Ilham Aliyev, president of the Republic of Azerbaijan, has accused Russia of having used airspace over the Caspian Sea to supply Armenia with arms and military equipment during the 44-day war between the two countries over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020. Despite his own government’s protestations, he said, other Caspian Sea littoral states had known and allowed Moscow to do so.
Aliyev made the claim on Friday, April 29 at a conference in Baku entitled “South Caucasus: Development and Cooperation”. He said: “We sent letters to all Caspian littoral states [asking them] not to allow Russian cargo planes carrying weapons to Armenia. We sent them to Kazakhstan, to Turkmenistan, and to Iran. But unfortunately, the planes did use these counties’ territory reach Armenia.”
Not the First Time
In August 2018, the five Caspian Sea littoral states — Russia, Iran, the Republic of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan — signed a convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea. It was agreed that the territory would not be used for military purposes. So far, Russia is alleged to have breached the agreement at least three times.
In October 2015, the Russian government confirmed it had fired 26 sea-based cruise missiles on 11 Islamic State targets in Syria from warships in the Caspian Sea. The warships had been sent to an area close to Iranian waters, as the missiles had to fly around 1,500 kilometers over Iran and Iraq to reach their targets.
Then, we now hear from President Aliyev, Russia used airspace over the Caspian Sea to send armaments to Armenia. And finally in March 2022, Russian fighters over the Caspian Sea launched Kalibr cruise missiles at targets in eastern Ukraine. Russia claimed it was targeting Ukrainian military infrastructure, but no military target was affected by these strikes. Instead, five civilians were killed.
The 2018 convention is also not the only Caspian Sea-related mutual accord the Russian state has broken. Indeed it has broken one of its own laws. November 2010, the presidents of Russia, the Republic of Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan signed an “Agreement on Security Cooperation in the Caspian Sea” during the Third Caspian Summit in Baku. The agreement was then ratified by their legislatures and became law.
The agreement states that littoral states may act exclusively to maintain security in the Caspian Sea. They can cooperate within the framework of the agreement to fight “terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, human trafficking and illegal migration, trafficking in weapons of any kind, ammunition, explosives and poisonous substances, military equipment; illicit traffic in narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances and their precursors; the laundering of proceeds of crime; illegal extraction of bio-resources (poaching)”. The agreement also provides for cooperation in maritime security, including the fight against piracy.
Launching cruise missiles against residential areas from the Caspian Sea violates not only the international laws governing warfare, but cannot be seen as an act maintaining security or fighting terrorism in the Caspian Sea either. Flying military equipment to Armenia for a war with Azerbaijan, a Caspian Sea littoral state, was a clear violation of the Baku agreement.
Awkward Silence From Tehran
As of now, not only has the Islamic Republic not officially responded to Russian military acts in the Caspian Sea, but it remained silent after Azerbaijani President Aliyev explicitly asked for a response. One response not intended for the public, however, has come to light.
In a leaked audio file that made headlines last year, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif criticized Russia, saying the Kremlin could have launched intercontinental missiles towards Syria from the Mediterranean Sea but had chosen to launch from the Caspian Sea so as to “entangle” Iran.