By Paul Goble
Analysts have offered a variety of reasons for the breakthrough on the Caspian – increased Russian concerns about security and a desire to keep US forces out of that region, Iranian interests in having a backdoor if Middle East deteriorates, and a fall in gas prices which has made Moscow less worried about the impact of a Trans-Caspian pipeline.
But Versiya analyst Ruslan Gorevoy suggests there is another and perhaps more compelling reason: “Clarity on the Caspian,” he argues today, “has given Russia the chance to control the Sea of Azov,” a critical new theater in Russia’s war against Ukraine (versia.ru/radi-chego-rossiya-soglasilas-na-nevygodnyj-razdel-neftenosnogo-ozera).
According to the Moscow commentator, the littoral states were unable to agree to a convention on the Caspian because they disagreed as to whether it was a sea or an inland body of water. Now, they have decided that “the Caspian is ‘an intra-continental body of water’ of five countries. This is a special legal status, neither a sea nor a lake.”
Immediately, Gorevoy says, that precludes the opening of any American or Turkish bases on its shores, while allow Russia and the other littoral states freedom of action there. But “however paradoxical this may sound,” the Caspian accord also “closes the question about the status of the Sea of Azov.”
That is because there is “a most direct” connection between the Caspian and the Sea of Azov, the commentator continues. “The Sea of Azov was considered an internal body of water of the USSR and its status was thus beyond the reach of international treaties.”
After the USSR disintegrated, the sea was not subject to demarcation by the two littoral states, Russia and Ukraine. Instead, “the sea remained internal for the two.” Then, the Maidan occurred in Kyiv, Crimea was annexed by Russia, and the Crimean Bridge was built across the Kerch Straits.
As a result, the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk lost a significant part of their earnings.” Ukraine reacted by seizing Crimean shipping vessels, and then “Russian naval vessels began to play on the nerves of Ukrainian ship owners.” All that has led Kyiv to look for a way out.
Its view is that “now that the Volga-Don canal allows ships to go from the Caspian to the Sea of Azov and back, that body of water cannot be considered internal.” And that means, Ukrainian analysts say, that it is entirely reasonable that NATO ships should enter the sea to ensure the free passage of ships to and from Ukrainian ports.
“As long as the status of the Caspian remained undefined, American and European destroyers could completely legally go from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov,” Gorevoy continues.
But now that the Caspian littoral states have signed the accord, they cannot do so because the Caspian isn’t an international body of water subject to the rules of the Law of the Sea. Instead, it too is an internal body of water. “For Moscow, this is an unqualified plus,” one more way that the Caspian accord will transform geopolitics in Russia’s south.