Russia remains unrivalled in the Caspian Sea
The countries bordering the Caspian Sea continue to build up their naval forces. Some media outlets have expressed the view that Azerbaijan is outpacing Russia in certain aspects of this process.
Ruslan Pukhov, Director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies and member of the Public Council under the Ministry of Defense, shares his thoughts on this issue with the website of the Valdai International Discussion Club.
Is Russia really losing the "arms race" in the Caspian Sea, or is it just a media myth?
Russia is still in the lead. It was the first country in the late 1990s to begin building up naval forces in the Caspian Sea. Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have followed Russia’s lead only recently. Azerbaijan still lags behind in the development of naval forces in the Caspian Sea. Although nominally this country has a sufficiently impressive navy, it’s comprised of the old Soviet ships built in the 1960s-1970s that were transferred by Russia to Azerbaijan in 1992 as part of the division of the Soviet Caspian Fleet.
With the active participation of Washington and Tel Aviv, Baku began to acquire the most advanced elements of naval warfare (sea-based missile systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, combat swimmers, etc.). The Russian navy lacks some of these capabilities, or they are still being developed. What new armaments is the Russian Caspian Fleet fielding?
So far, Azerbaijan only has plans to upgrade its navy in the Caspian Sea, while Russia is actually actively upgrading its Caspian Fleet. The Russian Caspian Flotilla was the first fleet in the Russian navy to get the newest missile systems such as the ship-based Kalibr system and the coastal Bal-E system. The Russian Caspian Flotilla also has divisions of combat swimmers.
What are the main goals of the closer ties between Azerbaijan and the United States and Israel?
I believe the focus is exclusively anti-Iranian.
What do you think are the main reasons for Azerbaijan’s increased efforts to modernize its armed forces?
I think that the modernization has to do with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and is designed to achieve a significant military superiority over Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, which, in turn, will exert effective pressure on the Armenian side.
What arms and branches of the Azerbaijani armed forces are being modernized the most? How long will the Russian Caspian Fleet continue to be the strongest force in the region?
The emphasis in the development of the Azerbaijani armed forces is on the development of the army and the air force, which is natural given the military’s anti-Armenian focus. The navy is of secondary importance to Azerbaijan.
In any case, the Russian Caspian Fleet’s supremacy in this region has so far been unrivalled. Also keep in mind Russia's ability to perform inter-theater manoeuvres, where it can transfer significant naval forces from other fleets to the Caspian Sea using inland waterways, as well as its strong air force and long-range missiles.
Strictly speaking, in light of these factors, the need for Russia to keep separate naval forces in the Caspian Sea is debatable. The Caspian Flotilla is an anachronism maintained for political reasons.
Recently, Baku and Tel Aviv signed a high-profile weapons contract worth $1.6 billion, which includes purchases of Israeli Gabriel anti-ship missiles with a range of up to 36 kilometers. How significant is the threat posed by these missiles to the Russian Caspian Fleet?
From what we know, the issue is about anti-ship Gabriel V missiles with a range much greater than 36 km; secondly, these missiles aren’t yet available, so this information still needs to be rechecked; and, third, the Russian Caspian Flotilla will field a diverse set of the most advanced anti-ship missile systems in the near future.
Of course, any anti-ship missile could pose a threat to Russian ships, but the likelihood of a Russian-Azerbaijani sea conflict seems very remote.
In any case, Israel is not the most advanced country when it comes to the development of naval missiles.
Is Russia going to do anything to defend its geopolitical and economic interests in the region?
As I mentioned, Russia is ahead of all other countries in terms of the development of military forces in the Caspian region. As a matter of fact, to a significant degree, the modernization of Russia's Caspian Flotilla triggered the naval arms race in the Caspian Sea. There is no reason whatsoever to be concerned about the strength of Russia’s military positions in the Caspian region.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.