Amid Intensifying Russian Complaints Kazakhstan Boycotts NATO Exercises in Georgia

Today the Kazakh Minister of Defense Danial Akhmetov announced that his country will not be taking part in the NATO exercises in Georgia planned for May 6-June 1. This was later confirmed by the head of press service of the Ministry of Defense of Kazakhstan, Serik Shalov. Astana is weary of needlessly antagonizing Moscow and the decision to withdraw from NATO exercises at the last moment will be undoubtedly appreciated by the Kremlin. Set to assume the prestigious chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010, Kazakhstan is striving to strike a delicate balance between Russia and the West. In this context, participation in routine low-scale exercises under the NATO aegis against the backdrop of escalating warnings from Moscow in Astana’s cost/benefit analysis was probably seen as counterproductive to Kazakhstan’s national interests. Yet, Kazakhstan’s change of mood is in stark contrast with its fellow CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) member, Armenia. Thus far, Russia’s lone erstwhile ally in Transcaucasus has made no indication that it will pull out of the NATO exercises in Georgia. Moreover, the Armenian Ministry of Defense spokesman Seiran Shakhsuvarian stated that Armenia “will definitely take part” in the NATO exercises in Georgia.

The NATO command-and-staff two-part exercises codenamed Cooperative Longbow-2009/Cooperative Lancer-2009 were planned in spring of last year well before the Russia-Georgia war. Aimed mainly at improving the interoperability between the NATO and partner countries as part of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, these exercises will involve 1,300 servicemen from 19 countries (Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Canada, Croatia, Macedonia, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Moldova, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and the United States) without light or heavy weaponry. The exercises will take place in Tbilisi and at the Vaziani military base, 20 km east of Tbilisi.

Since the official NATO announcement on April 15, 2009, the Russian government has been increasingly voicing its objections to the planned exercises in Georgia. The public statements mirrored the chain of command with the opening salvo by the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko, who denounced the NATO exercises as contributing to “regional destabilization.” Similar “concern” for regional stability was echoed later in the statement made by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Russia’s eccentric and firebrand envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin called the NATO exercises in Georgia “insanity.” On Friday, April 17, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev entered the fray when he described NATO’s decision to hold military exercises in Georgia as “dangerous” and alluded to possible consequences for NATO-Russia relations. Today Rogozin specified what those consequences are when he mentioned that Russia will not take part in the meeting of the commanders of the general staffs of Russia and NATO, which was originally planned for May 7.

The Kremlin’s ire is understandable because it interprets the conduct of NATO exercises as the demonstration of Western support to Mikheil Saakashvili’s government, which has been besieged by the opposition protests since April 9. Thus, despite the seemingly innocuous nature of the NATO exercises, which the Secretary of the Council of Defense Ministers of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Lieutenant General Alexander Sinaisky dismissed as NATO’s “political demarche,” their timing appears to come into direct conflict with the Kremlin’s hopes for collapse of Saakashvili’s regime in Georgia amid ebbing and flowing political instability fomented by the fractious and impotent opposition.