U.S. Seeks To Upgrade Caspian Role Amid Growing Russian, Iranian Influence, China’s Plans

Fuad Muxtarlı Analysis 12 September 2019
U.S. Seeks To Upgrade Caspian Role Amid Growing Russian, Iranian Influence, China’s Plans

The Caspian region remains highly attractive for the U.S., EU and China though the most active among them is the U.S as the largest consumers of energy resources and the White House is extremely interested in dropping oil and gas prices worldwide.

Obviously, with the demise of the USSR, the topic of Caspian oil suddenly became relevant. Simultaneously, if earlier the U.S. was looking for alternative sources to then Soviet oil, now the task of finding new oil, alternative to Russian, is again topical. That was supposed to be oil from new independent Caspian littoral states.

The export routes of oil and gas were initially and imperatively asked to bypass Russia in order to minimize the possibilities of Russian influence on world processes. In contrast to the Soviet-Russian oil pipelines, ideas were developed and tabled for workarounds. The Caspian is now of great interest to Washington.

U.S. technical assistance for Azerbaijan

The U.S. allocated $10 million to supply equipment for Azerbaijan intended for intelligence gathering and the fight against terrorism in the Caspian Sea. According to a press release from the U.S. Department of Defense, VSE Corporation, located in Alexandria, Virginia, won a contract worth $10.8 million for the supply of counter-terrorism and reconnaissance equipment and training for Azerbaijan under “Maritime Security for the Caspian Sea: communications, electronics, construction, maritime interdiction equipment, and vehicles” program.

The Trump Administration has substantially ramped up security assistance to Azerbaijan, amounting to more than $100 million in fiscal years (FY) 2018-19, according to budget data compiled by the Security Assistance Monitor, part of the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank.

Whereas the assistance appears to be part of U.S. strategy to increase pressure against Iran and focuses on Azerbaijan’s border with Iran, it also has direct implications for Armenia. According to the data, under Section 333 “Building Partner Capacity” programs implemented by the Department of Defense (DoD), Azerbaijan was due to receive $58.6 million in FY 2018 and $42.9 million in FY2019. By comparison security aid levels in FY 2016-17 did not exceed $3 million a year.

As DoD notified Congress on April 27, 2018, it was spending $47.5 million on Azerbaijan’s “Southern Border Security: communications, electronics, construction, maritime interdiction equipment, and vehicles,” $11.1 million on “Maritime Security for the Capsian Sea: communications, electronics, construction, maritime interdiction equipment, and vehicles,” and $80,000 on “human rights training.”

Whereas, the U.S. has long provided more military assistance to Azerbaijan than to Armenia, the contrast has only increased since last year’s change of government in Armenia. According to the Security Assistance Monitor, Armenia received $4.2 million in U.S. security assistance in FY 2018 (year that ended in October 2018) with zero funds planned for FY 2019.

As U.S. assistance for Azerbaijan’s border security increased last year, Azerbaijani border guards took over part of the Azerbaijani-Armenian frontline duties from the Defense Ministry, allowing the latter to free up forces to be used elsewhere on the Azerbaijani-Armenian Line of Contact.

The document also notes that the contract was concluded for the Azerbaijani government as part of the U.S. program on foreign military sales. Contract implementation services will be performed in the U.S. and partially in Azerbaijan. It is planned to be completed in September 2020.

The idea to create a network of Special Forces units, codenamed Caspian Guard, was put forward by the U.S. in 2003, a program that they planned to implement from 2005 to 2011 in the Caspian. It envisaged the implementation of measures to enhance security in the Caspian region, and response to emergencies in the Caspian region, including threats of terrorist attacks on oil facilities, including pipelines.

The U.S. hoped to improve patrols in the Caspian Sea and guard the borders of states in order to prevent the flow of terrorists, weapons and drugs, to stabilize this region, where the significant political and business interests of the U.S. are concentrated. The U.S officially announced its intention to promote the trans-Caspian pipelines back in 1998 and since then has repeatedly confirmed this task.

However, the "embodiment in the metal" of trans-Caspian export routes, lobbied from across the ocean is still hindered by the position of other Caspian countries, which are categorically against such construction in the Caspian.

Washington’s interest in Baku and Astana is explained by a number of economic and political factors, the importance of which in the framework of the American strategy is reinforced by geographical reasons. Azerbaijan on the west coast of the Caspian Sea, Kazakhstan on the east form a synergistic unity important in the context of regional politics.

In fact, control over the two designated reference points not only provides the opportunity to set the tone for international relations in the Caspian Sea, but also opens up access to the Central Asian region. In addition, the Azerbaijani and Kazakh offshore sectors contain significant hydrocarbon reserves of the Caspian, therefore, among other things, cooperation with them was extremely beneficial for the U.S. from an economic point of view.

Along with the start of economic exploitation of Azerbaijani and Kazakh gas and oil fields, with the influx of investments and technologies into these countries, a need arose to protect American investments and create mechanisms for promoting a political project in the region. In addition, it was important for Washington to demonstrate its ability to give new partners security guarantees with the goal, on the one hand, of ensuring their commitment to the Euro-Atlantic unity line, and on the other, limiting the influence of competitors - Russia or Iran.

Of course, NATO, the only intergovernmental military organization that claims to have a global role, has become the main conductor of U.S. military and political interests in the Caspian. The territory of Azerbaijan was so important for Washington strategically that at the initial stage of the war against international terrorism, in 1999-2003. They actively discussed the possibility of deploying a NATO military base there.

Although Baku regularly declared the impossibility of such a scenario, backing up its words with the concept of national security adopted in 2007, which enshrined the ban on the deployment of the armed forces of third countries in Azerbaijan, talk of using its territory to implement U.S. military plans in the Middle East did not stop . But U.S. policy in the region has proven to be ineffective in security.

None of the regional conflicts was resolved, on the contrary, because of American aggressive intervention in the region’s affairs, relations between Iran and Azerbaijan aggravated due to the issue of the status of the Caspian Sea and ethnic contradictions in Georgia, which ended with the war and the declaration of independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

In addition, despite political declarations, the U.S. was not ready to really engage in security and border protection, even on the border with Afghanistan, where, due to U.S. activities, terrorist activity intensified and drug trafficking increased.

Currently, the Caspian region is one of the key geopolitical spaces of Eurasia, where the geopolitical interests of key actors in modern international relations clash. Competition, on the one hand, between the U.S., the EU and Russia, and on the other hand, between the U.S. and China in the Caspian region, lies at the heart of the regional geopolitical situation. External players actively solve their geopolitical tasks in the Caspian zone. The competition between them for using the energy potential in the Caspian and the geopolitical influence in the region is growing, and the U.S. has again intensified its role.