Russia’s New Strategy for Caspian Relations

A firefighter boat takes part in an exercise for the rescue services of the Caspian littoral states. Photo: Getty Images.

After 21 years of negotiations, the littoral countries of the Caspian Sea – Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan – are apparently close to agreeing the sea’s legal status. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that the text of a convention on delimitation was settled at a December meeting with his four counterparts. According to Lavrov, the Caspian presidents will meet in the first half of 2018 in Astana to finally sign.

Russia has been trying a change of tack. Rather than carrying out unwieldy five-sided negotiations, President Vladimir Putin now seems to be favouring bilateral and trilateral approaches. This may be yielding results beyond mere carving up of the sea: Russia has had more effective and flexible separated dialogue with neighbouring countries, based on common interests with each of them, but which are not necessarily shared by all five countries.

Breakthrough after a two-year break

The Caspian Sea is, in fact, not a sea, but the largest inland lake in the world. It contains huge oil, gas and fishing resources. Inevitably, its legal status has been a geopolitical struggle with much to gain or lose from an agreement for regional and global powers.

Following the December breakthrough, Azerbaijan’s deputy foreign minister, Halaf Halafov, provided details on the more contentious issues. First, the littoral countries have agreed on a modified median line for dividing the seabed. According to this method, the line dividing the sea should be equidistant from the respective coasts. Iran previously rejected this method, which was already being used by Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan to divide the northern part of the sea.

Halafov also announced an agreement on the construction of underwater pipelines. Turkmenistan has argued for the right to construct pipelines without the consent of all littoral countries, while Russia and Iran previously insisted on the necessity of approval from all five. According to Halafov, all Caspian states have now agreed that approval is only needed from the countries along the route. This means, for example, that Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan could now – at least in principle – build a Trans Caspian gas pipeline without the approval of Iran, Russia or Kazakhstan.

Previously, at a Caspian summit in Tehran in 2007, the presidents of the littoral states adopted some key security principles for the region. The parties pledged not to use their armed forces in regional disputes, and not to open up their borders to armed forces of third-party countries who could then carry out acts of aggression against the neighbouring coastal states. At the time, the US was considering a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The expected signing does not mean that everything has been resolved. In order to agree on delimitation of the southern part of the sea, Iran will carry out negotiations with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan on a bilateral basis. Furthermore, the Azerbaijani-Turkmen dispute over the Serdar/Kapaz oilfield remains unresolved; this offshore oil field is located on the countries’ border and negotiations over its status will take several more years. Yet the convention’s principle of a modified median line may help.

A new Russian format for Caspian relations

Against this backdrop of improved relations and an imminent final agreement on most of the sea’s legal status, Putin has initiated a new format for talks with Caspian sea leaders.

The Russian president seems to favour segregated dialogue. This can be seen in trilateral negotiations between Azerbaijan, Iran and Russia. Over the last year the leaders of these countries have met twice without their counterparts from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Officially, the agenda of the Tehran meeting focused on economic cooperation. However, trade between Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan is minimal. Geopolitical and security issues were the main topics. Russia and Azerbaijan expressed support for Iran and praised its commitment to its obligations within the framework of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iranian nuclear programme. That was the first meeting between these countries at the highest level following the adoption of new sanctions against Russia and North Korea by the US. In this regard, it was important for the Russian and Iranian presidents to try to synchronize on Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Iraq. Russia and Iran face similar external pressure from the West, which strengthens their alliance, despite the disagreements they have over Syria in particular.

Putin has also managed to sustain decent relations with the other Caspian countries. On the sidelines of October’s summit, he held separate talks on the Nagorny Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliev. Just days afterwards, Gazprom and the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan signed an agreement to resupply Russian natural gas to Azerbaijan after a break of 11 years.

With an agreement on the Caspian Sea’s legal status, the Russian leadership has discovered a new, more flexible and responsive strategy for Caspian relations. Moscow has its own agenda and interests of course, so time will tell whether this new approach is sustainable or not.

Stanislav Pritchin, Academy Robert Bosch Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme.

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