Kazakhstan’s defense ministry is actively preparing to host the final stage of the Collective Operational Response Force (CORF) exercise in October. On September 7 Army-General Mukhtar Altynbayev, the Chairman of Kazakhstan’s Joint Chiefs of Staff confirmed that the planning phase of the exercise in the country had already begun. Reportedly the exercise will involve 7,000 servicemen, with the presidents of Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan expected to joint President Nursultan Nazarbayev in attending the event. Since Uzbekistan has declined to participate in the exercise, based on its objections to the creation of the new CSTO force, Tashkent is expected to send observers. Simultaneously, an exercise will be held to showcase the Kazakh military on a much larger scale than the joint Steppe Eagle exercises currently underway with the U.S. and U.K.; ground forces, the air force and airborne units will participate in the large-scale military drill which will bomb ground targets at the Sary-Shagan and Otar training grounds (Khabar TV, September 7).
Ahead of those exercises, diplomacy has also intensified between Russia and Kazakhstan. The Russian President met his Kazakh counterpart in Orenburg in the southern Urals on September 11, discussing bilateral trade issues. Although Medvedev was keen to encourage Nazarbayev to rectify the "slight decline" in bilateral trade which had resulted from the economic crisis, they also considered ways of deepening the strategic partnership between both countries. Among the raft of documents signed, a new bilateral military agreement mainly related to enhancing border security. Medvedev and Nazarbayev then traveled to Aktau in western Kazakhstan, before heading to the Caspian beach resort of Kenderli for "informal talks," with their counterparts from Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan (AFP, Interfax, ITAR-TASS, September 11, 14).
While the dominant theme in this latest round of Medvedev’s foreign policy drive within the CIS was undoubtedly energy related, Nazarbayev also appeared "shoulder to shoulder" with him on a range of issues, and in particular he wanted to press for joint WTO entry along with Belarus and Russia and promote forming their tripartite customs union. In defense and security terms, Kazakhstan’s authorities are anxious to make a positive impression on their northern neighbor as a reliable partner.
Unfortunately, given the recent wave of high level of corruption sweeping through Kazakhstan’s defense ministry, which resulted in the dismissal earlier this year of senior officials including the Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov, there are grounds to question the quality of forces Kazakhstan will contribute to the CORF, and whether the country will become less dependent on Russian defense assistance. The attempt to procure Nayza, Aybat and Semser artillery systems, which ultimately undermined Akhmetov’s credibility and has now resulted in a confession from the former Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant-General Kazhimurat Mayermanov, obscured the fact that the overall aim was to enhance the capabilities of the airmobile forces. These forces are important since it is from them that the peacekeeping brigade (KAZBRIG) is drawn (EDM, June 23).
Prior to Akhmetov being sacked, he formed a commission headed by Lieutenant-General Bakhytzhan Yertayev, the Deputy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in order to investigate procurement scandals relating to the airmobile forces. The commission exposed embezzlement linked to efforts to procure Belarusian made scopes for rifles, specifically that the price "paid" was more than three times their value: it was inflated by over 2 billion tenge ($13.25 million). Inspectors noted that consequently, commanders in the airmobile forces refused to use these scopes, to avoid their soldiers damaging expensive equipment during training. Ninety percent of the scopes are now held in storage: the airmobile forces, therefore, have inadequate equipment even in terms of additions to their rifles. When the order was filled, the defense ministry discovered that no spare parts were ordered, since those carrying out the procurement work were focused on embezzling money (Vremya, August 20).
The inspectors also inadvertently discovered the woeful condition of armored personnel carriers (APC’s) within the airmobile forces. While officially claiming that these vehicles were being "modernized," the inflated expense of this program alerted inspectors to another case of corruption. In fact, while siphoning off funds from this contract, the APC’s were only refitted with tractor engines, without adjusting the brake system and the gear box, and as a result, none of the "modernized" APC’s could be used. The deal had cost the defense ministry 66.7 million tenge ($445,000). Similar activities were discovered in relation to a project to "modernize" parachutes, which were later abandoned as the price continued to spiral beyond the cost of purchasing new parachutes (Vremya, August 20).
Almost the entire command of the airmobile forces, as well as many officials within the defense ministry were implicated in this latest wave of corruption. Large numbers of staff were reprimanded, demoted or sacked. As the scandal became public, and more details emerged, the scale of the response by the government snowballed: a joint investigation group was formed including representatives from the interior ministry’s military investigations department, the agency for fighting economic and corruption crimes as well as the National Security Committee (KNB). Major-General Murat Maykeyev, the Commander of the Airmobile Forces has avoided any repercussions, while his subordinates, Colonel Artur Balobanov and Colonel Arman Kutkuzhinov were placed under investigation and later arrested, and numerous officers have been interviewed as potential witnesses. Middle men were also traced, which revealed that the director of the front company through which money was channeled was the retired interior ministry Colonel Kair Rakhimov -Maykeyev’s former deputy. Meanwhile, Maykeyev has survived the crisis, and in early August Kazakhstan’s Defense Minister Adilbek Zhaksybekov promoted him to the post of Deputy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Vremya, August 20).
The U.S. and NATO not only provide high level support in terms of training and equipment to develop Kazakhstan’s peace support capabilities, but define the airmobile forces as a priority for future cooperation and assistance. The trouble is that the bulk of the airmobile forces are Soviet legacy formations, albeit renamed and restructured, equipped with an aging and obsolete inventory. It is from these structures that the brigade will be drawn for Kazakhstan’s contribution to the CORF, which will clearly demand intensive Russian assistance. However, their continued weakness, corruption and dependency on Russian support suits Moscow, which is concerned about NATO’s growing energy security aspirations in the region and its aim to further expand its cooperation into Kazakhstan’s airmobile forces.