An unusually explicit avowal of dependence on Russia for Kazakhstan’s most sensitive security needs, made in passing during bilateral talks, indicates once more the complexities underlying Astana’s foreign policy. Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov stated that Kazakhstan intends to work “only with Russian colleagues” in modernizing integrated systems for management and control of its airspace. Although his comments appeared rather predictable, taken in the context of Kazakh officials negotiating with Western companies for several years to develop and modernize their air defense systems, this signal is an affirmation of a policy that betrays a clear reliance on Moscow. Akhmetov’s justification for exclusively working with Russia in this key security area relates to the technologies being developed at Russian research centers and that can be accessed favorably through specific security agreements between Russia and Kazakhstan. “The Collective Security Treaty links us with Russia, [in] a single airspace. Kazakhstan will receive all required equipment that is being developed in Russia,” Akhmetov explained (Itar-Tass, October 26).
Interestingly, this followed what could be interpreted as an attack on NATO by a senior Kazakh official. Criticizing the Alliance on the basis that it prefers to conduct its security relations with Central Asian countries through bilateral mechanisms, rather than on a collective footing directly with the CSTO. According to Toktasyn Buzubayev, CSTO deputy secretary-general, “Repeated proposals of the CSTO to NATO to set up cooperation, in particular in the sector of combating the drug traffic from Afghanistan, have remained unanswered. Under the pretext of the absence of a consensus on this issue among member-states, the alliance has avoided establishing cooperation between the organizations, instead focusing on promoting contacts with each individual CSTO member-state,” he said. Buzubayev believes that NATO restricts cooperation between the organizations, preferring periodic presentations of information on CSTO goals and objectives at NATO Council meetings, a pattern followed in 2004 and 2005 (Itar-Tass, October 25).
The thesis that Moscow is working hard to undermine or restrict Kazakhstan’s military and security assistance from the United States, United Kingdom, and NATO can be supported not only from a general political perspective, but also in some key specifics. Take, as an example, the work undertaken through U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) aimed at promoting greater security capabilities in the Caspian region. The heart of the Caspian Guard program is cooperation between Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, as well as convincing the military leadership of the potential of Western thinking and military methods in protecting key infrastructure. Russia’s response, within the CSTO mechanism, has been overt and pointed.
CSTO anti-terrorist exercises recently held in Kazakhstan reveal Russian security thinking and confirm Astana’s reliance on Russian military assistance. Rubezh-2006 envisaged large-scale armed groups of terrorists leading an insurgency within Kazakhstan, declaring a Caliphate, recruiting mercenaries from within the indigenous military, calling for support from the local populace, threatening to blow up oil and gas installations, and receiving assistance from countries beyond the region that wanted to destabilize Central Asia and threaten Russia.
Exercises were held on the Kazakh steppe and on the Caspian Sea, involving thousands of soldiers, supported by artillery, combat aircraft, and landing vessels. A unified command drew up a plan of action, significantly based near Aktau (Western Kazakhstan), where Washington is developing an anti-terrorist force for the Kazakh armed forces. More than 2,500 servicemen gathered near Aktau. Kazakhstan provided a battalion of marines, a division of coast guard brigade ships, subunits from the airmobile forces, an artillery brigade with Grad systems, and a front-line aviation force. Russia supplied a tactical group from the CSTO rapid-reaction force along with ships from the Caspian flotilla and a company of marines supported by combat aircraft and subunits from the Volga-Urals Military District. The Kyrgyz and Tajiks sent one motor-rifle platoon each, and small operational teams. In addition, Kyrgyzstan sent its Scorpio special police unit.
Nothing on this scale has been seen in the history of the CSTO, and seemed to some participants more reminiscent of Warsaw Pact military exercises. The most heavily planned component of the exercise, however, was the joint Russian and Kazakh landing on two hydrofoils, the Dzheyran and the Kalmar. Russian marines and Kazakhstan’s airmobile subunits on board coast guard ships carried out a well-orchestrated seizure of these assets (NTV, Mir, October 21). Clearly intended to convey a message to deter terrorists, demonstrating the preparedness of these forces to counter such threats, it also contained a not too subtle sub-plot intended for consumption in the West: Russia can give sufficient military and security assistance to Kazakhstan.
As Caspian Guard progresses, Western planners will observe how closely Russian cooperation dovetails with these security assistance efforts. While Kazakhstan pursues its balanced, “multi-vectored” foreign policy it should be recognized that Kazakhstan’s National Security Service, which cooperates closely with the Russian FSB, tightly controls all foreign contacts with Kazakh defense attaches. The FSB could use this channel to advise Moscow on the most pressing areas of security cooperation offered by the West to Kazakhstan. Rubezh-2006 may equally serve to convince Kazakhstan’s generals that Moscow is one step ahead of the West and a more reliable long-term security partner.