The Great Caspian Arms Race

The Great Caspian Arms Race

FP

Inside the petro-fueled naval military buildup you’ve never heard of: It’s Russia versus Iran, with three post-Soviet states — and trillions of dollars in oil — in the middle.

BY JOSHUA KUCERA

The Caspian Sea, once a strategic backwater, is quickly becoming a tinderbox of regional rivalries — all fueled by what amounts to trillions in petrodollars beneath its waves. Observers gained a first glimpse into this escalating arms race last fall, when Russia and Kazakhstan held joint military exercises on the Caspian, which abuts Iran and several former Soviet republics. Russia’s chief of general staff framed it as a precautionary measure related to developments in Central Asia, saying it would prepare for “the export of instability from Afghanistan after the withdrawal of NATO troops from there.”

But a scoop by a Russian newspaper, Moskovsky Komsomolets, told a different story. The newspaper got hold of a map apparently showing the real scenario of the exercise: the defense of Kazakhstan’s oil fields from several squadrons of F-4, F-5, and Su-25 fighters and bombers. The map didn’t name which country the jets came from, but the trajectory and the types of planes gave it away: Iran.

While the world focuses on the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran, a little-noticed arms buildup has been taking place to Iran’s north, among the ex-Soviet states bordering the Caspian. Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union created three new states on the sea, their boundaries have still not been delineated. And with rich oil and natural gas fields in those contested waters, the new countries — Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan — are using their newfound riches to protect the source of that wealth. So they’re building new navies from scratch, while the two bigger powers, Russia and Iran, are strengthening the navies they already have. It all amounts to something that has never before been seen on the Caspian: an arms race.

The biggest reason for this buildup may be mistrust of Iran, but it’s not the only one. The smaller countries also worry about how Russia’s naval dominance allows Moscow to call the shots on their energy policies. Iran and Russia, meanwhile, fear U.S. and European involvement in the Caspian. All of this, among countries that don’t trust each other and act with little transparency, is setting the stage for a potential conflict.

For the last several centuries, Russia has been the undisputed master of the Caspian. Tsar Peter the Great created Russia’s Caspian Flotilla in 1722, and a quote from him still shines on a plaque at the flotilla’s headquarters: “Our interests will never allow any other nation to claim the Caspian Sea.” Until now, that’s pretty much been the case. Because the Caspian was a relative strategic backwater for most of history, no one cared enough to challenge Russia. The Soviet Caspian Fleet, based in Baku, was perhaps best known for a novelty, the “Caspian Sea Monster,” a massive experimental hovercraft/airplane.

Since 1991, however, the Caspian has started to matter. While the Caspian may still be marginal to Iran or Russia, it is of crucial strategic importance to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Upon gaining independence, those three countries quickly contracted with Western oil majors to explore the untapped resources in the sea, and discovered a fortune capable of transforming their economies. Caspian energy expert (and FP contributor) Steve LeVine estimates that the sea contains about 40 billion barrels of oil, almost all of it in the areas that those three countries control.

The issue of who controls what, however, is a tricky one. While certain pairs of states have worked out bilateral treaties dividing the sea between themselves, some boundaries — most notably those involving Iran — remain vague. In addition, the legality of building a “Trans-Caspian Pipeline” under the sea (as Turkmenistan would like to do, to ship natural gas through Azerbaijan and onward to Europe) is unclear, and both Russia and Iran oppose the project.

This uncertainty has contributed to several tense incidents on the Caspian over the last few years. In2001, Iranian jets and a warship threatened a BP research vessel prospecting on behalf of Azerbaijan in waters that Baku considered its own. In 2008, gunboats from Azerbaijan’s coast guardthreatened oil rigs operated by Malaysian and Canadian companies working for Turkmenistan near the boundary between those two countries. And in 2009, an Iranian oil rig entered watersthat Azerbaijan considered its own, prompting Azerbaijani officials to fret that they were powerless against the Iranians, Wikileaked diplomatic cables show.

And so all five countries on the Caspian have taken significant steps to build up their navies in recent years. Russia’s Caspian Flotilla is by far the strongest of the lot, but that hasn’t stopped Kremlin officials from publicly worrying the fleet is “uncompetitive,” and declaring that they are taking steps to cement its superiority. Russia’s second frigate for the flotilla is currently undergoing sea trials in the Black Sea and should be transported to the Caspian later this year — part of a plan to add 16 new ships to the fleet by 2020. Russia is also building up its naval air forces in the region, and establishing coastal missile units armed with anti-ship rockets capable of hitting targets in the middle of the sea.

“The military-political situation in the region is extremely unpredictable. This is explained on one side by the unregulated status of the sea, and from the other, the aspirations of several non-Caspian states to infiltrate the region and its oil and gas,” the Russian magazine National Defense, in a not-so-oblique reference to the United States and Europe, wrote in a special report this year on the Caspian naval buildup. “In these conditions Russia is compelled to look after the security of its citizens and the defense of the interests of the Caspian countries.”

Iran is the second power on the Caspian, and while it keeps details of its posture on the sea under close wraps, its growing presence is impossible to miss. Iran has built up its navy on the Caspian from nearly nothing during the Soviet era to a force of close to 100 missile boats, two of which are equipped with Chinese C-802 anti-ship missiles. And Tehran has announced that it’s building a “destroyer,” which will become the largest ship in its Caspian fleet (though probably closer to a corvette by international standards).

The other three countries on the sea inherited some decrepit vessels from the former Soviet Caspian flotilla, which they augmented with donations of small patrol boats by the United States in the early days following independence. But all now appear serious about developing real navies. Turkmenistan, for example, is building a naval base and naval academy in the coastal city of Turkmenbashi and has bought two Russian missile boats, with plans to buy three more, as well as Turkish patrol boats.

Kazakhstan launched its first proper naval vessel this year — a domestically built missile boat — with plans to buy two more. It also recently contracted with South Korean shipbuilder STX to help develop its shipbuilding capacity. A recent arms expo in Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana drew a substantial number of shipbuilders and other naval arms producers from Europe, Turkey, and Russia, and Kazakhstan appears poised to buy Exocet anti-ship missiles from European consortium MBDA.

Azerbaijan has been the relative laggard, focusing nearly all of its booming defense budget on land and air forces designed to win back the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, now controlled by Armenian forces. But it too has lately shown signs of focusing more on Caspian security, buyinganti-ship missiles from Israel.

Adding a few frigates here and a few corvettes there, of course, doesn’t mean the Caspian is the next South China Sea; the firepower and the geopolitical tension on the sea are still low enough that the Caspian is far from “flashpoint” status. But the trend is moving in a dangerous direction. The five countries on the Caspian are all so opaque about their intentions that there is plenty of room for miscalculation, leading to a disastrous conflict that no state truly wants. It is also particularly ironic because  all the governments officially call for demilitarization of the Caspian. Most of the countries justify their Caspian naval buildups in light of this rhetoric by citing a threat from terrorists or piracy — though there has been nearly no indication of either the intent or ability of terrorists to attack.

In reality, the Caspian is a classic case of the security dilemma, in which defensive moves can be perceived by neighbors as offensive ones. “Even if we don’t want to spend that much money on naval militarization, we end up spending it to keep up with all the threats,” says Reshad Karimov, an analyst at Baku’s Center for Strategic Studies. “If someone is too safe, no one is safe.”

The tension on the sea takes many forms. All of the post-Soviet states mistrust Iran, especially Azerbaijan. “How will we react if tomorrow Iran decides to install one of their oil wells in some territory that we consider ours?” asks Tahir Ziyadov, a scholar at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. “Maybe some crazy guy, because he got frustrated by Azerbaijan-Israeli relations, tomorrow he will declare, ‘Go and install that well over there.’ The possibility of serious tension is there, and Azerbaijan will attempt not to allow it.”

Russian opposition to the proposed Trans-Caspian Pipeline is another potential source of conflict. The United States and Europe have been active in promoting the pipeline, which would allow Turkmenistan to export natural gas to Europe, while bypassing Russia. But commentators in Moscow have occasionally threatened force if a pipeline were to go ahead. “The reaction can be very hard, up to some sort of military conflict in the Caspian Sea,” said Konstantin Simonov, director general of the Russian think tank, National Energy Security Fund, in an interview last year.

“Russia is the wildest card in the deck — they have so many ways to mess things up. They have the resources, they have the firepower, they have established the political will to do that,” Karimov said.

Meanwhile, just this week, the two would-be partners in the Trans-Caspian Pipeline, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, traded accusations about the disputed oil field that was at the heart of their 2008 standoff.

Russia and Iran both appear motivated to keep foreign (especially U.S. and European) influence out of the Caspian. The U.S. has offered some modest military assistance to help the new countries bolster their defenses on the Caspian, including donations of some patrol boats and training of Azerbaijani naval special forces. And it’s clear from WikiLeaked U.S. diplomatic cables that Azerbaijan in particular relies heavily on U.S. advice for naval issues.

Baku also appears to be using the escalating tensions on the sea to press for greater help — and U.S. officials appear receptive to their requests. During the 2009 incursion of the Iranian oil rig into Azerbaijani waters, several high-level Azerbaijani officials consulted with U.S. diplomats and military officials. One official in Baku fretted: “You know our military capacity on our borders. We do not have enough capacity. We need military assistance.” In a later cable, one U.S. diplomat said the incident “offers a timely opportunity to gain traction on Caspian maritime cooperation with the [government of Azerbaijan].”

Russia, and especially Iran, tend to see this activity on the Caspian as an encroachment on their strategic backyard, and they delivered thinly veiled warnings against “third parties” getting involved in the region. “Iranians think they are a besieged fortress,” said a Baku naval analyst who asked not to be named. “The U.S. cooperation here is nothing special but they build conspiracy theories about it.” Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s strong military relationship with Israel only adds to Iran’s suspicions.

The United States, however, has vowed to expand its involvement in the Caspian and appears determined to help the smaller countries stand their ground against Russia and Iran. The most recent U.S. State Department military assistance plans call for aid to “to help develop Azerbaijan’s maritime capabilities and contribute to the overall security of the resource-rich Caspian Sea.”

Meanwhile, the tension seems destined to rise. Iran recently announced a huge new oil discovery in the Caspian, which Tehran says contains 10 billion barrels of oil. While Iran hasn’t yet announced the exact location of the find, the information it has put out suggests that the discovery, according to regional analyst Alex Jackson, is in “what would reasonably be considered Azerbaijan’s waters.”

As the vast wealth at stake in the Caspian becomes clearer, expect all parties in this new battleground to deploy ever more sophisticated weaponry to defend their interests. No word yet on when Azerbaijan is taking delivery of those Israeli anti-ship missiles.

Exxon Gets the Frack Out of Poland, Dampening Pipe Dreams of Freedom from Gazprom

(Reuters) – Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM.N) has decided not to go ahead with its shale gas exploration projects in Poland because its test wells failed to produce commercial quantities of gas, daily Gazeta Wyborcza reported in its weekend edition.

The paper quoted a spokesman for the U.S. company’s Polish arm as saying that Exxon made the decision after testing two of its wells in Poland, which is being closely watched as a potential of natural gas from shale.

The spokesman was not immediately available to comment further.

Exxon, which holds six exploration licenses in Poland, said in January it would evaluate its options after the unsuccessful tests.

A government report in March slashed estimates of Poland’s shale gas reserves to 346 billion to 768 billion cubic meters, or about one-tenth of previous estimates, denting hopes for an energy source that could play a key role in weaning Europe off Russian gas.

Other foreign players seeking shale gas in Poland, the European Union’s largest Eastern member, include Chevron (CVX.N) and Marathon (MRO.N).

(Reporting by Chris Borowski; Editing by Maureen Bavdek)

Syria: David Cameron considered ordering special forces to seize Russian ship

Syria: David Cameron considered ordering special forces to seize Russian ship

David Cameron considered ordering British special forces to board and impound a Russian ship suspected of carrying arms to Syria, it has emerged.

A boy holds placard reading

A boy holds placard reading “Russia is the Syrian people’s enemy”, during a demonstration against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Sermada near Idlib  

By , Adrian Blomfield and Mark Hughes

Cobra, the Government’s emergency security committee, met several times as the MV Alaed approached British waters.

With the United States placing pressure on Britain to halt the vessel, the prime minister was regularly briefed on the situation. It is understood that he was presented with several options including a military seizure of the ship.

Avoiding a confrontation that could have damaged already strained ties with Russia, the government instead took action to ensure that the Alaed’s insurance cover was withdrawn.

The ship, which Western officials said was carrying a military cargo including Hind-D Mi-25 helicopter gunships and anti-aircraft defence systems, changed course about 50 miles off the north coast of Scotland. It is now showing that its next port of call is Murmansk, according to the UK National Maritime Information Centre.

The ship’s owners, the Russian operator Femco, denied it was ferrying arms to Syria.

Turkish Special Forces Allegedly Pursue PKK Militants Led By Syrian Kurd, Into Iraq

Turkish Special Forces Pursuing PKK Militants After Outpost Attack

Turkish army special force members stand guard during the EFES-2010 military exercise in Izmir May 25, 2010. (photo by REUTERS/Osman Orsal)
By: Ozgur Cebe, Ufuk Emion Koroglu, Huseyin Kacar 

The attack against the Yesiltas outpost in the rural area around the township of Yuksekova was ordered by the Syrian Kurdish leader Fehman Hussein, who is also known as Bahoz Erdal. The attack was planned by the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK)’s Zagros district commander Mehmet Can Gurhan, also known as Resit Dostum, and Iskender Denk, another Syrian Kurd. The 250-strong terrorist attack force was let by yet another Yiulmaz Kurdo, yet another Syrian Kurd that also goes by the name Perwer. Eight Turkish soldiers were martyred and 26 terrorists were killed.

US Prepares To Expand the Covert War On Pakistan

WASHINGTON (AP) – U.S. military and intelligence officials are so frustrated with Pakistan’s failure to stop local militant groups from attacking Americans in neighboring Afghanistan that they have considered launching secret joint U.S.-Afghan commando raids into Pakistan to hunt them down, officials told The Associated Press.

But the idea, which U.S. officials say comes up every couple of months, has been consistently rejected because the White House believes the chance of successfully rooting out the deadly Haqqani network would not be worth the intense diplomatic blowback from Pakistan that inevitably would ensue.

Members of the Haqqani tribe have been targeted by pilotless U.S. drone aircraft, but sending American and Afghan troops into Pakistan would be a serious escalation of the hunt for terrorists and could potentially be the final straw for Pakistan, which already is angered over what it sees as U.S. violations of its sovereignty.

The al-Qaeda-allied Haqqani tribe runs a mafia-like smuggling operation and occasionally turns to terrorism with the aim of controlling its territory in eastern Afghanistan. The Haqqanis use Pakistani towns to plan, train and arm themselves with guns and explosives, cross into Afghanistan to attack NATO and Afghan forces, then retreat back across the border to safety.

The latest round of debate over whether to launch clandestine special operations raids into Pakistan against the Haqqanis came after the June 1 car bombing of Forward Operating Base Salerno in eastern Afghanistan that injured up to 100 U.S. and Afghan soldiers, according to three current and two former U.S. officials who were briefed on the discussions. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the still-evolving debates.

The officials told the AP that recent discussions of clandestine ground attacks have included Gen. John Allen, the senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan, as well as top CIAand special operations officials.

Allen’s spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Brook DeWalt, said Allen “has not and does not intend to push for a cross-border operation.”

The White House and the CIA declined to comment for this story.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said the U.S. was still focused on U.S.-Pakistan cooperation.

“The key is to work together with Pakistan to find ways of fighting terrorists who threaten both the United States and Pakistan, including along the Afghan-Pakistan border, where extremists continue to plot attacks against coalition forces and innocent civilians,” he said.

The U.S. relationship with Pakistan is arguably at its lowest point over the continuation of drone strikes to hit terror targets in Pakistan, the successful Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden that was carried out without a heads-up to the country’s leaders and the U.S. refusal to apologize for a border skirmish in which the U.S. mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani troops. On Thursday, the State Department’s inspector general accused the Pakistani government of harassing U.S. Embassy personnel.

Pakistan has done little in response to repeated U.S. requests for a crackdown on the Haqqanis, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta surprisingly voiced that frustration in a visit to Kabul this month.

He said the U.S. was “reaching the limits” of its patience with Pakistan’s failure to tackle the tribe’s safe havens. He added that the U.S. was “extraordinarily dissatisfied with the effect that Pakistan has had on the Haqqanis.” He also made fun of Pakistan’s ignorance over the bin Laden raid at a speech in India, Pakistan’s archrival.

Pakistan’s army has attacked militant strongholds across the tribal areas, except forNorth Waziristan, where the Haqqanis hold sway and shelter both al-Qaida and Taliban militants. Pakistani officials say that they intend to hit North Waziristan but that their army is too overstretched to move as fast as the U.S. demands.

Pakistani officials have conceded privately, however, that they have been reluctant to take on the powerful tribe for fear of retaliatory strikes.

To make up for Pakistan’s inaction, the CIA’s covert drone program has targeted Haqqani leaders, safe houses, bomb factories and training camps inside Pakistan, and special operations raids have hit Haqqani targets on the Afghan side of the border, but that has failed to stop Haqqani attacks on U.S. and Afghan troops and civilian targets.

The officials say Allen expressed frustration that militants would attack and then flee across the border in Pakistan, immediately taking shelter in urban areas where attacking them by missile fire could kill civilians.

The officials say options that have been prepared for President Barack Obama’s review included raids that could be carried out by U.S. special operations forces together with Afghan commandos, ranging from air assaults that drop raiders deep inside tribal areas to hit top leaders to shorter dashes only a few miles into Pakistan territory.

The shorter raids would not necessarily be covert, as they could be carried out following the U.S. military principle known as “hot pursuit” that military officials say entitles their forces to pursue a target that attacks them in Afghanistan up to 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) inside a neighboring country’s territory.

The U.S. has staged two major raids and other minor forays into Pakistan’s tribal territory before during the George W. Bush administration; the most contentious was in September 2008 when Navy SEALs raided an al-Qaeda compound. The operators killed their target, but the ensuing firefight triggered a diplomatic storm with Pakistan.

Rather than fly in, which U.S. military planners at the time feared would alert the Pakistanis, the SEALs marched across the mountainous border, arriving later than planned because of the harsh terrain and just as the fighters were waking for morning prayers, according to one current and one former U.S. official. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the clandestine operation.

Everyone inside the targeted compound opened fire on the SEALs, including the women, one of whom lightly wounded one of the American operators. The firefight also woke the entire village, which joined in the battle, so the SEALs had to call for strafing runs byBlack Hawk helicopters to beat them back.

At least one woman and one child were among the many dead.

Syria Downs Turkish F-4 Warplane, Apprehends Pilots Alive

PM could not yet confirm Turkish war plane shut down by Syria

ANKARA

Hürriyet Daily News

Two Turkish pilots go missing as their warplane goes down off Syria; PM Erdoğan does not immediately confirm whether or not the aircraft was shot down

Hürriyet photo

Hürriyet photo

Syria shot down a Turkish jet on June 22, an official told the Hürriyet Daily News, adding that Damascus expressed sorrow over the incident and was cooperating with Ankara in search and rescue efforts for two Turkish pilots in Syrian territorial waters.

The information, however, was not confirmed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan late June 22 who said “I cannot say that it was shot down. I can’t say it before obtaining concrete information,” in a press conference he held just before a high level security summit. He also could not confirm whether Syria expressed sorrow or apologized for the incident, saying “I cannot confirm whether they have apologized of on what grounds they did so if they apologized.” Despite reports that two Turkish pilots ejected from the plane and they were safe, Erdoğan said “there was no information on the state of the pilots.” But he denied reports that Turkish pilots were taken hostage by Syrian forces. In his separate dialogue with journalists travelling with him, Erdoğan “If this is true, then there would be a great problem.”

The incident could potentially add more tension to the already-tense relations betweenTurkey and Syria over Bashar al-Assad’s oppression against his own people.

Plane crashes at noon
It was not clear exactly how or where the incident occurred, but the military’s earlier statement said the connection with the Turkish F-4 aircraft was lost at 11:58 a.m., over the sea just off the southwest of the Hatay province, bordering Syria. The plane had taken off from the Erhaç airbase in Malatya, Central Anatolia at 10:00 a.m. It was also not clear what purpose the Turkish jet was serving in that region, but there are unconfirmed reports that it was carrying out a reconnaissance flight. It is not known whether the plane was shot down by a Syrian jet or by a surface to air missile.

The NTV private news channel reported that the plane had crashed in Syrian territorial waters, but that there had been no violation of the Syrian border, citing unnamed military sources.

According to information the Daily News gathered from official sources, the Turkish military launched a broad search and rescue operation to find the plane and the two pilots who ejected themselves and fell in the water.

Sources said Syria had dispatched three guard boats to contribute to Turkish efforts, as the search was taking place in Syrian territorial waters. The first news that Syria shot the Turkish jet down came from local sources in Lebanon and Syria. Erdoğan said alongside with Turkey’s four guard boats Syria joined efforts with own vessels.

A local witness has told RT Arabic that the plane crashed on Syrian territory and that the two pilots were captured.

The craft was shot down as the Syrian air defense opened fire, according to Lebanon-based pan-Arab Al-Mayadeen TV. These reports are yet to be confirmed.

Turkey has joined nations such as the United States in saying that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should step down because of the uprising in his country that has killed thousands of people.

Turkey also has set up refugee camps on its border for more than 32,000 Syrians who have fled the fighting.

June/22/2012