The countries bordering the Caspian Sea are increasingly flexing their military muscles. The Iran crisis and unresolved conflicts over natural resources have added to the tensions in the region.
In early September 2012, Turkmenistan conducted its first military maneuver on the Caspian Sea since gaining independence. Taking part in the maneuver were armed forces on sea and in the air, as well as ground troops and special units of the Ministry for Security and Interior Affairs.
In 1995, Turkmenistan declared its own "everlasting neutrality." The country has since actively taken part in the growing militarization of the Caspian region, say observers. The coordinator of the Joint Eurasian Expert Network "Jeen," Natalia Charitonova, pointed out that in spring 2012, neighboring Kazakhstan took its very first domestically-produced artillery vessel into operation on the Caspian Sea. Kazakhstan plans to expand its fleet by two additional such ships by 2013.
She added that Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan were also working on expanding their military potential in the Caspian Sea: "When the Soviet Union fell apart, Azerbaijan's navy received more equipment than Turkmenistan's," said Charitonova, who is based in Moscow and works as an expert on Central Asia. She believes this is the reason why Turkmenistan is now expanding its fleet, largely with imports from Ukraine. In addition, Turkmenistan rents vessels from Iran, while Azerbaijan has lately strengthened its security collaboration with Israel.
According to media reports, Israel set up a drone construction plant in Azerbaijan last year with the drones to be used to monitor oil resources in the region claimed by Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Iran. The drones are also used along the border between Azerbaijan and Iran. Both local and Israeli staff are in charge of maintenance.
Charitonova believes a virtual arms race is going on between Baku and Ashgabat, and that the latest Turkmen maneuvers are held in response to military exercises held by Azerbaijan in April this year. Andrey Tibold, chief editor of Amsterdam-based magazine Eurasia Energy Observer, agreed. Relations between the two countries have worsened over negotiations on a trans-Caspian pipeline to transport natural gas to the West, he said: "The European Commission is trying hard to make Ashgabat and Baku come to an agreement as far as the pipeline is concerned, but the two countries are not interested."
Iran issue triggers tensions
But Charitonova says the deepest divide in the Caspian region is in fact between Baku and Tehran. Iran has a mighty fleet in the Caspian Sea and is building military units to control the controversial sea regions. "A possible military intervention of Israel and its western allies is hanging over the entire region like the sword of Damocles. The situation is getting increasingly tense," she said.
Andrey Tibold believes that with its latest maneuvers, Turkmenistan aimed to prove that in the event of a conflict between the West and Iran it could defend its own territory. In any such event, Turkmenistan would consider Azerbaijan an ally of the West. Ashgabat was worried, said Tibold, that Baku could use its alliances to put pressure on Turkmenistan. "On the other hand, Turkmenistan is presenting itself as a potential partner of NATO as far as a transport corridor for deliveries to Afghanistan is concerned," Tibold said.
Russia has the biggest fleet in the Caspian Sea. But even Russian army officials admit that their own vessels are old and could do with some technical upgrading, said Charitonova. But any activity that would strengthen Russia's position in the Caspian Sea would make waves - not so much with the direct neighbors, but with western countries, cautioned Tibold.
"Western countries and Russia don't have the same interests in the Caucasus and in the Caspian region, which is incidentally rich in natural resources. Historically, the area has been under Russian influence. And so today, Russia's number one goal is to keep the Caspian Sea stable," Tibold said.