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Blowback diplomacy: How the US was locked out of the Caspian

By Laura Garrido

It has been almost one year since the IV Caspian Summit in Astrakhan, Russia, where the presidents of the five Caspian states signed a political declaration that denied any foreign military presence in the Caspian Sea.

This means that possible future deployment of NATO forces in the area will not be allowed. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, this declaration “sets out a fundamental principle for guaranteeing stability and security, namely, that only the Caspian littoral states have the right to have their armed forces present on the Caspian.” While this is a threat to the United States, the decision may not have been as much of a shock. It may have been US policies that pushed this decision to the forefront.

Looking back to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was careful not to make it seem as though it was siding with the new states in their efforts to achieve independence from Russia. This was important because the United States did not want to give the impression that a “cordon sanitaire” was being created around Russia in order to isolate it from Europe. The new states and Russia were given the opportunity to create arrangements amongst themselves that were acceptable to both sides. The United States was to basically stay out of it. This policy was a way to allow the United States to slowly and strategically become involved in these new states in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union without bothering or irritating or worrying Russia.

After giving the newly independent states some time, the United States became increasingly active in its diplomatic efforts in the region. It started out with official visits, first by the leaders of the region to the United States: President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan visited the White House in 1996; President Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia, President Heidar Aliyev of Azerbaijan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan in 1997; and President Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan in 1998.   These visits were then followed by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright touring the region in 2000.

To add to this, possibly one of the most significant US policy decisions in the Caspian region, the Clinton Administration appointed a “special envoy”, or a special inter-agency working group, which focused on Caspian policy. This was interesting because so much focus was placed on this remote region, even though there was no significant trade relationship between the Caspian littorals and the United States, no real threat of major war, and no immediate threat to regional or international peace and stability. The United States military also began to pay attention to the region. Many training sessions and programs were conducted in the area and between 1992 and 1999. The United States also provided the Caspian area with nearly $1.9 billion under the Freedom Support Act to promote democratization, market reforms, health care, and housing.

However, not all good deeds go unpunished. While supporting the region, the United States also addressed the importance of Central Asia and the Caucasus. A mistake the United States may have made in addressing the importance of this region was emphasizing the region’s oil and gas wealth. In an address before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Foreign Operations Subcommittee, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright noted that it was of national interest to support states in the Caspian Basin because they were strategically located and energy-rich. This may have planted a seed of suspicion in Russia toward US motives in the area, which could have led long-term to the decision to lock them out of the region militarily in last year’s summit.

Thus, the very policy that was meant to help the United States gain the littoral states’ trust and future access to the Caspian’s resources and strategic location may have backfired. The US invested so much time, money, and energy working to build the navies and strengthen the military in Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan. However, all of that training and arms supplied were ultimately manipulated by Russia and Iran, cajoling the states that they could protect their interests themselves without more direct foreign military aid and involvement. The littoral states bought into the idea that their bolstered militaries, along with Russia and Iran’s supplementally pledged military support, would be enough to protect themselves. It seems apparent that the idea of needing protection from Russia and Iran in the future was not considered a relevant threat. This concept is something loudly crowed about in the West but these decisions show it is not shared by the ‘lesser’ Caspian littorals.

Another policy of the United States that may have contributed to this lockout decision was the imposition of sanctions on Russia and Iran. Russia not only has soft power influence throughout the region, many of the littoral states are fearful of a belligerent Iran. The United States imposed sanctions on Russia in response to the annexation of Crimea and subsequent involvement in the war in Ukraine. The sanctions have caused severe economic harm to Russia causing food prices to soar, the exchange rate to weaken, inflation to increase, and incomes to decrease. The United States also imposed further sanctions on Iran due to its illicit nuclear activities. Like in Russia, the sanctions severely affected Iran’s economy, causing incredibly high inflation, unemployment, and food prices. Thus, Russia and Iran’s distrust and anger toward the United States, along with their own national security interests, fueled their actions to push the littoral states to agree with the lockout.

The decision to block foreign militaries from the Caspian Sea is a threat to the strategic interests of America and, to a lesser extent, the EU. Potentially, it could have negative repercussions on energy security. By removing any Western military influence in the region, Russia will be able to maintain the regional hegemony it considers its natural birthright. In addition to that, Iran will be able to ensure greater strategic flexibility moving forward with the JCPOA nuclear accord. It is now clear that there were policy decisions made by the US that negatively affected its relationship with Russia and Iran and fueled the push for the military lockout. Additionally, the United States’ discussion of the strategic location and energy wealth of the Caspian Basin undoubtedly caused an air of doubt by the ‘greater’ Caspian littorals and clearly motivated them to improve their relations with Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan enough so that those three could legitimately believe in the wisdom and efficacy of relying on their own regional securitization. In short, the biggest decision that came from the IV Caspian Summit was the product of a long and gradual process of ‘blowback diplomacy,’ where the United States was forced to reap a bitter harvest from its earlier sowing season.

Laura Garrido is currently finishing her Master’s degree in the International Security and Intelligence Studies Program at Bellevue University in Omaha, Nebraska, USA. Her primary research interests cover the post-Soviet space and the fight against radical Islamism.

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Modern Diplomacy

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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