On May 5 2018 Kazakhstan ratified an agreement with the US for the transit of US military cargo and possibly even troops (under the euphemism of ‘advisors’ or ‘engineers’) to Afghanistan via the Caspian Sea route.
The ostensible reason is that the US’s long established supply lines to Afghanistan via Pakistan are now ‘under threat’. However, as is often the case nowadays, the reality is rather more complicated.
Just five months before the agreement was reached, in December 2017, purportedly at the instigation of the businessman Anatolie Stati who is involved in a longstanding legal dispute with the Kazakh authorities, the Bank of New York Mellon froze $22.6 billion of funds belonging to Kazakhstan’s sovereign wealth fund.
The May transit agreement between Kazakhstan and the US which followed shows that, as we say in Russia, ‘the subject (in this case Kazakhstan) got the message.’
This little piece of economic pressure shows that what is involved is more than just a logistical arrangement for a war in Afghanistan which the US anyway seems keen – presumably for its own reasons – to perpetuate indefinitely.
The effect of the agreement is that the US now has a presence in the two east Caspian ports of Aktau and Kuryk. Though this has been done ostensibly in order to transfer US supplies to Afghanistan, in reality it gives the US for the first time a military presence in the Caspian Sea, which until then had been exclusively an ‘inner lake’ of the countries which surround it.
The two Caspian Sea states which are the most affected are Russia and Iran, the two Caspian Sea ‘giants’ which between them account for by far the greater share of the combined GDP of the Caspian Sea littoral states. Not coincidentally they are the two Caspian Sea littoral states with the worst relations with Washington.
In the case of Russia there is a particular military dimension to the arrival of a US military presence in the Caspian Sea, in that Russia’s Caspian Sea flotilla has launched cruise missile strikes on Jihadi fighters engaged in the war in Syria.
This revelation of the great strategic importance of Russia’s Caspian Sea flotilla has seriously alarmed Washington, and has given the US a particular reason for wanting to establish a military presence in the Caspian Sea, from where it can keep track of Russia’s Caspian Sea flotilla, and potentially even in time pose a challenge to it.
In the case of Iran, a US military presence in the Caspian Sea creates a new potential US military threat to Iran from the north, balancing the US threat to Iran from the south provided by the large US naval presence in the Persian Gulf and the US military bases located there.
So the big question is how will the two ‘Caspian giants’ – Russia and Iran – respond to this challenge? Will they work together to confront it, as they have worked together successfully to confront the joint challenge they have faced in Syria?
Will they in fact forge a strategic partnership with each other to confront the potential threat in the Caspian Sea that they both now face, possibly along the lines of the partnership which exists between the US and Britain?
I ask this question because the current reality is very different. So far from Russia and Iran working closely together on anything, the wheels of their cooperation on the contrary are clogged up with bureaucratic mud.
Anyone who has ever tried to make a bank transfer from Russia to Iran will know exactly what I mean. Moreover if you want to fly to Tehran from say the Urals – perhaps from the Yekaterinburg industrial region — you will find that you have to add a whole day to your journey because you have to transit through Moscow.
It is just as bad on the other side. Tabriz international airport in Iran offers direct flights to Batumi, Tbilisi and Yerevan, but not to Krasnodar, southern Russia’s economic capital with a population of three quarters of a million people, notwithstanding that it should take no more than an hour and a half’s flight to get there.
Last but not the least, whilst there is a trans-Caspian cargo ferryboat between Astrakhan in Russia and Bandar-e Anzali in Iran, did you ever hear of a passenger one? Hardly, because none exists.
There is an old Russian saying that every problem has its first name, patronymic and surname. In the case of the total lack of even basic economic coordination between Moscow and Tehran it’s not actually difficult to see what this problem is.
Quite simply, some people in authority in both countries (we won’t say who they are) see their potential Caspian Sea partner as at best an unimportant “second order” friend, and perhaps in some cases even as a potential enemy.
Russia and Iran can – if they have the will – together with their partners form a common market of 250 million people.
That would provide them with the best – perhaps the only – security there is against the sanctions, restrictions, threats and incantations which, regular as clockwork, come from the West’s self-proclaimed guardians of “freedom, democracy and human rights”.
The alternative is to allow the Caspian Sea to become a Sea of Troubles, with the West’s “humanitarian missiles” certain to follow close behind.
With the US now establishing a presence in the Caspian Sea the time for Russia and Iran to start seriously working together is now.
The author is an international correspondent for Russia’s largest circulation newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda