Kazakhstan Plans to Host Military Drills With Members of Russian-Led CSTO

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 29

(Source: Akorda.kz)

Executive Summary: 

  • Astana plans to pursue a “multi-vector” diplomatic strategy for 2024, engaging more with the CSTO, NATO, and other international organizations and conducting joint military exercises with diverse partners.
  • Kazakhstan’s involvement in CSTO peacekeeping missions highlights its regional security commitments and ongoing reliance on the organization, particularly Russian assistance.
  • Tokayev has demonstrated a commitment to improving the lives of Kazakhstan’s citizens while seeking to promote international stability, which stands in stark contrast to the Kremlin’s goals.

Since acquiring independence after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has adopted a multi-vector diplomacy strategy for its foreign policy, seeking the broadest possible engagement in global affairs. The policy’s latest iteration in 2024 announces that Kazakhstan will host numerous joint military exercises with fellow Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) associates and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members. Kazakhstan’s fidelity to CSTO is underscored by how, in January 2022, the government appealed to the organization for peacekeepers to quell domestic unrest. The alliance responded by sending 2,500 Russian peacekeepers.

According to Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defense (MoD), Kazakhstan will engage in a series of joint military exercises this year. These include: “Qabylan Zholy-2024” with Türkiye’s military, a command and staff exercise; “Birlestik-2024” with units of the Azeri, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, and Tajik armed forces; the “Becket-2024” exercise; the “Ashyk Aspan-2024” operational and tactical air defense command and staff exercise; a joint Caspian naval exercise with Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Russia; and the “Aybalta-2024” and “Toskauyl-2024” operational and tactical command and staff exercises. The MoD concluded that “the plan is also to hold in September to October 2024 the joint exercise ‘Unbreakable Brotherhood 2024’ with the CSTO peacekeeping forces on the territory of Kazakhstan,” adding, “on a bilateral basis, the plan is also to conduct joint exercises with the armed forces of Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan” (MoD, January 15; Vkontakte, January 31).

Partners in Kazakhstan’s 2024 joint military exercises range from post-Soviet states to NATO member Türkiye to international pariah Iran. Beyond the post-Soviet space, since 2007, the Kazakh government has taken its global peacekeeping responsibilities with the United Nations seriously, deploying more than 500 KAZBAT military personnel, including women, on UN missions in Nepal, Haiti, Liberia, the Western Sahara, Côte d’Ivoire, Iraq, and Lebanon (Kursiv newspaper, December 20, 2023).

Russian analysts postulated that Western strategists, interested in the emergence of conflict on China’s western land border, viewed Kazakhstan as ripe for unrest before the war in Ukraine. On January 4, 2022, the protests that erupted over a liquified fuel price increase metastasized nationwide (Ritm Evrazii, February 10). The following day, the rising anarchy led Tokayev to request assistance from CSTO, which quickly responded with 2,500 Russian peacekeepers. The unrest resulted in at least 230 people killed and left hundreds injured in Kazakhstan.

In a recent interview Tokayev explained the concerns that led his government to appeal to CSTO for help to quell the unrest. He stated: “In conditions of chaos and virtual anarchy in the regions, at a meeting of the Security Council, it was decided to appeal to the CSTO to introduce a peacekeeping contingent into our country for the period necessary to ensure stability and security. I emphasize: the appeal was not to Russia, but to the CSTO, of which Kazakhstan is a member … By agreement with the organization’s member countries, its contingent left the country without any preconditions and ahead of schedule. The CSTO peacekeeping contingent did not participate in the counter-terrorism operation or fire a single shot” (Kazakhstan segodniia, January 3). Given that the Russian Federation dominates CSTO in a manner analogous to the US relationship with NATO, observers subsequently speculated what price Russian President Vladimir Putin might insist upon for the alliance’s “assistance.” 

The month after CSTO intervened in Kazakhstan, Putin began his “special military operation” against Ukraine. This move sent shock waves throughout the post-Soviet space, particularly Kazakhstan, where Russian nationalists had railed for years about annexing the north of the country, with its substantial Russian population (see EDM, February 14). Adding to Kazakhstan’s defense considerations was the fact that it is the sole post-Soviet Central Asian nation sharing a border with the Russian Federation, an indefensible 4,750-mile-long (7,644 kilometer) international frontier.

This de facto geographical vulnerability and efforts to expand Kazakh influence in the post-Soviet space underlies Tokayev’s proposal at the Moscow CSTO Collective Security Council meeting on May 16, 2022. The proposal calls for the involvement of CSTO troops in UN peacekeeping activities. The Kazakh proposal could provide a unilateral check on future Russian unilateral deployments of CSTO assets (Kremlin.ru, May 16, 2022).

On January 1, Kazakhstan became CSTO chairman, increasing the country’s influence within CSTO. Tokayev subsequently announced CSTO’s priority activities under Kazakhstan’s auspices. Tokayev’s agenda emphasized expanding the organization’s international cooperation with the United Nations, the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and other interested countries and international organizations in security. Other priorities were increasing interaction on military cooperation issues, finalizing a legal basis for deploying CSTO forces, and developing CSTO member states’ military personnel training programs system and military-scientific potential while developing CSTO’s peacekeeping potential (Sputnik Kazakhstan, December 31, 2023). 

Furthering its regional impact beyond CSTO, Tokayev announced in an interview with Egemen Qazaqstan newspaper that in 2024, Kazakhstan will chair several additional international organizations beyond CSTO. These include the SCO, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, the Organization of Turkic States, the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, and the Islamic Organization for Food Security (Kazakhstan segodniia, January 3).

On February 19, the MoD announced that under UN auspices, Kazakhstan would deploy peacekeepers to Israel’s troubled frontier with Syria (Minister of Defense of the Republic of Kazakhstan, February 15). This is the clearest sign of Kazakhstan’s determination to expand its multi-vector peacekeeping activities beyond the post-Soviet space.

Beyond expanding its foreign policy footprint, the Tokayev administration has great plans for the domestic economy. The President commented, “A key strategic goal is to double GDP by 2029” (Egemen Qazaqstan, January 3). Kazakhstan’s commitment to improving the lives of its citizens while seeking to promote international stability stands in stark contrast to its northern neighbor and can only be applauded by the international community.