Staunton, April 27 – One of the dangers that events like Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and continuing subversion of Ukraine poses is that these events inevitably mean that many observers and governments do not attend to other moves the Russian government is making, moves that one could almost describe as taking place under the cover of Ukraine.
In the last week alone, there have been several which would have been the focus of attention at almost any other time: Russia’s military moves in the Arctic, its expansive interpretation of its rights in the Sea of Okhotsk, and discussions in the Moscow media about expanded Russian defense spending and the development of next generation weaponry.
But one Russian move that should be attracting more attention because of its potential near and long-term consequences was the announcement that Russia’s naval flotilla in the Caspian Sea was beginning an “unplanned test of its military readiness” via an exercise in that body of water (kommersant.ru/doc/2458714vz.ru/news/2014/4/23/683497.html).
According to the Russian defense ministry, the seven-day exercise will involve some ten ships and more than 400 naval personnel and will involve the dispatch of units 350 miles down the Volga-Caspian canal into the Caspian Sea and then the holding of drills there.
On the one hand, this is simply the latest in a string of military exercises Moscow has organized around its borders since the beginning of last year. But on the other, the Caspian maneuvers appear designed to send a message that the Russian fleet is the most powerful force there.
The addresses of that message in the first instance appear to be Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan who have been discussing the construction of a trans-Caspian pipeline and of Western companies and countries who have been supporting such pipelines as a means of sending oil and gas westward bypassing Russia.
But it is also clearly designed to send a message as well to the other littoral states – Iran and Kazakhstan– that there can be no agreement on the delimitation of the sea and its oil and gas-rich seabed except on Russian terms, thus blocking any final settlement, sparking new tensions, and likely encouraging some littoral states to expand their own naval capacities.