World View: Russian Obstructionism Blocks Agreement on Splitting up the Caspian Sea

The Associated Press

This morning’s key headlines from

  • Russian obstructionism blocks agreement on splitting up the Caspian Sea
  • New ‘facts on the ground’ may force Russia to change its mind

Russian obstructionism blocks agreement on splitting up the Caspian Sea

Map of Caspian Sea
Map of Caspian Sea

Last week, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said that the five littoral states bordering the Caspian Sea should be able to reach an agreement this year on the legal status of the Caspian Sea – specifically, dividing up the seabed among the five littoral states. According to Karasin:

We believe that this [cooperation with the Caspian Sea bordering countries] is one of the most important issues for Russia now, because the Caspian Sea should be an example of cooperation rather than confrontation. We are well aware that the situation in the world is unstable, there is some uncertainty. The Caspian Sea should be a positive example. There are all necessary conditions for that…

We are now working to formalize an agreement on the Convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea. We hope that this agreement is within arm’s reach…

In a word, one can be optimistic and say that we are on the right track.

History shows that none of this is likely to be true. That is not surprising, since we knows from recent experiences with listening to Russia about invading Ukraine, invading and annexing Crimea, Syria, al-Assad’s use of Sarin gas, the Russians’ shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 passenger plane with a Russian Buk 9M38 missile, and so forth, that if Russians ever tell the truth, then it is by accident.

The five littoral states of the Caspian Sea have for decades been unable to reach an agreement on dividing the Caspian Sea among them. They agree that the entire surface of the sea should be open to all for commercial shipping and for fishing. The disagreements are over the seabed, and particularly control of the vast energy projects built on the seabed.

Prior to 1991, there were only two littoral states – the Soviet Union and Iran, and the Soviets used their vastly superior and military and economic power to gain the advantage in the Caspian Sea.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated, suddenly there were five littoral states. During the 1990s, the chaos in Russia permitted Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan to begin independent oil and gas development projects. By the end of the 1990s, Vladimir Putin was taking charge, and every form of obstruction was used.

Russia’s main number one objective is to prevent gas from reaching Europe, except Russia’s gas, delivered by Russia’s state-owned Gazprom. That means no Middle Eastern or Central Asian gas reaching Europe. It also means no drilling in the Caspian Sea, and it also means no pipelines crossing the Caspian Sea.

Russia has used a variety of heavy-handed methods to reach its objective. By using its superior economic and military power, Russia was able to force Iran and Armenia to sharply limit pipeline capacities through their countries. In 2003, Gazprom attempted to gain control of Georgia’s network of high-pressure gas transmission lines, thus blocking any Azerbaijan gas from traveling through Georgia, though the attempt was thwarted by financial aid from US Agency for International Development. Tass (Moscow) and Jamestown and Atlantic Council

New ‘facts on the ground’ may force Russia to change its mind

In the Caspian Sea, Russia’s major weapon was to stir disagreements among the other four littoral states with regard to control of the seabed.

International laws provide for various methods for splitting up ownership of the seabed. According to one method, the size of the region that each country gets depends on the length of the coastline bordering the sea. Under this method Azerbaijan, Russia, and Kazakhstan would get the largest shares of the seabed, and so these countries favor it.

According to a second set of rules, there are five littoral states, and so the seabed would be split up equally among them, giving them each 20% of the seabed. Iran and Turkmenistan favor this set of rules, because they have the shortest shorelines.

At numerous summit meetings, the Russians have succeeded in provoking disagreements among the countries, with the result that no agreement has been reached in the 26 years since the Soviet Union disintegrated. Since there is no agreement on who owns what, it has been difficult for any country to develop energy projects, which is Russia’s objective.

However, Russia’s heavy-handed tactics began to backfire. Russia’s four-day interruption of gas supplies to Ukraine in January 2006 caused a surge in Europe’s political resolve to diversify its natural gas supplies and breathed new life into the still fledgling pipeline projects vying to bring Caspian gas to Europe. Russian gas supplies to Central and Southeast Europe were disrupted again from January 6 to 20 in 2009. This longer cutoff coincided with a period of cold weather throughout the region.

This has led to “facts on the ground” that Russia is forced to consider. Azerbaijani state oil company SOCAR has started drilling a new well. Norwegian companies have expressed an interest in working with Iran to drill and explore oil fields in the Caspian Sea. And Mideast countries are beginning to work with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan on oil and gas projects in the Caspian Sea. All of these energy projects specifically exclude Russia.

For 25 years, Russia has exploited political differences among the other countries to block many pipeline projects, but at the same time, that deadlock has led to expanded contacts between other pairs of littoral states and increased shipping between and among them—again to the exclusion of the Russia.

An even more ominous development for Russia is that, since the start of 2017, the amount of cargo passing through Russian ports on the Caspian Sea has fallen, compared to last year, by 48.4 percent. This figure is striking given that Russian ports elsewhere have seen an 11% increase in traffic over the same period, while the ports of other Caspian littoral states have also grown busier. Such trends are worrisome to Moscow because the decline in traffic at Russia’s Caspian ports is accelerating and putting the country’s regional geopolitical strategy at risk.

At any rate, Russia’s deputy foreign minister said that “the Caspian Sea should be an example of cooperation rather than confrontation,” and that a legal status agreement should be concluded by the end of the year. And yet, no date has been set for a signing of the legal status agreement, and the setting of such a date is nowhere in sight. Jamestown (George Goble) and Trend (Azerbaijan) and Mehr News (Iran)

Related Articles

KEYS: Generational Dynamics, Russia, Grigory Karasin, Caspian Sea, Soviet Union, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Gazprom, US Agency for International Development, SOCAR, Norway
Permanent web link to this article
Receive daily World View columns by e-mail


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.