The Great Caspian Arms Race

Inside the petro-fueled naval military buildup you've never heard of: It's Russia versus Iran, with three post-Soviet states -- and trillions of dollars in oil -- in the middle.

The Caspian Sea, once a strategic backwater, is quickly becoming a tinderbox of regional rivalries -- all fueled by what amounts to trillions in petrodollars beneath its waves. Observers gained a first glimpse into this escalating arms race last fall, when Russia and Kazakhstan held joint military exercises on the Caspian, which abuts Iran and several former Soviet republics. Russia's chief of general staff framed it as a precautionary measure related to developments in Central Asia, saying it would prepare for "the export of instability from Afghanistan after the withdrawal of NATO troops from there."

But a scoop by a Russian newspaper, Moskovsky Komsomolets, told a different story. The newspaper got hold of a map apparently showing the real scenario of the exercise: the defense of Kazakhstan's oil fields from several squadrons of F-4, F-5, and Su-25 fighters and bombers. The map didn't name which country the jets came from, but the trajectory and the types of planes gave it away: Iran.

While the world focuses on the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran, a little-noticed arms buildup has been taking place to Iran's north, among the ex-Soviet states bordering the Caspian. Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union created three new states on the sea, their boundaries have still not been delineated. And with rich oil and natural gas fields in those contested waters, the new countries -- Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan -- are using their newfound riches to protect the source of that wealth. So they're building new navies from scratch, while the two bigger powers, Russia and Iran, are strengthening the navies they already have. It all amounts to something that has never before been seen on the Caspian: an arms race.

The biggest reason for this buildup may be mistrust of Iran, but it's not the only one. The smaller countries also worry about how Russia's naval dominance allows Moscow to call the shots on their energy policies. Iran and Russia, meanwhile, fear U.S. and European involvement in the Caspian. All of this, among countries that don't trust each other and act with little transparency, is setting the stage for a potential conflict.

For the last several centuries, Russia has been the undisputed master of the Caspian. Tsar Peter the Great created Russia's Caspian Flotilla in 1722, and a quote from him still shines on a plaque at the flotilla's headquarters: "Our interests will never allow any other nation to claim the Caspian Sea." Until now, that's pretty much been the case. Because the Caspian was a relative strategic backwater for most of history, no one cared enough to challenge Russia. The Soviet Caspian Fleet, based in Baku, was perhaps best known for a novelty, the "Caspian Sea Monster," a massive experimental hovercraft/airplane.

Since 1991, however, the Caspian has started to matter. While the Caspian may still be marginal to Iran or Russia, it is of crucial strategic importance to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Upon gaining independence, those three countries quickly contracted with Western oil majors to explore the untapped resources in the sea, and discovered a fortune capable of transforming their economies. Caspian energy expert (and FP contributor) Steve LeVine estimates that the sea contains about 40 billion barrels of oil, almost all of it in the areas that those three countries control.

The issue of who controls what, however, is a tricky one. While certain pairs of states have worked out bilateral treaties dividing the sea between themselves, some boundaries -- most notably those involving Iran -- remain vague. In addition, the legality of building a "Trans-Caspian Pipeline" under the sea (as Turkmenistan would like to do, to ship natural gas through Azerbaijan and onward to Europe) is unclear, and both Russia and Iran oppose the project.

This uncertainty has contributed to several tense incidents on the Caspian over the last few years. In 2001, Iranian jets and a warship threatened a BP research vessel prospecting on behalf of Azerbaijan in waters that Baku considered its own. In 2008, gunboats from Azerbaijan's coast guard threatened oil rigs operated by Malaysian and Canadian companies working for Turkmenistan near the boundary between those two countries. And in 2009, an Iranian oil rig entered waters that Azerbaijan considered its own, prompting Azerbaijani officials to fret that they were powerless against the Iranians, Wikileaked diplomatic cables show.

And so all five countries on the Caspian have taken significant steps to build up their navies in recent years. Russia's Caspian Flotilla is by far the strongest of the lot, but that hasn't stopped Kremlin officials from publicly worrying the fleet is "uncompetitive," and declaring that they are taking steps to cement its superiority. Russia's second frigate for the flotilla is currently undergoing sea trials in the Black Sea and should be transported to the Caspian later this year -- part of a plan to add 16 new ships to the fleet by 2020. Russia is also building up its naval air forces in the region, and establishing coastal missile units armed with anti-ship rockets capable of hitting targets in the middle of the sea.

"The military-political situation in the region is extremely unpredictable. This is explained on one side by the unregulated status of the sea, and from the other, the aspirations of several non-Caspian states to infiltrate the region and its oil and gas," the Russian magazine National Defense, in a not-so-oblique reference to the United States and Europe, wrote in a special report this year on the Caspian naval buildup. "In these conditions Russia is compelled to look after the security of its citizens and the defense of the interests of the Caspian countries."

Iran is the second power on the Caspian, and while it keeps details of its posture on the sea under close wraps, its growing presence is impossible to miss. Iran has built up its navy on the Caspian from nearly nothing during the Soviet era to a force of close to 100 missile boats, two of which are equipped with Chinese C-802 anti-ship missiles. And Tehran has announced that it's building a "destroyer," which will become the largest ship in its Caspian fleet (though probably closer to a corvette by international standards).

The other three countries on the sea inherited some decrepit vessels from the former Soviet Caspian flotilla, which they augmented with donations of small patrol boats by the United States in the early days following independence. But all now appear serious about developing real navies. Turkmenistan, for example, is building a naval base and naval academy in the coastal city of Turkmenbashi and has bought two Russian missile boats, with plans to buy three more, as well as Turkish patrol boats.

Kazakhstan launched its first proper naval vessel this year -- a domestically built missile boat -- with plans to buy two more. It also recently contracted with South Korean shipbuilder STX to help develop its shipbuilding capacity. A recent arms expo in Kazakhstan's capital of Astana drew a substantial number of shipbuilders and other naval arms producers from Europe, Turkey, and Russia, and Kazakhstan appears poised to buy Exocet anti-ship missiles from European consortium MBDA.

Azerbaijan has been the relative laggard, focusing nearly all of its booming defense budget on land and air forces designed to win back the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, now controlled by Armenian forces. But it too has lately shown signs of focusing more on Caspian security, buying anti-ship missiles from Israel.

Adding a few frigates here and a few corvettes there, of course, doesn't mean the Caspian is the next South China Sea; the firepower and the geopolitical tension on the sea are still low enough that the Caspian is far from "flashpoint" status. But the trend is moving in a dangerous direction. The five countries on the Caspian are all so opaque about their intentions that there is plenty of room for miscalculation, leading to a disastrous conflict that no state truly wants. It is also particularly ironic because  all the governments officially call for demilitarization of the Caspian. Most of the countries justify their Caspian naval buildups in light of this rhetoric by citing a threat from terrorists or piracy -- though there has been nearly no indication of either the intent or ability of terrorists to attack.

In reality, the Caspian is a classic case of the security dilemma, in which defensive moves can be perceived by neighbors as offensive ones. "Even if we don't want to spend that much money on naval militarization, we end up spending it to keep up with all the threats," says Reshad Karimov, an analyst at Baku's Center for Strategic Studies. "If someone is too safe, no one is safe."

The tension on the sea takes many forms. All of the post-Soviet states mistrust Iran, especially Azerbaijan. "How will we react if tomorrow Iran decides to install one of their oil wells in some territory that we consider ours?" asks Taleh Ziyadov, an analyst in Baku. "Maybe some crazy guy, because he got frustrated by Azerbaijan-Israeli relations, tomorrow he will declare, 'Go and install that well over there.' The possibility of serious tension is there, and Azerbaijan will attempt not to allow it."

Russian opposition to the proposed Trans-Caspian Pipeline is another potential source of conflict. The United States and Europe have been active in promoting the pipeline, which would allow Turkmenistan to export natural gas to Europe, while bypassing Russia. But commentators in Moscow have occasionally threatened force if a pipeline were to go ahead. "The reaction can be very hard, up to some sort of military conflict in the Caspian Sea," said Konstantin Simonov, director general of the Russian think tank, National Energy Security Fund, in an interview last year.

"Russia is the wildest card in the deck -- they have so many ways to mess things up. They have the resources, they have the firepower, they have established the political will to do that," Karimov said.

Meanwhile, just this week, the two would-be partners in the Trans-Caspian Pipeline, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, traded accusations about the disputed oil field that was at the heart of their 2008 standoff.

Russia and Iran both appear motivated to keep foreign (especially U.S. and European) influence out of the Caspian. The U.S. has offered some modest military assistance to help the new countries bolster their defenses on the Caspian, including donations of some patrol boats and training of Azerbaijani naval special forces. And it's clear from WikiLeaked U.S. diplomatic cables that Azerbaijan in particular relies heavily on U.S. advice for naval issues.

Baku also appears to be using the escalating tensions on the sea to press for greater help -- and U.S. officials appear receptive to their requests. During the 2009 incursion of the Iranian oil rig into Azerbaijani waters, several high-level Azerbaijani officials consulted with U.S. diplomats and military officials. One official in Baku fretted: "You know our military capacity on our borders. We do not have enough capacity. We need military assistance." In a later cable, one U.S. diplomat said the incident "offers a timely opportunity to gain traction on Caspian maritime cooperation with the [government of Azerbaijan]."

Russia, and especially Iran, tend to see this activity on the Caspian as an encroachment on their strategic backyard, and they delivered thinly veiled warnings against "third parties" getting involved in the region. "Iranians think they are a besieged fortress," said a Baku naval analyst who asked not to be named. "The U.S. cooperation here is nothing special but they build conspiracy theories about it." Meanwhile, Azerbaijan's strong military relationship with Israel only adds to Iran's suspicions.

The United States, however, has vowed to expand its involvement in the Caspian and appears determined to help the smaller countries stand their ground against Russia and Iran. The most recent U.S. State Department military assistance plans call for aid to "to help develop Azerbaijan's maritime capabilities and contribute to the overall security of the resource-rich Caspian Sea."

Meanwhile, the tension seems destined to rise. Iran recently announced a huge new oil discovery in the Caspian, which Tehran says contains 10 billion barrels of oil. While Iran hasn't yet announced the exact location of the find, the information it has put out suggests that the discovery, according to regional analyst Alex Jackson, is in "what would reasonably be considered Azerbaijan's waters."

As the vast wealth at stake in the Caspian becomes clearer, expect all parties in this new battleground to deploy ever more sophisticated weaponry to defend their interests. No word yet on when Azerbaijan is taking delivery of those Israeli anti-ship missiles.



Can't We All Just Not Get Along?

Why the push for bipartisan consensus in foreign policy is a dumb idea.

Does America need more bipartisanship in foreign policy? My fellow Foreign Policy columnist, Aaron Miller appears to think so, as he's twice argued in recent weeks that the next president should pick a secretary of state from the other political party. After all, says Miller, "for the first time in a quarter-century, the United States has a bipartisan -- even nonpartisan -- consensus on many of the core issues relating to the country's foreign policy." Indeed, according to Miller, "there's an emerging consensus in U.S. foreign policy that's smart, functional, and welcome. We should build on it."

Along the same lines, Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose writing in the Washington Post this past weekend, noted that "the basic template for American foreign policy has been relatively constant for almost seven decades now and needs only tweaking and updating, not fundamental revision."

While both are right that there is foreign policy consensus in the country today, it doesn't necessarily follow suit that this is something good. In fact, what the country needs now is not more consensus, but less. While foreign policy harmony often has positive attributes, it can also constrict national security thinking, limit policy options, and marginalize iconoclastic voices. Instead, the competition of ideas in foreign policy debates -- which as Miller implicitly argues doesn't currently exist -- is far more important than perpetuating a "consensus" that keeps new ideas or strategies from rising to the political surface.

At a time when the U.S. faces no serious security threats -- and the country is transitioning away from to a post-war on terrorism template -- there is no better time to have a robust debate about America's global responsibilities, the role of its armed forces and the nature of U.S. interests in a world that is perhaps freer, safer, and more prosperous than any point in human history. Solidifying the current consensus would have the opposite effect. As former Secretary of State Dean Acheson once wisely observed: "It isn't the fact that [foreign] policy is nonpartisan that's important, it's the fact that it's good."

On the surface, however, it might appear that the United States is in the midst of a rather robust partisan debate on foreign policy. Hardly a day goes by when Republicans miss a chance to attack President Barack Obama's foreign policy as weak, feckless, and apologetic. Yes, on issues like China, Syria, and to a lesser extent Iran, there are areas of reasonable disagreement. But dig down and what becomes visible is more convergence than contrast.

For example, while Mitt Romney likes to assail Obama for cutting the defense budget, the differences between the two candidates on the state of the military are actually not all that significant: Obama wants a giant military; Romney wants a gigantic one.  Indeed, after the signing of the debt limit deal last year, which called for as much as a trillion dollars in defense spending cuts both parties practically fell over themselves trying to run away from it. The ink was barely dry before Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was warning that the cuts would invite "aggression" against the United States. And the Republican-led House has already passed legislation that would take a sledgehammer to crucial safety net programs like meals on wheels and children's health care in order to protect the Pentagon's more than $650 billion budget. But the consensus stretches to cover more than just Department of Defense spending.

How about U.S. global alliances, many of which are a vestige of the Cold War and yet remain unchanged 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall? For example, the United States continues to massively underwrite and subsidize security responsibilities for Europe (via NATO) and the Far East (via U.S. security relationships with Japan and South Korea)  Good luck finding a significant voice in either party who thinks either of these situations -- driven as much by inertia than by actual U.S. interests -- is problematic.  What about the U.S. relationship with "allies" like Israel -- which regularly takes actions that are contrary to U.S. policy in the region, but are unquestioned among elite national security policymakers?

Or how about the unshakable agreement within both party elites on the necessity of prosecuting the war on terror via drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen? To be sure, there is certainly a healthy amount of varying opinions between Republicans and Democrats on foreign policy tactics, but as Miller rightly pointed out recently: there isn't much difference between Obama and Romney's thinking on major strategic issues. While Romney is more likely to use tough rhetoric on Iran -- and might even talk himself into the use of force -- both men share the view that there is an abiding national interest in preventing Iran from getting a nuclear bomb (at practically any cost) and that containment of a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. Even in today's highly partisan political environment, the areas of contention in foreign policy are frequently less than meets the eye.

As Sean Kay, a professor at Ohio Wesleyan University said to me, there is "virtual agreement in Washington between liberal interventionists and neo-conservative hawks -- and the result is a lack of any alternative worldview in the upper echelons of U.S. foreign policy." As Kay ruefully notes, though Obama ran on "changing the mindset of American foreign policy" he didn't have a "single major dissenter on his foreign policy team (with the possible exception of Vice President Joe Biden). All were pro-war on Iraq and eventually pro-surge in Afghanistan." Obama has, in key regards, perpetuated that which he once sought to transform.  

In the view of Peter Feaver, who writes at the Shadow Government blog for FP and teaches at Duke University, alternative viewpoints have been rejected because they're not very good ideas: "Radical critiques of American foreign policy are known and given lots of air time proportional to their influence. You can't swing a dead cat without hearing a serious critique of American foreign policy at an academic conference, for example. These views are known, considered, and rejected. It's not that no one had a chance to know about the movie -- they didn't want to see it."

In fairness, bipartisan constancy can hardly be dismissed out of hand -- it allows policymakers to coalesce around policies that have broad public and elite support, like democracy promotion and open economies, backing for international institutions (though this is slipping), humanitarian assistance, and collective security, to name a few.

In fact, "a bipartisan or general consensus in foreign affairs made great sense through the years of the early republic and much of the 19th century," says Christopher Nichols, a professor at Oregon State University. "As the American party system developed, it was broadly agreed that the fledgling nation should follow the Washingtonian-Jeffersonian injunction to 'steer clear of foreign entanglements,' largely conceived of as monarchical European power politics."

But times have changed. In the era of U.S. superpower status, a bipartisan consensus has tended to narrow the options of policymakers from endzone to endzone to between what one might proverbially call the 45-yard lines of a football field -- a much narrower space that today keeps in place policies, alliances, and relationships desperately in need of a refresh. Wouldn't a competition of ideas on foreign policy (even some radical ones), rather than variations on an already agreed-upon consensus be a good thing, particularly at a time of relative global stability? 

From a recent historical perspective, the perils of a bipartisan consensus are even clearer. For example, after World War II, agreement developed around the idea that the United States had a responsibility to not simply contain communism, but to roll back its mischievous intentions. This became the virtual bulwark of post-World War II foreign policy. While it brought with it many positive results -- the creation of NATO, the Marshall Plan, and Bretton Woods are obvious and laudatory examples -- it also became a self-perpetuating vision of American foreign policy, crowding out alternative ideas and viewpoints and leading the United States to pursue anti-Communist fights, even when they were tangential to direct U.S. interests (see: Vietnam War).

This consensus -- though shared by both parties -- was in reality anything but bipartisan. It was directly reinforced by rancorous partisan politics and the realization by Republicans that they could demagogue on anti-communism and the fear of Democrats at being portrayed as weak and feckless in the fight against Red expansion. A poorly conceived consensus, enforced by fear of political attack, hardly seems like a bygone era that Washington should be aspiring to.

After September 11, the United States adopted yet another set of consensus views: that America must go to war in Afghanistan to remove al Qaeda's safe haven (good consensus); that America must not only fight a global war on terror (less good consensus); and finally and most disastrously that America must topple Saddam Hussein in order to keep America safe (god-awful consensus).

It's easy to forget now, but 77 U.S. senators supported the authorization of the use of military force against Iraq -- and while Republican elites were strongly supportive of the war, so too were Democratic ones. Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger, and Richard Holbrooke all gave their imprimatur to the war (and, in some cases, even lobbied Democrats) as did a healthy cross section of the Democratic analyst and pundit community. With the notable exception of Sens. Teddy Kennedy and Robert Byrd and much of the House Democratic caucus (as well as a little known State Senate candidate from Illinois) there was little public opposition not only to the war, but to the strategically flawed thinking that underpinned the decision to take up arms in the first place.

Wouldn't America have been better off with a more robust public debate about the decision to invade Iraq? The answer today seems tragically self-evident. But because there was so much unanimity about the war, those who were opposed were seen as outliers, radicals, or extremists. It's a perfect example of the dangers and even folly of fetishizing bipartisan consensus.

Finally, it's important to remember that when political movements coalesce around challenging unanimities in U.S. foreign policy it can bring with it positive results. In 1968, the decision by Eugene McCarthy to challenge Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination for president did more than offer an alternative viewpoint about the war in Vietnam, it gave a political voice to those who did not share in the conceits of the bipartisan consensus. McCarthy's fight ended Johnson's presidency, but by giving a political outlet to the "non-consensus" wing of the party it reshaped the way that Democrats approached foreign policy issues. In its most positive light, the shift in Democratic sensibilities provided support for détente and indirectly led to a greater recognition of the importance of human rights in foreign policy -- even if the political results were less than salutary for Democrats.  

Indeed, Obama as president has been at his most interesting -- and dynamic -- when he has gone against form, like aspiring to a nuclear-free world, bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq on schedule, and pulling the plug on the surge in Afghanistan.

Rather than appointing a member of the other party to confirm an elite foreign policy vision of the world, a voice in Obama (or Romney's) future foreign policy cabinet with distinctly alternate views would be far more interesting -- a la William Jennings Bryan who was secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson or perhaps the true "team of rivals" that existed in Jimmy Carter's presidency with Cyrus Vance at State and Zbigniew Brzezinski at the National Security Council.

Indeed, contra to Miller's notion that we need a secretary of state from a different party, what America really need is a secretary of state with a different worldview. Of course, none of this means that a foreign policy debate that takes place outside the carefully circumscribed 45-yard lines will lead to different and better policies. But unless that debate takes place -- how will we ever know?

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