Ukraine conflict and the Caspian Sea regional geopolitics

The Caspian Sea region (Credits: User: Redgeographics, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 17 Issue 2
Author: Vlad Kondratiev

In the emerging realities of international relations, it seems crucial to develop an understanding of how the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, which escalated in 2022, will affect the situation in various regions of Eurasia, for example, in the Caspian region, which after the collapse of the USSR turned into one of the most important and complex geopolitical problems of international relations.

If from the middle of the 18th century to the 90′ of the 20th century Russia and then the Soviet Union together with Persia (Iran) actually “controlled” the Caspian region, then, as a result of the appearance on the world map of “new” independent Caspian littoral states (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan), the transformation of the Caspian geopolitical space took place.

At the same time, the Caspian countries faced several unresolved problems, first of all, the problem of the international legal status of the Caspian Sea. In addition, a whole range of national and regional problems of a political, economic, social, humanitarian, and environmental nature have arisen.

A new stage of hydrocarbon production in the Caspian Sea, which began in the first half of the 1990s, aroused geopolitical interest among the world’s leading countries and the most prominent Western mining companies. American companies, backed by the U.S. political establishment, were among the first to come to the Caspian region. Further, all the world’s leading political forces, such as the European Union, China, India, Turkey, Arab countries, showed interest in the region. These processes have significantly polarised the positions of the Caspian littoral countries on key issues of regional relations and have given the geopolitical situation in the Caspian a highly complex character.

Ukrainian influence in the Caspian region before the conflict

Ukraine also had a specific influence on the geopolitical situation in the Caspian region. After the aggravation of Russian-Ukrainian relations in 2013-2014, the well-established transport and logistics ties between Ukraine and its trading partners in the post-Soviet space were disrupted. Ukraine could no longer use Russia’s transport infrastructure to supply goods to Central Asia and the South Caucasus, and Ukrainian-Iranian trade was also significantly hampered. The transport blockade of Ukraine by Moscow forced Kyiv to search for new areas of trade with its partners that would exclude the need to travel through Russian territory.

At that time, representatives of Ukraine pinned significant hopes on Iran. Several sanctions were lifted after Iran, together with a group of states, entered the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding its nuclear program. Transport, energy and agriculture have become the most dynamically developing areas of cooperation between the states.

With the participation of Ukrainian and Iranian transport companies, the development of some promising international transport corridors (MTCs) has begun. For example, the South-West corridor created by India, Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine and Poland can be cited. This project is a direct competitor to the North-South MTK passing through Russia and assumes delivering up to 72 million tons of cargo to Europe.[1]

At the same time, the Ukrainian side took measures to become a member of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TMTM), which involves the development of trade and economic ties between China and the European Union countries by transit through the territory of such Caspian states as Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, bypassing the Russian territory. Ukrainian officials have begun work on the cooperation of three railways: Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine – to develop a railway route from China to Europe through the Caspian Sea and Ukraine.[2]

In this regard, the Ukrainian railway company Ukrzaliznytsia and LLC TIS-Container Terminal joined the TMTM participants at that time. Kyiv has repeatedly become the host for meetings of participants of such a coordinating structure as the Association of Legal Entities “International Association “Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TMTM)”, which are working on the development of this transport route. The last meetings in Kyiv were held on August 4-5, 2021.[3]

The Ukrainian side also pinned specific hopes on cooperation with Turkmenistan, whose leadership in recent years has been actively working on the development of transit and transport infrastructure designed to deliver goods to both Central and South Asian countries, primarily to Afghanistan. On February 23rd, 2021, this issue was discussed at a videoconference between representatives of the Ministry of Finance and Economy of Turkmenistan and the Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Agriculture of Ukraine.[4]

However, the events of February-March 2022 negate all Kyiv’s efforts to integrate into the scheme of transport and logistics routes on the Caspian Sea in the foreseeable future.

Russian future relations with Caspian countries

Another important issue in the context of the escalated Russian-Ukrainian conflict is the prospects for developing relations between Russia and its partners in the Caspian region.

The extensive economic sanctions imposed on Russia will deepen relations between Moscow and Tehran in the Caspian Sea. In his recent statement, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Seyed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, noted that in the events taking place in Ukraine, Iran, of course, stands for ending the war, while he called the policy of the United States and Western states the root of the crisis in the country. Thus, he indirectly expressed understanding and support for Moscow’s motives to conduct a special military operation in Ukraine. “The United States has brought Ukraine to its current state,” Seyed Ali Khamenei stressed.[5]

In the context of Iranian President Seyed Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to Moscow at the end of January, it should be expected that Russia and Iran will significantly increase trade soon. This opportunity will allow the Caspian neighbours to solve the task of significantly increasing bilateral trade, which so far amounts to a relatively insignificant amount of $ 3-4 billion per year, which does not correspond to the potential of the two states.

As for Russia’s immediate neighbours in the region, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, further cooperation should also be expected here. Moscow’s recognition of the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics did not become an obstacle for the head of Azerbaijan to sign a Declaration on allied cooperation with Russia. Under the document, the parties agreed to significantly increase cooperation in trade, economic, cultural and humanitarian spheres and security issues.[6]

Even though Kazakhstan has taken a neutral position in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the country’s authorities make it clear by their actions that they will not refuse further to deepen cooperation with Moscow in the Caspian Sea. The priority area in the current realities is likely to be joint development by the two countries’ companies of several deposits at the bottom of the Caspian Sea and cooperation in processing Caspian oil and gas resources.[7]

Conclusion

Summing up the above, we can draw the following conclusions. Firstly, the armed conflict in Ukraine draws a line under Kyiv’s efforts to gain a foothold in the Caspian Sea as a trading partner of the countries of the region. Secondly, the events in Ukraine are likely to contribute to a significant deepening of Russian-Iranian cooperation, both in the Caspian region and in other areas. Thirdly, Russia’s traditional partners in the region – Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan – can benefit from the increased attention of the sanctioned large Russian business, which will be interested in replacing the lost revenue by launching new large economic projects with the Caspian countries.

Thus, Russia will retain favourable prospects for maintaining and strengthening its geopolitical positions in the Caspian region.

Sources

[1] Ukraina raschityvaet poluchit’ dostup na Kaspij cherez Iran (Ukraine expects to gain access to the Caspian Sea through Iran) (n.d.) Kaspijskij Vestnik. Link: http://casp-geo.ru/ukraina-namerevaetsya-popast-na-kasp/

[2] Ukraina, Gruzija i Azerbajdzhan zapustjat zheleznodorozhnyj marshrut iz Kitaja v Evropu (Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan will launch a railway route from China to Europe) (2016) Kaspijskij Vestnik. Link: http://casp-geo.ru/ukraina-gruziya-i-azerbajdzhan-zapustyat-zheleznodorozhnyj-marshrut-iz-kitaya-v-evropu/

[3] Vyezdnye zasedaniya Rabochej gruppy Mezhdunarodnoj associacii “TMTM” sostoyalis’ v gorode Kiev (Visiting meetings of the Working Group of the International Association “TMTM” were held in Kiev) (2021), Middle Corridor. Link: https://middlecorridor.com/ru/press-tsentr/novosti/142-vyezdnye-zasedaniya-rabochej-gruppy-mezhdunarodnoj-assotsiatsii-tmtm-sostoyalis-v-gorode-kiev

[4] Logisticheskij centr v Turkmenbashi demonstriruet vozmozhnosti (The logistics center in Turkmenbashi demonstrates the possibilities) (2021) Turkmenistan segodnya. Link: https://tdh.gov.tm/ru/post/26129/logisticheskij-centr-v-turkmenbashi-demonstriruet-vozmozhnosti

[5] Ayatolla Xamenei: my vystupaem za prekrashhenie vojny v Ukraine (Ayatollah Khamenei: we are in favor of ending the war in Ukraine) (2022) Vasti Press. Link https://vastipress.ir/ru/news/2332

[6] Declaration on Allied Cooperation between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Azerbaijan (2022)  Administraciya Prezidenta Rossii. Link: http://www.kremlin.ru/supplement/5777

[7] Glava kompanii LUKOJL rasskazal «Kommersantu» o planax kompanii na Kaspii (The head of LUKOIL told Kommersant about the company’s plans in the Caspian Sea) (2021) Kaspijskij Vestnik. Link: http://casp-geo.ru/glava-kompanii-lukojl-rasskazal-kommersantu-o-planah-kompanii-na-kaspii/