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The Sea That Isn't and the Deal That Is

Robin Copland
© Peter Hermes Furian |

The Caspian Sea is the sea that isn’t.  It is landlocked and does not drain into the ocean, so it really should be called the Caspian Lake.  Big lake, mind you, but there we are.  The five countries surrounding the Sea, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Russia and Kazahkstan have just recently signed a convention ending twenty years of dispute that has hindered the exploitation of the Caspian’s oil and gas reserves.

Russia’s President Putin hailed the convention as “an important moment” and “a major landmark event for all our countries.  “We have signed a convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea.  This is an international agreement which contains a detailed and comprehensive set of rules and obligations on the use and preservation of the shared reaches of our Caspian Sea”.

The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani added, “The Caspian Sea belongs only to the Caspian states”.

When these two start bigging up their agreement, we had better sit up and take notice; there is more to this than maybe meets the eye.  The words of the two leaders were brave indeed; of course, it is also fair to say that there will also be a benefit in all of this for states lying to the west of the region, in other words the whole of Europe!  Access to these oil and gas reserves, hitherto problematic are now opened up.

According to Ben Judah, a noted journalist and expert in the region, the key thing that Russia has managed to secure out of this is the guarantee that no foreign third-party military bases will be established on the Caspian Sea.  In exchange, pipelines will be allowed to be built underneath it, crucially without Russian intervention, so in many ways, if you are looking at it from the five Caspian states’ perspectives, it is a win-win for everyone involved – but especially Russia.  From Europe’s perspective, access to oil and gas from Turkmenistan is an important win.

Why “especially Russia”?  Her power in the region had diminished since the collapse of the USSR; the new deal ensures that the Sea remains very firmly in Russia’s military grasp.  Most recently, Russia has been firing missiles towards Syria from the region and the Caspian Sea has been used by the Russian navy to overlook the Middle East.  The guarantee that there will be no challenge and no “outside” states allowed to position military forces or listening posts in the region extends that Russian sphere of influence.  No American or Chinese ships in the Caspian Sea is very good news for Russia.

So what has Russia given up in exchange?  She can no longer complain about pipelines being dug by any of the other Caspian states.  Given Russia’s relatively weakened position in the region anyway, you could argue that she has not given up much in reality, because her political control of Turkmenistan had already faded.

In negotiating terms, we talk about ensuring that you value your concessions in the other party’s terms.  With this deal in place, Russia has done exactly that in a very clever move indeed.  She agrees to stop causing problems with pipelines and secures her military future in the region.



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