By Paul Goble
“When empires collapse, their armed forces are divided among the newly formed states,” Russian military analyst Andrey Maksimov says, pointing to the division of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet between Russia and Ukraine and that of the Caspian flotilla between Russia and Azerbaijan (versia.ru/v-1992-godu-kaspijskaya-flotiliya-byla-razdelena-mezhdu-rossiej-i-azerbajdzhanom).
The division of the Black Sea fleet has received a great deal of attention because of the continuing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, he continues; but that of the Caspian flotilla has been relatively neglected even though the Russian portion of it has become more important in recent years and the Azerbaijani part the foundation of that country’s navy.
The Russian portion of the flotilla has attracted attention for two reasons, Moscow’s launching from it of cruise missiles against Syria and its shifting via Russian canals of ships from it to the Sea of Azov to pressure Ukraine (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2018/04/shifting-caspian-flotilla-from.html).
And the Azerbaijani portion of the flotilla expanded by Baku since the 1990s is gaining more attention because its commanders have committed themselves to defend Azerbaijani oil and gas facilities and pipelines in the Caspian against attack by terrorists or other states. (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2021/02/azerbaijani-navy-prepares-to-defend.html).
In the last decades of Soviet power, Maksimov says, the Caspian flotilla was more a training center than an active military force because Moscow did not face threats from that direction from Iran and controlled all the rest of the surrounding coast. But in 1991, with the disintegration of the USSR that changed.
Up to 1991, the flotilla had its main base in Baku and other smaller facilities in Makhachkala, Astrakhan, Bautino, and Krasnovodsk. Even before the USSR fell apart, Soviet commanders began shifting ships and personnel from Baku and Azerbaijan to Astrakhan. (North Caucasus ports were apparently judged too risky.)
Even before the USSR disintegrated formally, Baku took steps to create its own armed forces given its conflict with Armenia over Qarabagh; and the Azerbaijani government insisted that all forces on its territory belong to Baku. That prompted Moscow to withdraw even more ships and personnel from Azerbaijani bases.
Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan did not make claims at that time and thus did not present a threat, but clearly because Azerbaijan did, “the future of Russia’s Caspian flotilla was under threat,” the military analyst says, especially as moving the flotilla’s headquarters and ships to Astrakhan was not an entirely happy one given problems with the latter port.
But after Russian naval commanders visited Baku, an agreement was reached under which 75 percent of the ships and support property would pass to the Russian Federation, and 25 percent to Azerbaijan, a development that maintained Russian dominance but opened the way to the creation of an Azerbaijani navy.
Baku received 15 naval vessels, other support ships and land-based facilities. Among the ships it received were a group of midget submarines capable of inflicting damage on any aggressor. And it acquired some experienced officers as well: sailors and officers from the Soviet era who were natives of Azerbaijan changed their citizenship.
Russia’s Caspian flotilla was left with 18 naval vessels and 62 support ships, but it lost its main base in Baku and two other facilities in Azerbaijan. But only in 2018 did Moscow correct its mistake of shifting the main base to Astrakhan and decide to make Kaspiisk in Daghestan that facility.
(For background on Russia’s Caspian Flotilla, see this author’s articles in Jamestown’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, including jamestown.org/program/caspian-flotilla-highlights-growing-international-role-of-russias-coastal-navy/, jamestown.org/program/new-russian-naval-base-in-dagestan-assumes-more-menacing-dimension/, jamestown.org/program/moscow-shifts-flotilla-from-caspian-to-azov-sea-giving-it-a-new-offensive-capability/ and jamestown.org/program/russias-caspian-flotilla-dominant-at-sea-gains-new-shore-landing-capability/.)