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. Analysis: Kazakhstan rules oceans

The Kazakh navy is going to have to constrain its blue-water activities to the Caspian, however. The Caspian's sole egress is via the 37-mile Volga-Don Canal.
by John C.K. Daly
Washington (UPI) Feb 19, 2008
Awash in oil revenues, the Kazakh government is now to spend some of its lucre on a pressing defense need that its military planners have overlooked since independence in 1991 -- a navy.

In a military development largely unnoticed in the West, Kazakh Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov said last October, "This is a very serious issue. We have a blueprint for developing the navy. We have set up a directorate for naval forces, which will function within the Defense Ministry from 1 January next year."

In March 1992 the former Soviet Union's minuscule Caspian navy was divided up among Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. In late 1993 Kazakhstan received about 25 percent. Planning for the Kazakh navy actually began in 1994. After a year and a half of consultations, in January 1996, Russia and Kazakhstan signed military cooperation agreements, which included Russian assistance in developing a Kazakh maritime force.

Certainly, the hardy Kazakh sailors have something to defend, as some analysts believe the Caspian could hold "possible reserves" of up to 250 billion barrels of oil, along with potential reserves of more than 200 billion barrels. With oil hovering at nearly $100 a barrel, the value of Caspian energy deposits stands at more than $4 trillion; estimates of the region's natural gas deposits stand at 325 trillion cubic feet.

The Kazakh navy is going to have to constrain its blue-water activities to the Caspian, however. The Caspian's sole egress is via the 37-mile Volga-Don Canal. The channel is the least known of the world's strategic waterways, but it provides a maritime link between the Volga, which empties into the Caspian, and the Don River, which disgorges into the Sea of Azov, a northeast corollary of the Black Sea, which in turn provides access via the Turkish Straits to the Mediterranean and from there the "world ocean." Unfortunately for Kazakh admirals, the Volga-Don Canal can only handle ships of up to 5,000 tons, and in some places is less than 12 feet deep, which somewhat limits the size of the nation's battle fleet. An alternative might appear in the future, however, as in June 2007 Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev proposed an alternative Eurasia Canal project across Russia's North Caucasus, which would shorten shipping routes by nearly 600 miles.

The mission of Kazakhstan's new maritime force will be similar to those of Russia's and Iran's -- to contradict smuggling and guard against terrorism. The terrorism mission has been uppermost on Kazakh officials' minds; in February 2003 Kazakh First Deputy Foreign Minister Kairat Abuseitov told reporters Kazakhstan needed a navy that "could fight against new threats, primarily terrorism. Nobody is insured against the possibility that the Caspian could become, in future, an arena of terrorist acts, a place of drug transit, illegal arms trade and even illegal migration."

It may also be called upon to defend Kazakh claims to its self-proclaimed Caspian waters, as the sea's maritime boundaries have yet to be definitively resolved by Kazakhstan, Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkmenistan. Differing perceptions in what defines Caspian national waters has already led to armed confrontation. On July 23, 2001, an Iranian military aircraft, supported by a warship, forced two Azerbaijani vessels contracted by consortium operator BP to quit surveying at the Alov-Araz-Sharg field, a site that Azerbaijan claimed was well within its national sector, but disputed by Iran, which claims the Caspian's legal status must be based on the Iranian-Soviet treaties of 1921 and 1940.

Perhaps inevitably, Kazakhstan has received outside offers of assistance in developing its maritime muscle. Since 1997 it has received 10 ships from the United States and Germany, and last November Robert Simmons, the NATO secretary-general's special representative for Central Asia and the Caucasus, offered the alliance's assistance, telling reporters, "During my last visit to Kazakhstan, I held talks with Kazakh Defense Minister (Daniyal Akhmetov) on this and several other issues. I visited Aktau, where Kazakhstan intends to set up its fleet, and we are ready to help you create this fleet."

The Kazakh government is carefully considering its options. Akhmetov said, "Today, we work with Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish and French companies. The ministry will soon make a final decision on the acquisition and the production of equipment. Russia has made very good proposals, including on a vessel that is unrivaled in the world. France and Turkey have made good proposals as well. The ministry now has to choose."

Despite the blandishments of Moscow, NATO and Washington, pragmatism seems to be guiding Kazakhstan's maritime choices at the moment, and Astana as yet seems to have no plans to acquire carriers or ballistic submarines. Given Kazakhstan's rising oil revenues, though, probably nothing is off the table.

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Indian company in Kuwait refineries upgrade
Kuwait City (AFP) Feb 19, 2008
India's Larsen and Toubro on Tuesday signed a contract worth 431 million dollars as part of an upgrade of two of Kuwait's three refineries for environment-friendly products, an executive said.

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