On a quiet but tense corner of Russia's border, its neighbors are gaining on it

1984: The Caspian Flotilla ship Sovetsky Daagestan. Getty Images via TASS
Russia's Caspian Sea neighbors have been increasing their naval capabilities.

Russia is still the most powerful military power in the region, however, this advantage is waning.

While the countries involved have taken steps to resolve disputes, tensions are still possible.

Threety years ago Russia was the dominant country in the Caspian Sea. Russia and its Caspian Flotilla didn't have to be afraid despite the independence of new nations with their own navies beginning in the 1990s.

The 21st century is entering its third decade and the Caspian Sea may not remain a Russian-dominated lake much longer.

The Caspian Flotilla of Russia conducted sea drills, firing cruise missiles long-range Kalibr cruisers at an island just off its coast in October. Three days later, three days of drills were conducted in the sea by Azerbaijani navy vessels. These included special-operations forces as well as patrol boats.

Russia maintains a military advantage in the Caspian Region with its forces, but the competition drills last month remind us that Russia's neighbors are increasing their naval capabilities.

More players, more ships

A man walks along a Baku shore as Azerbaijani Navy vessels practice for a military parade in Caspian Sea on December 9, 2020. Valery SharifulinTASS via Getty Images

The Caspian Sea, despite being remote, has been vital. It is home to some of the largest offshore oil fields in the world, with an estimated 48 billion barrels oil.

Many of the world's largest oil fields were discovered during the 1990s and 2000s when the borders between the Caspian states weren't clearly drawn.

There were many disputes among the five Caspian states (Azerbaijani, Turkmenistan Kazakhstan, Iran and Russia) over drilling rights and exploration rights. A dispute over Alov-Araz-Sharq's oil field was the reason Iran and Azerbaijan were in close proximity to an open conflict in 2001.

Russia's Caspian Flotilla was strong enough to prevent serious disputes. It allowed Russia to influence territorial disputes among other littoral countries.

Russia continues to build this flotilla. It demonstrated a new capability in October 2015 when 26 Kalibr cruise missiles were launched from its ships at 11 targets in Syria. This distance is approximately 1,000 miles. A month later, they launched more missiles.

Continue the story

While other Caspian Sea states operated largely in the shadows of Russia's Caspian Flotilla for many years, they have been able to modernize their navies in recent years.

A Turkmenistan navy-missile ship, during an antiterrorism naval exercise in Caspian Sea on September 5, 2012. STR/AFP/GettyImages

Azerbaijan has increased its navy and coast guard fleets with the help of its large oil reserves. This combined force now includes more than 30 ships. While most of these ships are patrol vessels, some are more advanced and modern ships that were built by Israeli or Turkish companies.

Turkmenistan also took advantage of its cultural and commercial ties with Turkey, and bought a variety of Turkish-made vessels. It currently has 10 Serhet-class patrolboats (based on the Turkish Tuzla class) and it commissioned its first Turkmen corvette in August.

Iran has had a small presence in the Caspian for many years. It controls waters that average 3,360 feet deep, making offshore oil drilling difficult. Iran's navy is primarily focused on the Persian Gulf.

Iran is also expanding its Caspian fleet. It completed the IRIS Paykan in 2003, its first modern Caspian vessel. This fast-attack craft of Sina-class design was built by Iran. It commissioned the IRIS Damavand in 2015, Iran's second modern warship, and the Mowj-class frigate.

After an accident in 2018, IRIS Damavand fell. It is currently being repaired. Iran continues its activities in the Caspian including regular drills.

Kazakhstan, which did not inherit any Soviet Union naval vessels, built its navy with around a dozen ships. It also has a class of missile boats made in Kazakhstan. It also conducts exercises and drills in its waters.

The strongest

Front row, Russian anti-sabotage vessel Yunarmeyets Kaspiya in a Navy Day parade close to Kaspiysk, Dagestan, July 25, 2021. Yelena AhoninaTASS via Getty Images

Although other Caspian Sea navies may be stronger than 30 years ago, Russia’s Caspian flotilla is still the dominant naval force.

Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan have small naval vessels, such as patrol boats or missile boats. Although the Caspian Flotilla is home to many similar vessels, it also boasts more large warships than any other country, including six Buyan-class corvettes and two Gepard-class frigates.

These ships are smaller than destroyers and cruisers from the Russian navy's other fleets. However, as the 2015 Syria strikes have shown, they are equipped with similar armaments that are far more powerful than those of neighboring navies.

Insider was told by Jeffrey Edmonds (a CNA researcher and Russia expert) that "the Russians equip these smaller ships with long-range ground-attack and anti ship missile systems, and it really punches above their weight and size."

D-156, a Russian landing ship, was seen during a Caspian Flotilla Naval Parade for Navy Day on July 26, 2015. Russian Ministry of Defense

The Caspian Flotilla also forms part of Russia's powerful Southern Military District. This is one of the most important and largest military units in the Russian military. The combat power of the Caspian Flotilla must be evaluated along with other assets within the district such as coastal defenses and aircraft.

Edmonds stated that you shouldn't see the Russian Navy in isolation from the rest of Russia's military. "If there were a conflict at the Caspian Sea you would have all the power of the Russian military present."

The Caspian Flotilla can be strengthened by ships from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet via Volga-Don Canal or, if necessary, by the Baltic Fleet via the longer Volga-Baltic Waterway.

"The total correlation of all forces is what the Russian military considers." Edmonds said. "They will calibrate their military capability in the region to match, or exceed any potential competitor."

Left: A Russian corvette Makhachkala and a waterway defence boat in a military parade in Kaspiysk for Navy Day, July 25, 2001. Yelena AhoninaTASS via Getty Images

The naval buildup is increasing, and so are efforts to manage it. The Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea was signed by the five Caspian countries in 2018.

Its signatories agreed on a limit of 15 nautical miles for territorial waters and freedom of navigation beyond those waters. They also agreed to a principle of "a stable equilibrium of armaments... within the limits reasonable sufficiency."

It also prohibits countries outside of the Caspian Sea from having a military presence.

However, future tensions are already evident. Russia and Iran are becoming more concerned about Turkey's military buildup, growing influence in Azerbaijani and Turkmenistan. China's influence is growing in the region.

As new oil fields are discovered in the Caspian and regional navies expand, naval activity will likely rise in the Caspian. Russia's dominance seems to be secure for the moment, but it could soon have to contend with other players.

Business Insider has the original article.