A sea monster is rising from the black, oil slick lagoon of the Caspian Sea. Discoveries of oil reserves are sparking an arms race between Russia, Iran, and several former Soviet Republics. Russia and Kazakhstan are holding joint military operations. The Moskovsky Komsomolets published a map outlining defensive positions against an attack from Iran. Oil wars are getting hot, and these autocracies are just warming up for a classical realist show down: no responsibility to protect, no democracy, no rights agenda. This is the post-American world, stripped of the cosmopolitan rhetoric of the post-Cold War, struck with financial malady, and short an honest broker whose first interest isn’t simply that the oil flow.
Iranian instability is one push factor, but so is the growing power of oil states around the Caspian, post-Soviet republics hung-over on the Kremlin’s kool-aid: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Newfound petrodollars are funding more aggressive posturing on oil reserves, and ultimately setting the stage for a global first: a Caspian arms race.
Russia has long served as master of the Caspian, from the time Peter the Great christened Russia’s Caspian Flotilla in 1722. A quote from him shines affixed to its headquarters: “Our interests will never allow any other nation to claim the Caspian Sea.” And Russia was welcome to it, until 1991 when Soviet collapse and Western prospecting estimated the Sea contained about 40 billion barrels of oil, almost all within areas Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan control.
The legality of who owns what ends up getting tricky, with overlapping bilateral treaties, and boundaries—especially with Iran—being vague. The Turkmenistan push for a Trans-Caspian Pipeline, opposed by both Russia and Iran, sounds like, well, a pipedream. Russia itself has threatened force if the plan goes forward, which would see natural gas exported directly to Europe bypassing Russia. Iran’s recent announcement of a further 10 billion barrel discovery, in a region which analysts suspect can be “reasonably considered Azerbaijan’s waters” only fuels the rhetoric, and the realism. Tensions have been building since 2001 on the waters, and in the midst of it navies are being built, and the Caspian Sea Monster roams the high seas.
The United States has vowed to expand its involvement in the Caspian and help smaller states stand their ground against Russia and Iran. But on at least one thing Russia and Iran agree: U.S. and European influence must be kept out of the Caspian. The petro-politics of the Caspian lack the fire power of the South China Sea, and we are far from a flashpoint, but as more rogue states of the world find solace behind the regional interests of emerging autocracies like Russia, we may be wistful for some old time rights talk from an honest broker. On the Caspian, we can hope for brokers, but so far it’s just the sea monsters.