When it comes to the strategic level of oil reserves under the Caspian Sea, the Kremlin is not above practicing good old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy. During President Putin's 9-10 January 20001 visit to Azerbaijan, the Caspian Flotilla exercised with live ammunition in the central parts of the Caspian Sea and then subtly laid anchor off of Baku.
Observers considered this first post-Soviet show of gunboat diplomacy was a most unusual thing to do in a closed sea like the Caspian. Since the delimitation into national sectors was far from complete, the Russian exercise in "central parts" seemed suggested that Moscow could at any time order its fleet into waters that other Caspian countries waters' consider their own.
With Russian fleets apparently falling apart, the Caspian Flotilla is Russia's sole naval force to see a net growth of its strength. In 1991, the following ships were assigned: 4 Riga class frigates, 1 light frigate, 5 patrol combatants, 22 lesser patrol craft, 11 minesweepers, 13 "Polnocny" class LSM and "several" auxiliary ships.
After the official division of the Soviet Caspian Flotilla in 1992 between Moscow and Baku, Russia received 75 percent of surface ships with personnel but lost 18 warships and 62 support vessels. In the decade since the Soviet Union collapsed, the Caspian sailors' relocated from Baku to Astrakhan, finished construction of their new base and, most importantly, preserved the ships and combat equipment they had been assigned. Air cushion ships, trawlers, patrol ships, minesweepers and radar picket ships, as well as missile and artillery cutters drawn from other fleets to the Caspian, so that the total number of combat ships increased 2.5-fold in the last few years.
The flotilla now musters 20,000 sailors, including a brigade of Naval Infantry. LTC Vyacheslav Andrianov's Seperate Guards Battalion having received its baptism in combat in Chechnya.
In comparison, Kazakhstan has six American and four German -built ships while Azerbaijan has 34 new Turkish-built high-speed patrol cutters. Turkmenistan recently bought 20 fast boats from the Ukraine (half of them were 40-ton boats armed with heavy machine guns).
The Iranian Navy is actually the strongest in the Caspian Sea, after the Russian Flotilla. Iran's Caspian grouping of 88 ships and cutters can be reinforced by 45 various-sized ships, 4 air-cushion landing ships, and 2 super-small submarines.
For more background information on the Caspian Flotilla online, see
http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/russia/agency/mf-caspian.htm - Adam Geibel