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A new great game in the Caspian: NATO and Russian countermeasures

By Troy Baxter

Russia has worked diligently to keep NATO from entering its perceived geostrategic territory, even if that comes at great personal cost to the nation, which it has on a number of occasions.

Russia’s latest move to block NATO’s entrance into the Caspian region came after it led other littoral states to sign a declaration guaranteeing stability and security in the region. The presidents of the five Caspian states signed the political declaration, which ensures that only the Caspian littoral states have the right to maintain an armed forces presence in Caspian territory. This effectively shuts NATO out of the area and prevents it from establishing any foreign base of operations in the foreseeable future. The issue to consider: how much does this matter and why?

The most interesting aspect in this scenario is the change in political favor by some of the Caspian states. Azerbaijan in particular has been a strong strategic energy partner with the US and Europe since its separation and subsequent independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The country possesses a wealth of natural gas and oil riches that have continuously gone westward. This is partly a strategy of Western desire to purchase oil from Azerbaijan in place of Russia, as it effectively keeps the money out of Russia’s oil economy. This is why it is of particular interest that Azerbaijan is now siding more closely with Russia on a declaration that would effectively keep its Western economic allies out of the area. Aside from Azerbaijan’s strong economic ties to the West, it has also contributed some logistical support to the international security assistance force in Afghanistan. Thus, at one point in time both its security and economic interests aligned with that of the West.

For Azerbaijan to side with Russia on the declaration would seem to fly in contradiction to what the nation has been doing for the past two decades: cultivating a Western-leaning relationship. Azerbaijan appears to have voluntarily put that relationship in jeopardy, or at the very least placed it in a more stressful situation than before. One could even argue that Azerbaijan missed a glorious opportunity to ally itself closely and personally with NATO by having a foreign operating base established within its borders. This could have led to an expansion in economic trade first and foremost and could even have cultivated further security coordination and cooperation. It seems likely this is NATO’s long-term desire. However, this was precisely what Russia was aiming to prevent by leading the Caspian states to sign the declaration.

Russia has no interest in having NATO encroach further onto its geostrategic territorial influence. Aside from the residual Cold War tensions that still exist between the US and Russia, there is also a tangible security concern for Russia: the West has already advanced further east than Russia would like or can tolerate. What first began as an exclusively Western European treaty has gradually spread further and further east to the point where nations such as Turkey are being actively courted to join the organization. In fact, Turkey was very close to joining NATO recently. However, there is some evidence to suggest that Russia intervened with those talks and ultimately succeeded in putting them down. Its actions in Azerbaijan can be seen as a preemptive strategy, utilizing what it learned observing NATO’s courting of Turkey. For Russia, the idea is to get out ahead of NATO and foster a relationship between it and the Caspian states, thus mitigating NATO’s objectives to advance further east.

Thus, NATO penetration into the east has been put on hold for the time being. Russia’s obvious desire to keep the US in particular away from its eastern and southern borders weakens the likelihood of NATO penetration in the area. This could mean that in the future Caspian nations are tied to Russia more deeply, particularly as it concerns security and other military activities. The main takeaway from the Caspian summit is that Russia is now the main military force in the area. It is without a doubt the most powerful of the five Caspian states (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Russia, and Iran). In fact, Russia’s military is more powerful than the rest of the Caspian states combined. Russia has effectively assumed control over the Caspian region so far as international security and military deterrence is concerned. However, some concessions were made by Russia in order to achieve this end. The belief is that Russia would rather make minor economic concessions to the Caspian states rather than allow major security concerns to arise by not making such compromises.

Though it would seem that NATO has hit some serious resistance in its drive to expand east, with failed initiatives in Turkey and now the Caspian region, NATO is undoubtedly still looking to push east for both economic and military reasons. NATO is not pushing simply to intrude on Russian borders, however. Though it would give the alliance a significant strategic advantage to be able to set up a base of operations that could also fall under a missile defense plan, allowing them to install missiles closer to Russia, there are still a number of economic reasons for NATO to continue its drive east. Ironically, though this deal may have squashed NATO’s strategic goals of intruding on the Caspian area in the short-term, it may have opened the door for further oil pipelines to be built in the long-term which could benefit NATO allies. One of Russia’s main concessions was to help build a north-south corridor linking Western and Northwestern Europe to the Caspian basin, making the shipping route considerably shorter in the process. This would be expected to lead to some economic stimulation primarily for Caspian nations but also some Western states by extension.

Russia is keen to protect its geostrategic border areas, even if that comes at some economic cost to itself. The Caspian deal demonstrates that Russia is proactively creating a buffer zone of economic and strategic partners that will be militarily dependent upon its might. So far the Caspian region is the only real success it has had toward that end, as Turkey has remained independent from complete Russian influence. While this should not have any major impact on NATO and its current operations in Western Europe, it will mean that NATO needs to find a new angle for entry if it wishes to keep pushing eastward. What this brief analysis hopefully shows is how that push will likely always be met by Russian resistance and not entirely without solid geostrategic logic that encompasses not just military objectives but long-term economic ones as well. A new game is afoot in the Caspian, still shrouded in the trappings of military garb but really more about the soft power of economic clout.

Troy Baxter is currently a Master’s student in Bellevue University’s International Security and Intelligence Studies Program in Omaha, Nebraska. He received his Honours Degree in Criminal Justice and Public Policy from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada in 2013.

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Modern Diplomacy is an online journal perceived as the valuable tool for the assessment and understanding of world affairs through a combination of qualitative analysis, political commentary, information, interviews and specific thematic features

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