipeline. And so the arms race grows, and a cold war simmers.

In a perfect world, this dispute would be the impetus for the five countries to finally delineate and demarcate their Caspian claims. But … that’s not going to happen. Three hundred and sixty-five million barrels not nearly enough to stem this Great Aquatic Game, and a toothless UN resolution is not going to make these two autocracies – or the three others – edge any closer to détente. This mini-Cold War’s been gestating for years. And now, things begin to bubble.


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This post was written by...

– author of 29 posts on Registan.net.

Casey Michel is a graduate student at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, focusing on Eurasian political and social development, and he has worked with both International Crisis Group (Bishkek) and as a Peace Corps Kazakhstan volunteer. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, RFE/RL, Al Jazeera, The Moscow Times, The Diplomat, and Slate. You can follow him on Twitter at @cjcmichel.

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{ 7 comments }

Michael Hancock-Parmer July 2, 2012 at 3:34 pm

Interesting article, but can I make a constructive bit of criticism? Don’t use “world” when you mean “Western Europe,” or some similarly local place. For example, you open with “The Caspian Sea first crept into the world’s cognizance sometime in 1873.” It would have been much stronger if you told us who exactly first became aware of the Caspian in 1873 and why. Pretty sure it wasn’t the entire world. And isn’t any piece of oil-and-Baku required to mention the brothers Nobel? :)

Keep up the good work!

AJK July 2, 2012 at 7:55 pm

On the other hand, “stroppy.”

Casey July 2, 2012 at 7:57 pm

Oy. I’m usually better than that. Can’t be sure, but assuming the rest of the Azeris were well aware of Baku pre-1873. As to the Nobel brothers, can’t say I know too much about them — but these derricks are otherworldly: http://www.sjvgeology.org/history/balakhany-saboontchy_field.jpg

Calvin Preece July 3, 2012 at 4:55 am

Casey, I think instead of the past participle “underlain”, you should use “underlying” since the writing continues to exist even though written in the past. Just an old grammarian from Rice’s comment. I am enjoying reading your work on Registan.

Casey July 4, 2012 at 2:38 pm

Duly noted. And had no idea you were currently set up in Kyrgyzstan — next time I’m in the area, we’ll need to meet and discuss all things Centennial/Wayne Graham.

brian July 9, 2012 at 11:31 am

The ICJ doesn’t issue a “toothless UN resolution” – cf. http://www.icj-cij.org/court/index.php?p1=1&p2=6

Casey July 9, 2012 at 11:54 am

Resolution, ruling, semantics — point is, the UN’s decision, should one come, will remain toothless. Nice step to see the Turkmen reach out to a third party, but I’d be remiss to expect the UN’s motion to resolve the conflict. Unless, Brian, your work at the UN’s Middle East and Western Asia Division can prove me wrong. (I’m assuming this is Brian Požun.)

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