World View: Kazakhstan to Permit America to Use Caspian Ports to Supply Military in Afghanistan

Afghan and US forces have ramped up airstrikes and ground offensives against IS fighters
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This morning’s key headlines from GenerationalDynamics.com

  • Kazakhstan to permit America to use Caspian ports to supply military in Afghanistan
  • Russia moves to increase dominance over Caspian Sea

Kazakhstan to permit America to use Caspian ports to supply military in Afghanistan

Map: The Caspian Trade Corridor is part of the New Silk Road connecting Asia with Europe
Map: The Caspian Trade Corridor is part of the New Silk Road connecting Asia with Europe

A continuing issue facing the U.S.-led NATO military forces in Afghanistan is sending supplies to the landlocked country. Since the war began in 2001, most resupply has been done by shipping to Pakistan’s port in Karachi, and then overland by truck across Pakistan, through the Khyber Pass, into Afghanistan. This route has been reliable for the most part, there have been times when political disagreements between the US and Pakistan have cause Pakistan to close the Khyber Pass to US military goods.

As a backup, NATO has been developing several Central Asia truck and rail overland supply routes, such as from Europe through Russia to Kazakhstan, and then through Uzbekistan to Afghanistan.

Kazakhstan is about to sign an agreement with the U.S. that will permit NATO forces to substantially increase use of the existing Caspian Trade Corridor, by shipping through the Aktau and Kuryk ports on the Caspian Sea, completely bypassing Russia. Nato supplies from Europe will pass through Turkey and Georgia, through Azerbaijan to the port at Baku. From there, the supplies will be ferried across the Caspian Sea to one of the Kazakh ports, and then travel overland by truck through Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan, and then by rail to Afghanistan.

According to Kazakh officials, only nonmilitary goods will go through the ports. Nonetheless, Russian authorities are opposed to this U.S.-Kazakh deal because it could change the balance of power in the Caspian Sea, which the Russians consider to be their own back yard.

But since the purpose of the deal is to allow transit of supplies to the military in Afghanistan, the Russians fear that American soldiers might be deployed to the ports and that the ports eventually will turn into American military bases.

Another reason why Russians oppose the deal is because it gives them one less level to use against NATO – blocking goods from transiting across Russia – in retaliation for Western sanctions against Russia.

According to one Russian analyst, “Under the current conditions of American-Russian and traditional American-Iranian conflicts, this [new US] presence will generate anger both in Moscow and in Tehran.” EurasiaNet and Jamestown and EurAsia Daily

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Russia moves to increase dominance over Caspian Sea

There are five littoral states bordering the Caspian Sea: Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. For decades, they have 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. However, there are also large deposits of gas and oil, and large disagreements over who gets to exploit them.

Prior to 1991, there were only two littoral states: the Soviet Union and Iran. The Soviets controlled the Caspian Sea and forced Iran to follow Soviet policy. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the individual states began setting up individual independent oil and gas development projects. By the end of the 1990s, Vladimir Putin was taking charge, and used every heavy-handed form of obstruction to prevent these projects from going forward.

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 percent of the seabed. Iran and Turkmenistan favor this set of rules, because they have the shortest shorelines.

Putin has used these conflicting rules to provoke disagreements among the littoral states, with the result that in the 27 years since the disintegration of the Soviet Union no agreement has been reached. But recent bursts of pragmatism are bringing about agreements that may unlock some of the oil and gas fields.

Iran and Azerbaijan are adjacent countries along the Caspian Sea coastline, and attempts by either country to exploit the seabed have sometimes provoked gunboat diplomacy by the other. But on March 28, Iran and Azerbaijan signed a memorandum of understanding on joint development of two oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea.

Russia and Kazakhstan are also adjacent countries along the Caspian Sea coastline, and they have also had disputes in the past about ownership of three fields in the northern part of the Caspian Sea. But they settled their disputes in 2002, dividing the three oil and gas fields between them.

It will be more troublesome for Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan to reach an agreement. They are not adjacent, but they are opposite each other in a region of the Caspian Sea where there are oil and gas fields in the middle. However, agreement on joint development may be difficult to reach because both countries’ economies are weak, and they would have to share the multi-billion dollar investment costs for offshore development projects. And then they would have to share the risk that oil prices could fall again, making it impossible to recover the money they invested.

There is one more emerging issue that needs to be highlighted. Readers may recall that in October 2015, Russia began launching cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea, attacking targets in Syria. The cruise missiles were launched from Russia’s Caspian Flotilla, with a home base in Astrakhan, in the northern edge of the Caspian Sea.

Russia has announced that the flotilla will be moved to Kaspiisk, Dagestan, near the border with Azerbaijan, and that the number of officers and sailors assigned to the flotilla will be increased.

This change will increase Russia’s dominance over the Caspian Sea. From Kaspiisk, Russia will be able to exert much more control over Dagestan and the other North Caucasus provinces. It will also give Russia more control over the entire Caspian Sea, and provide leverage to prevent building of east-west pipelines under the Caspian. Finally, Russia’s warships will be able to launch cruise missiles at Syria much more quickly than in the past. AzerNews (Azerbaijan) and Jamestown and Asia Times and RFE/RL

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KEYS: Generational Dynamics, Caspian Sea, Iran, Soviet Union, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Khyber Pass, Nato, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Syria, Astrakhan, Dagestan, Kaspiisk
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