Is Russia Training Kazakhstan's Military To Protect American Oil From Iranian Attack?
That's the provocative conclusion reached by the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, which seems to have gotten a hold of a document discussing the scenario of the Tsentr-2011 military exercises between Russia and several Central Asian countries that wrapped up today. The newspaper printed a map, purportedly related to the exercise, which envisages a joint Russian-Kazakhstan force in the Caspian Sea repelling an attack from the south -- from the southeast, "up to 70 F-4s and F-5s" and from the southwest, "up to 30 F-4s, F-5s and Su-25s." Well, a quick look around the militaries of the southern part of the Caspian Sea that have those sorts of aircraft brings one to only one conclusion: it's Iran. (You can see scans of the documents, in Russian, here.)
The newspaper quotes an unnamed Kazakhstan military official saying that:
In the scenario of the exercise, the political leadership of Iran's decides to carry out air strikes against the oil fields of the Mangistau region of Kazakhstan which are being developed by American corporations (especially Exxon-Mobil).
The paper does note, however, that the scenario "may not match the real concerns and intentions of Russian strategy." Which is probably an understatement.
It's true, however, that the unstated concern behind much of the recent Caspian naval buildups by Russia and the other post-Soviet littoral states is Iran. In a report on Kazakhstan television (via BBC Monitoring), the head of Kazakhstan's Navy noted the fact that the borders of the Caspian Sea have yet to be delimited:
Today, regrettably, the failure to define the Caspian Sea's status might lead to various conflict situations. This does not mean that disputes will take place between states but over terror threats. In my opinion, exactly in such a situation, we will be able to carry out the task of preserving the territorial integrity of the states only through joint action.
Failure to delimit the Caspian could result in terror threats, if there is a lack of policing because the various sides can't agree on who should police what part of the sea. However, it could also result in a conflict over what state controls what lucrative oil or gas field. As I noted last year, in a report on Kazakhstan's naval plans:
The firepower of the ships that Kazakhstan are considering, while modest by world naval standards, are still much greater than would be required to thwart terror attacks. “You don't need a corvette to protect an oil rig,” said one naval company official trying to do business with Kazakhstan, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan have good relations. But it is Iran that everyone is worried about,” the official said.
Tehran has not been afraid to use its navy in an attempt to defend its interests and intimidate its neighbors. In 2001, for example, an Iranian naval ship notoriously confronted a BP Amoco oil research vessel that Iran claimed had strayed out of Azerbaijan's territorial waters. And this year, Iran increased its naval firepower in the Caspian by introducing the largest ship it maintains in the sea, a Jamaran-class destroyer.
Anyway, Moskovsky Komsomolts's headline, "Russia is Ready to Fight for American Oil," is misleading (as is this post's) -- it's not American oil. It's Kazakhstan's oil, being developed with the help of U.S. companies. And Russia would prefer to be providing security in the Caspian, rather than having the U.S. do it, even if the companies working there happen to be American. But the Iran threat appears to be the one thing everyone agrees on.
More on the CSTO exercises coming later this week.
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.
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