THE CASPIAN REGION IN CONTEMPORARY GEOPOLITICS
Parvin Darabadi, D.Sc. (Hist.), professor, Baku State University (Baku, Azerbaijan)
Today, the Caspian region and its huge fuel resources have become important geostrategic and geo-economic factors shaping, to a great extent, world politics and world economy. This became especially clear after the 9/11 events when powerful tectonic forces were stirred to action. They can radically change the entire geopolitical landscape of Eurasia. In the new century the geopolitical position of any country will be determined by the level to which it can control its own fuel and energy resources and means of their transportation as well as the state’s ability to reliably protect them against international terrorists.
The great confrontation between the West and the East rooted for many centuries in the fundamental geopolitical law—the tellurocracy-thalassocracy dualism—was manifested as military and political rivalry between two cultural and historical civilizations: democracy and ideocracy. The Caspian region has been, and remains, one of the seats of this confrontation. According to classic of geopolitics Halford Mackinder, the Caspian area, together with the Arctic Ocean and the Aral Sea basins, forms the Pivot Area, otherwise called the Heartland, that is intracontinental Eurasian territories around which geohistorical development was revolving. Historically, its dynamic was closely connected with the fact that the Caspian area has been serving for 2,000 years as a meeting place of three super-ethnoses: the Turkic, Slavic, and Aryan-Iranian. In a broader civilizational context one can say that since the 7th century it was the Christian, Muslim, and partly Buddhist worlds that have been in contact there.
The geopolitical Caspian area covers the western part of Central Asia, Southern Russia, the Northern and Southern Caucasus, and Northern Iran. As a strong field of geopolitical attraction the Hearteurasia (the Caspian region) has always drawn and continues to draw like a magnet the vast lands of Western and Central Asia with their inexhaustible natural and human reserves. The sea with its huge oil and gas deposits is gradually gaining geopolitical weight. While in the past the area was not listed among the most troublesome (together with Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East) in the 20th century and at the very beginning of the 21st century it is turning into a unit of global importance. It serves as the border between Islam and Christianity and is geostrategically connected with the Mediterranean (the Turkish factor), the Indian Ocean (the Iranian factor), and Europe (the factor of Russia). This makes the Caspian one of the epicenters of geopolitical contradictions and of an opposition between Atlanticism and Eurasianism. It is the key to the Heartland from which (according to Mackinder) the world can be ruled and which has not yet known the dominating influence of the West.
Any role in developing the oil and gas reserves and in their transportation to the world market attracts a lot of attention and triggers latent and even open struggle not only among the coastal states but also among the great and certain regional powers for control over the local energy fuels. As a center of the geopolitical post-Soviet shift in the 1990s the region became part of a new “Great Game” unfolding according to the classical rules of geopolitics in the conditions when it finally squeezes ideology out of the system of international relations.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union caused a radical revision of geopolitical realities that in the past looked eternal. In Soviet times the Caspian was a sort of an internal “Soviet lake”—today, Russia is one of the five countries claming their share of riches. The Caspian turned out to be a “sea of problems” caused by uncompromising discussions about its status and the way it should be divided among five coastal states (Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan). For all of them the Caspian is one of the factors of their national, military-political, and economic security and a center of their strategic interests. No wonder the variants suggested by all interested parties in the division of the sea are contradictory and even mutually exclusive.
There is another major factor that influences the situation to a great extent: the growing number of states with geopolitical and geo-economic interests in the area. France, China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and certain other countries have joined the traditional geopolitical players—Russia, the U.S., the U.K., Turkey, and Iran. Together, they have created a “geopolitical puzzle.” According to Russian experts, the region possesses over 25 billion tons of oil (out of the world’s total of 150 billion tons).1 According to Western experts, by 2010 local oil may become very important for Europe as an alternative to Arab oil while oil extraction in the Northern Sea is dropping.2 According to the New York Times, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan together own over 100 billion barrels of oil, which makes the Caspian the world’s third (after the Persian Gulf and Siberia) oil reservoir3 and one of the key world centers of geopolitical and geo-economic importance.
At the same time, the current heightened interest in the region is caused not only, and not so much, by its enormous fuel reserves and its fairly real prospect of becoming a “world petrol pump” in the 21st century as by its central position in the worldwide distribution of geopolitical forces. The West-East geopolitical confrontation was gradually moved here from the Eastern Mediterranean in the 1990s with the geostrategic confrontation—the U.S. and NATO, on the one side, and Russia and Iran, on the other—coming to the fore. It should be said that Atlanticism is pressing from three main directions: from the West (the Mediterranean, across Turkey), from the south (the Arabian Peninsula, across Iraq) and from the east (Pakistan, across Afghanistan and Central Asia). This has created a very real danger of pushing Russia away from this geopolitical expanse and of depriving it of its traditional dominating role in the Caspian. Political scientist A. Panarin is convinced that the Caspian has become an epicenter of “pirate games.” “The newly discovered oil reserves are attracting the forces that have never before gone so deep into the Continent. An idea of an oil route going from the Caspian to the West and the East and joining two oceans—the Atlantic and the Pacific—is nothing else but an attempt of the forces of the Sea to separate a large chunk from the Continent and to crop it. Those who have not yet realized that we are facing an unprecedented aggression of the Sea that is out to divide the Continent are beyond help. Those who started the project will not limit themselves to drawing another connecting line between the Atlantic and the Pacific so that to consolidate the achievement of Westernization. They want to prevent another consolidation of the Continent along the Indo-European vertical: the Caspian project is intended to cut the vertical and to disrupt it.”4 The same author has written: “The line of disruption goes from Ukraine to Georgia and further on to Azerbaijan, the Central Asian republics, China (which at that stage will be invited to take part in dividing the spoils), and the Pacific coast.”5
Because of its extremely important geostrategic location Azerbaijan has found itself in the center of direct geopolitical interests of the super- and regional powers (this happened several times in the past, too). According to one of the most prestigious Western scholarly publications, Azerbaijan as a country and Baku as its part became the political and economic center of the entire Caspian region.6 Situated at the meeting-place of large European and Asian regional countries, Azerbaijan has good prospects of becoming a “gate-country” (S. Cohen) looking toward the East.
In the mid-1990s geopolitical rivalry between the West and Russia over energy resources that had cropped up in the form of South Caucasian conflicts of the late 1980s shifted from land to the sea. When the “contract of the century” was signed in Baku on 20 September, 1994 and construction of the main oil pipeline Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan began, this rivalry became even more tangible.
The problem of transportation routes for Caspian oil has acquired more urgency. The top Russian military describe it as “Russia’s most acute geopolitical issue.” They do not even try to conceal their fears that “British-American oil companies will play the key role in settling the transportation problem: slowly but surely they are moving toward a transnational control over the Caspian natural riches.”7 Moscow believes that having signed the “contract of the century” the West has acquired geopolitical advantages: first, it will entrench itself economically in the zones Russia finds geopolitically sensitive. Second, the deal will promote horizontal consolidation of Central Asian and Caucasian states around new communication routes; they will become mutually oriented and will deprive Russia of its control over commodity flows. Third, by investing in these states the West will help strengthening the so-far fragile statehoods of the post-Soviet countries. Fourth, the West will create a powerful economic and military-political alliance to counterbalance Russia.8
It should be added that the pipelines leading from the Caspian to the world markets (Russia – Kazakhstan – Turkmenistan – Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region of China) will undoubtedly draw new actors into the Caspian “geopolitical game:” China, Pakistan, Japan, and other countries. Caspian oil and gas will get a chance to reach the capacious Asian-Pacific market. This shows that those who will monopolize transportation of Caspian fuels will control the geopolitical situation in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
In the geostrategic context the anti-Eurasian horizontal axis now being formed in the Southern Caucasus—the U.S. (NATO)-Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan and, possibly, some of the Central Asian states—is fraught with a catastrophe for Russia. It has already lost many of its former positions in the region due to Yeltsin’s hopeless foreign policies. The Russian attempts to knock together another axis (Moscow-Erevan-Tehran) without Azerbaijan look feeble in the face of Western pressure. Both groups have not yet acquired rigid organizational structures, therefore changes are still possible.
Islamic Iran, which is a regional power of the continental type, is also doing its best to boost its geopolitical influence in the region. The interests of this anti-American, anti-Atlantic and geopolitically active country coincide in many respects with Russia’s interests. Tehran is seeking an agreement with all coastal states on the joint use of the Caspian and its resources based on equal shares. This will not only allow it to return its status of the early 18th century but also add legitimacy to its presence in the region that so far remains mainly virtual. This country is one of the key geopolitical links for the new independent Caspian states, therefore the West will hardly manage to leave it out of the Caspian projects. Iran, together with Armenia, one of Russia’s main strategic allies, is standing on the way of NATO’s southward expansion in the East. Erevan, part of the Moscow-Tehran axis, that chose the road of an armed conflict with Baku, has inevitably become the most important strategic link that ties Russia to Iran and separates Turkey from Central Asia.
Ankara is one of the most important geopolitical players that influences the future of the Middle East and has a direct role to play in geopolitical shifts in the post-Soviet expanse, especially in the Southern Caucasus. During the Cold War Turkey’s membership in NATO and the Alliance military bases on its territory played an important geostrategic role: in cases of an armed conflict it was Turkey that should have prevented the Soviet Union from advancing to the Middle East. When the Soviet geopolitical expanse disappeared, Turkey got a real chance to exploit the situation to boost its own geopolitical importance by reviving the ideas of Pan-Turkism, especially in Azerbaijan, ethnically, religiously, linguistically, and culturally closest to it, and in Central Asia. The main pipeline Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan now under construction will bring West-oriented Georgia closer.9
In recent years, China and Japan have demonstrated their willingness to play a more active role in the “great geo-economic game” by advancing toward oil- and gas-rich Central Asia and the Caspian region. The driving force behind China’s pressure is its mounting demand for energy fuels created by its exceedingly high rates of economic growth.10 By the beginning of the 21st century China considerably extended its political and economic ties with all five coastal states, especially with Kazakhstan, in pursuance of its far-reaching geopolitical aims in Central Asia.
Since the relations between Israel and the Arab world are far from simple, this country may also join the Caspian oil and gas projects mainly through Azerbaijan.
In the last decade the Caspian region acquired huge geopolitical importance for the West. Since the mid-1990s the United States having failed to find the modus operandi with Russia has been concentrating on the Caspian oil. It is seeking control over the local oil reserves and is trying to set up its zone of influence in the Caucasus and the Caspian. According to George Baker, former U.S. state secretary, the Caspian is not merely an economic, geological or technical problem—it is a geopolitical issue of prime importance.11 When he was in office, the United States being unable to operate actively in the post-Soviet territory identified three favorites (Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan) to deal with its geopolitical task: to set up “limits to Russia’s influence in the three key directions—the Balkans (Ukraine), the Transcaucasus (Azerbaijan), and Central Asia (Kazakhstan).”12 The two latter are directly connected with the Caspian.
The West is more actively boosting its military-political influence in the region. On 1 October, 1999 it included five post-Soviet republics in the NATO responsibility zone: Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan, two of them being Caspian coastal states. The CIA directorate of information and analysis acquired another division to monitor Caspian developments and supply recommendations for the U.S. political leadership. This was caused by Washington’s fears that if economic and political reforms in the Caspian failed and if new domestic and inter-state conflicts appeared while the old ones continued smoldering, the region “might well develop into a seat of terrorism, religious and political extremism and a battlefield of another war.”13
On the whole, the United States regards Caspian oil as another source of energy to be used if oil supplies from the Persian Gulf are threatened. In addition, America’s interest in the energy fuels of Central Asia and the Caspian is mainly fed by its desire to preserve its control over the allies (Western Europe and Japan). The United States wants to detach Central Asia from Russia or even remove it altogether from the Moscow’s zone of influence, to weaken Moscow’s potentials there to the extent that it would have never been able to challenge Washington at the geopolitical level. The increasing American influence in Central Asia (that became even greater after 9/11 and the beginning of the antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan) has supplied the While House with undoubted geopolitical advantages in relation to China, Iran, Southwest and South Asia, to say nothing of Russia. In Eurasia Washington is actively using the factor of “Islamic fundamentalism and extremism” to attach Central Asia to the “geographic belt” formed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. In future Iran and Iraq may become parts of it.14 The Caspian coastal states (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan) should be involved in this process—otherwise this geostrategic task can hardly be resolved.
Russia, the geopolitical presence of which in the region has weakened, is very much concerned over the unregulated problems, mainly the still unsettled status of the sea and its division among the coastal states. When Vladimir Putin became president, Russia acquired more pragmatic and consistent diplomacy. The Kremlin is doing its best to normalize relations with all Caspian neighbors.
As for Russia’s military presence in the Caucasus, it is based on the presidential decree of 4 March, 2000 “Fundamentals of the Russian Federation’s Politics in the Naval Sphere for the Period of up to 2010” that stressed the need for acquiring a qualitatively new Navy as one of the state’s major military-political components to ensure for the Russian Federation, among other things, “freedom of action in the Black and Caspian seas.”15 Russia acquired a chance to demonstrate its naval might on the Caspian after the virtual failure of the Caspian summit in Ashghabad that took place in April 2002. On the very next day President Putin ordered to start preparations for wide-scale naval exercises on the Caspian scheduled for August. The Kremlin wanted to demonstrate those of the Caspian states that were moving away from Russia and closer to the United States that Russia remained the military leader in the region despite its economic weakness. During the exercises Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov said in so many words: “Peace in the Caspian can be ensured only if Russia has contemporary armed forces capable of responding, swiftly and efficiently, to all regional challenges and threats.”16 It should be said that the scale of naval exercises had no precedence either in Soviet times or Russia’s recent history.
Iran took the exercises not as a means of putting pressure on it to convince it to be more pliable on the Caspian legal status issue but as an attempt to oppose the U.S. and NATO pressure on the region. Other coastal states also demonstrated their desire to strengthen their naval forces in the area.
According to one of the leading Russian theorists of Eurasianism A. Dugin, control over the Caspian and the entire Caspian and Black Sea area is a strategic aim of the global opposition between Atlanticism and Eurasianism. Russia has to create the Moscow-Tehran axis to fulfill its dream of many centuries: to get access to warm seas and to break the notorious “anaconda ring.”17 Former U.S. Defense Secretary Casper Wineberger has said: “Had Russia managed to retain its domination on the Caspian, it would have scored a more important victory than the victory of the West that moved NATO eastward.”18
The situation in the Caspian area is critical but there is no crisis there yet. The region may well become a key theater of war if geopolitical confrontation between Atlanticism and Eurasianism continues together with geopolitical rivalry between the newly formed geostrategic centers. The first salvos of the coming battle have been made in Karabakh and Chechnia. In the nearest future one can expect new geo-economic structures stretching to the west (the Caspian-Black Sea-Mediterranean-Atlantic Ocean), to the east (the Caspian-China-APR) and to the south (the Caspian-Persian Gulf and the Caspian-Indian Ocean). Together with the already functioning main oil and gas pipelines and those under construction (Baku-Supsa; Baku-Novorossiisk; Tengiz-Novorossiisk; Korpedzhe-Kurdkui, Baku-Ceyhan, etc.) this may help the region to join the world market of energy fuels to the full extent and to integrate its economy into the new planetary economic system now being shaped within the coming globalization era.
The tectonic processes of the 1990s that took place across the entire post-Soviet expanse have finally fragmented Eurasia and allowed the West to increase its influence on some of the CIS countries. These processes were also promoted by ethnic problems that had been accumulating for many decades, tangible differences in regional interests, as well as religious, racial and cultural distinctions that caused or aggravated contradictions inside Eurasia. This is going on and on despite the Caspian states’ shared continental specifics, their shared past, their common traditions of statehood and economic interests that differ greatly from those of the Atlantic civilization.
Today, when the thalassocratic West, represented by the United States as its incontestable leader, has acquired very real possibilities to score a total geopolitical victory over the tellurocratic East, Russia in the first place, the main aim of Atlanticism has come to the fore: it is doing its best to prevent Russia’s monopoly domination over Eurasia and the Caspian region as its part. If the West succeeds, the region stands good chance of becoming one of the key geopolitical centers of the world together with the Balkans and the Middle East.
The future world order is being shaped in the course of geopolitical battles for the Caspian: control over it spells control over the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East with all ensuing geostrategic advantages.
The military-political events of the last decade unfolding in the region (ethnic and state conflicts in the Caucasus, the antiterrorist operation of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan, the military operations of the U.S. and U.K. in Iraq and NATO’s military presence in some of the Central Asian countries and Georgia) are encircling the region slowly but surely. “The appearance of NATO on the Caspian shores, in Central Asia means a radical transformation of the geopolitical outlines of this part of Eurasia and penetration into the rear of Russia, Iran, Afghanistan, and India and China to a certain extent.”19
Control over this geopolitically important area of Eurasia has become especially important: it offers real possibilities of prolonged domination over the East. At the same time, the East has good chances to resist the pressure and restore the geopolitical balance in the foreseeable future with the help of its vastness, natural and human resources, inexhaustible inner potential, and deeply rooted cultural and axiological layers. When this happens, an era of mutual understanding and cooperation between countries and peoples of the West and the East will come: this is the only road leading to continued existence of human civilization in the present millennium. This is especially important in light of a total offensive of international terrorism that is developing into a sinister phenomenon with a new social and political character of global dimension—geoterrorism—a product of geopolitics of the 21st century. One cannot exclude a possibility that if geopolitical processes go wrong, the “split between civilizations” may cut the Caspian region and this can be dangerous for both the West and the East. Samuel Huntington has predicted this by his “clash of civilizations” theory.
1 See: Krasnaia zvezda, 5 October, 2000; Morskoi sbornik, No. 7, 1997, p. 22.
2 See: S. Kushkumbaev, “Vliianie energoresursov na nekotorye aspekty vnutrennei i vneshnei politiki Kazakhstana, Tsentral’naia Azia i Kavkaz, No. 1, 1998, p. 41.
3 See: New York Times, 17 February, 1998.
4 A.S. Panarin, Global’noe politicheskoe prognozirovanie, Algoritm Publishers, Moscow, 2000, p. 275.
5 Ibid., p. 295.
6 See: Perceptions Journal of International Affairs, Vol. IV, No. 2, 1999.
7 Morskoi sbornik, No. 7, 1997, p. 23.
8 See: Vneshniaia politika i bezopasnost’ sovremennoy Rossii (1991-1998), An anthology, Vol. I, Mezhdunarodnye otnoshenia Publishers, Moscow, 1999, p. 19.
9 See: R. Safronov, “Turetskaia vneshniaia politika i gosudarstva Tsentral’noi Azii i Kavkaza,” Tsentral’naia Azia i Kavkaz, No. 1, 1998, p. 19.
10 See: P.M. Mozias, “Kitai v regione,” in: Evropa-Rossia: problemy iuzhnogo napravlenia. Sredizemnomorie-Chernomorie-Kaspii, Moscow, 1999, pp. 399-400.
11 See: Los Angeles Times, 11 March, 1998.
12 See: A.N. Utkin, Amerikanskaia strategia dlia XXI veka, Logos Publishers, Moscow, 2000, p. 105.
13 Quoted from: Rossia i Zakavkazie: realii nezavisimosti i novoe partnerstvo, ZAO Finstatinform, Moscow, 2000, p. 53.
14 See: Rossiiskie strategicheskie issledovania. A yearbook, Logos Publishers, Moscow, 2002, p. 104.
15 Morskoi sbornik, No. 4, 2000, p. 8.
16 Izvestia, 12 August, 2002.
17 A. Dugin, Osnovy geopolitiki. Geopoliticheskoe budushchee Rossii. Myslit’ prostranstvom, ARKTOGEIA-tsentr Press, Moscow, 1999, p. 241.
18 Krasnaia zvezda, 27 September, 2000.
19 N.A. Kovalskiy, “Restrukturizatsia geopoliticheskogo prostranstva ot Gibraltara do Kaspia v 90-e gody,” in: Evropa-Rossia: problemy iuzhnogo napravlenia. Sredizemnomorie-Chernomorie-Kaspii, p. 30.