Friday, October 9, 2015

Another Sea, Another Region of Conflict: The Caspian

This map (Enclyclopedia Britannica) shows the countries around the Caspian Sea, a massive contemporary contested region on the world stage.  And Russia the Bear hanging over all of it.  It's an eyeopener.  I didn't realize that Russian interests in this region are historic and significant; also Persia, now Iran, and the former Soviet Socialist Republics of Kazakhstan Turkmenstan, and Azerbajan.  The region between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea also looks strategic, with its potential for transportation routes, pipelines and expanding markets. An awesome perspective. 

Seeing the geography of the Caspian Sea is mindboggling.  So is its ancient, historical, economic and geopolitical significance. It's not that far from the Black Sea, with Turkey looming large, and Syria and Iraq right there on the border. Those rugged mountains, which we hear a lot about in today's news, are the main barrier.
Where is the Caspian Sea?  The Russians are launching cruise missiles on "terrorists" sites in Syria from four of their ships in the Caspian Sea. The missile attacks support ground troops that are also being supported by Russian air power. These missiles travel 1,000 miles over Iran and Iraq to hit their targets in Syria. Incredible.  1,000 miles!  Look at the map (below left)!
Graphic look at those missiles from the Caspian. 
After their initial amazing success, about which Putin gloated, the Caspian Sea continues to be the staging ground for Russian warships firing missiles at anti-Assad forces in Syria.   But the latest round of missiles missed their mark, landing somewhere in northern Iran. Oops. So is northern Iran close to the Caspian Sea?  And why is the Caspian Sea, and not the Black Sea, say, a staging ground for launching cruise missiles?

My curiosity led to a little online research. Here are some things I learned.
* Do you know that the Caspian Sea (in Russian Kaspiyskoye More, in Persian Darya-ye Khezer) is the largest landlocked salt lake or salt sea in the world, lying to the east of the Caucasus mountains and to the west of the vast steppes of Central Asia?  It's where Southeastern Europe connects to Asia.

* Do you know the sea is bordered in the northeast by Kazakhstan, in the southeast by Turkmenistan, in the south by Iran, in the southwest by Azerbaijan, and in the northwest by Russia?  A real eyeopener this one.

* Do you know that it's name derives from the ancient Kaspi peoples who lived in the Transcaucasis to the west, plus from other tribes like Khazarsk, Khvalynsk,and Girkansk who also lived there at different times? The region goes back at least 11 million years to some of the earliest human beings on earth.  My brother Loren placed the location of Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear in this region and loved talking about its ancient and prehistoric significance. I wish Loren were here now.

* Do you know the Caspian is rich in oil and gas reserves, like the Arctic, and has similar issues about borders, access and ownership?  Although not as huge an area, the Caspian sea region is geographically more strategic than ever.  
* Do you know that 90% of the world's sturgeons, which are prehistoric fish, live in the Caspian, and the eggs, or roe, are the source of the world's best caviar, like Beluga? This makes the Caspian essential to the Russian economy, an enormous industry.  

What an incredible geopolitical region!  Today the Caspian sea and the entire region are front-page news, especially with the Syrian war, changing socio-economic dynamics, and terrorists uprisings.  But its status and future are up for grabs.  It's truly mindboggling to study these maps and realize the area's strategic economic and political importance.

Just looking at the maps, I have a better understanding of why there is enormous geopolitical jockeying taking place among the five Caspian-bordering countries. It's more pronounced now in light of Middle East instability and the subsequent recasting of many Western countries' energy policies. What are the water boundaries? Who has control over which areas and which oil and gas reserves? Where should new pipelines be built or old ones expanded? Complicating matters is the US military deployment in the Central Asian region and now Russia's direct and substantial armed intervention in the Syria conflict on behalf of Assad.

Reading about the Caspian Sea is like reading about the Arctic Circle in many ways.  Its geography, oil and gas reserves, contested political and water borders, as well as its contemporary importance in major conflicts in the Middle East and in the Baltics, encompass the major global conflicts of the 21st century going into the 22nd century.  What will become of the Caspian region?
This World Atlas map shows the major cities
around the Caspian Sea. Small islands hug the coastline around the sea,
along with the oil and gas resources that are the source of major border issues. 

130 rivers flow into the Caspian Sea, the largest being the Volga
River, the next largest the Ural River, starting way up in
Russia's Ural mountains. What long journeys these river make.
These are all important transport routes,
and there are lots of plans, contested, for canals and pipelines.   
                           I would never have guessed where this beautiful scene is.
I might have guessed the Costa Rican rain forest.
It's Iran's northern Caspian Hyrcamian mixed forests, maintained by moisture
captured by the Caspian Sea in the Alborz mountain range of Gilan, Iran! Wow!
wikimedia image and caption

From the Encyclopedia Britannica: "Scientific studies have shown that until geologically quite recent times, approximately 11 million years ago, the Caspian was linked, via the Sea of Azov, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea, to the world ocean. The Caspian is of exceptional scientific interest, because its history—particularly former fluctuations in both area and depth—offers clues to the complex geologic and climatic evolution of the region. Human-made changes, notably those resulting from the construction of dams, reservoirs, and canals on the immense Volga River system (which drains into the Caspian from the north), have affected the contemporary hydrologic balance. Caspian shipping and fisheries play an important role in the region’s economy, as does the production of petroleum and natural gas in the Caspian basin. The sea’s splendid sandy beaches also serve as health and recreation resorts."

Some interesting articles:, "Caviar and the Caspian Sea."
I would never have guessed where this beautiful scene is.
I might have guessed the Costa Rican rain forest.
It's Iran's northern Caspian Hyrcamian mixed forests, maintained by moisture
captured by the Caspian Sea in the Alborz mountain range of Gilan, Iran! Wow!
wikimedia image and caption
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