When the five Caspian littoral states signed a maritime delimitation pact in August 2018, they additionally agreed not to allow any outside power to have a military role in this landlocked sea (RITM Eurasia, August 14, 2018). But in the three years since that accord was adopted, the geopolitical situation in the region has shifted for a whole host of reasons: namely, Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia last year, the growth of the navies of the littoral states (see EDM, May 28, 2020 and June 24, 2021), burgeoning and reorienting trade among Caspian ports (see EDM, May 23, 2017 and April 6, 2021), as well as the increasing involvement of Turkey and China (see EDM, October 16, 2020; TRT, February 23, 2021). In response, Russia has taken three important steps designed to promote cooperation between itself and the four other states around the Caspian to ensure that outside powers—especially Turkey and China—continue to be excluded.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is reverting to his earlier, forlorn hopes of improving relation with Russia through a personal meeting with President Vladimir Putin. The Ukrainian president is eager to meet Putin “any time, any place”—whether bilaterally or in the framework of a “Normandy” summit (Russia, Ukraine, Germany, France). The chief of the Ukrainian Presidential Office, Andriy Yermak, is negotiating the conditions for a Zelenskyy-Putin meeting in either of those formats. This track ended badly for Zelenskyy in 2019 (see EDM, October 3, 16, 17, December 5, 2019).
The massive, Russo-Belarusian Zapad 2021 operational-strategic war games have ended. The scenario of this year’s iteration of Zapad (September 10–16) envisaged an attack on the Russo-Belarusian Union State by a hostile outside force depicted as the fictitious “Polar Republic.” The invaders were eventually defeated and pushed back. A joint force of Russian paratroopers, armor contingents of the Russian 1st Guards Tank Army and Belarusian units, supported by Russian jets and anti-aircraft missiles, participated in the Zapad 2021 exercises in western Belarus: some 2,500 Russian and 10,300 Belarusian troops plus a token contingent of 50 men from Kazakhstan (see EDM, September 9).
The final months ahead of the elections to the Russian State Duma (lower chamber of parliament) were marked by a total cleansing of the political field (see EDM, September 13). This included an aggressive crackdown on the Anti-Corruption Foundation (ACF) (RIA Novosti, June 9), entailing reprisals against everyone who supported the structures of Alexei Navalny (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, May 17), and the denouncement as “foreign agents” of the overwhelming number of opposition media outlets (BBC News—Russian service, August 20).
As new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi forms his government, Baku and Tehran are expected to enter the next uneasy and uncertain phase in their bilateral relations. In particular, issues relating to the unfinished railway segment of the North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) and the controversial hydropower projects on the Azerbaijani-Iranian border remain unresolved. On top of those, the augmenting Azerbaijani-Israeli partnership is a major factor that continues to complicate Tehran’s perspective on Azerbaijan.
The principal outcome of the Russian-Belarusian summit on September 9 was the announcement that all 28 “roadmaps”—now called “Union State Programs”—have finally been endorsed. Russian President Vladimir Putin disclosed that the agreed documents deal with the integration of Russia’s and Belarus’s currency systems (but short of issuing a single currency) as well as with the harmonization of tax collection. In addition, the parties are pursuing a common industrial policy and guaranteed equal access to government procurement. The formation of a single natural gas market is scheduled for late 2023.
The Sixth Eastern Economic Forum 2021 (EEF-2021), which convened delegations from 60 countries, took place on September 2–4, in Vladivostok, at the Far Eastern Federal University. A symbol of Russia’s “Pivot to Asia” strategy and its growing socio-economic, business, and cultural integration in the Asia-Pacific region, the EEF was inaugurated in 2015 by a special decree of Vladimir Putin (Valdaiclub.com, September 2).
On September 10, the project company Nord Stream 2 AG informed that the last weld has been finished, making the Nord Stream Two natural gas pipeline fully complete from a technical perspective (Nord-stream2.com, September 10). At the same time, speculation in the media began to circulate that Russian gas flows through this just-build infrastructure could start as early as October 1 (Deutsche Welle—Polish service, September 10). In truth, however, both strings of the pipeline still have to be legally certified and commissioned, and their owner—Nord Stream 2 AG—has to be granted a gas transmission operator status by the German state regulator. Effectively, this means that it is still far too early to speculate about when and under what conditions Nord Stream Two operations will begin.
Almost two decades ago, Japan adopted the 5+1 approach to dealing with Central Asia, a model other outside players have copied. Now, Japan is increasing its involvement in the region given the Taliban’s recent victory, which has created new diplomatic opportunities but also uncertainties for many major powers. Japan is the third-largest economy in the world and is committed to dealing with other countries primarily in terms of economic development rather than geopolitics and in terms of regions rather than simply in bilateral terms. Given these factors, Tokyo’s presence in Central Asian capitals individually and Central Asia as a region is likely to expand, making it a far larger player in the future than it has been up to now.