Skip to content


Occupying the Caspian Sea

“The Caspian Sea, the largest inland body of water in the world, lies at the center of a turmoil of shifting global powers. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, three new states—Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan—have been created on the shores of the Caspian and asserted their claims to territorial waters that were once divided, by a settled agreement, between Russia and Iran”

By Maya Przybylski

What all five countries are hoping for is secure access to a largely untapped reservoir of oil beneath the seabed. Nor are they the only interested parties; the United States, the European Union, multinational oil companies, international financial institutions, and nationalist political movements are also eager to exploit the opportunities the Caspian offers.

The world’s first offshore oil platform was built in the Caspian in 1947, but by the 1960s the Soviet regime had abandoned extraction in the region, focusing instead on newer, more easily exploited oil fields. After the Soviet collapse in 1991 the sea abruptly became available to outsiders again, and a diverse collection of major and minor actors began to stake their claims.

Before any of the potential riches of the Caspian’s seabed can be realized, however, legal rights to the sea and the oil beneath it have to be resolved and redivided among the new claimants. The prize under dispute is not a simple territorial surface but a three-dimensional, four-level system: the air space over the sea, the water itself, the sea floor, and the subfloor geology with its sought-after reserves of trapped petroleum. To further complicate matters, the Caspian does not fall neatly into any one category recognized by maritime law: it is inland and isolated from the world’s ocean systems, like a lake, but its water is salty (though less saline than a full-fledged sea). Each of the five parties is pressing the interpretation that favors its own interests, creating zones of contested territory at the intersections of each nation’s waters.

Whatever the outcome of these disputes, one thing is certain —the resource will be exploited. Rigs will be installed, pipelines will flow, and the oil will be sold. Yet even as this process moves inevitably forward, it is also becoming clear that the petroleum economy and its associated operations will have a limited lifespan. Beyond that moment when the last barrel of oil leaves the seabed, the Caspian will remain. Is it possible to plan for this moment by extending the momentum generated by the oil operations into the post-oil phase of the sea, rather than passively anticipating a post-industrial wasteland?

Other inhabitants of the sea have already begun to make use of the abandoned Soviet infrastructure, according to their own purposes. Water birds are one such population. The western coast of the Caspian is a major flyway, supporting the migration of more than 20 million water birds each year. Typically these birds stay close to the shore, within fifteen kilometers of a landing. As development has destroyed their habitat along the coast, many birds have claimed abandoned oil rigs as resting points along their routes.

The oil rigs have also created new territory for Caspian fish. The sea is home to a variety of fish species, including sturgeon, from which more than 90 percent of the world’s caviar is harvested. As inland spawning grounds and coastal habitat are degraded by development and poaching, the offshore oil installations have become an important alternative sanctuary. Acting as artificial reefs, the structures provide surfaces that support the growth of plant life, which in turn supplies food for the fish. Taking our cue from the adaptations of these existing sea-dwellers, we can and should develop a strategy for post-oil reactivation of the Caspian, a Hundred (or Thousand) Year Plan that identifies potential new resources and establishes activities that will form the basis for the ongoing occupation of the sea.

More features listed in the sidebar