Kazakhstan’s military and security relationship with Russia, strong and rooted in common interests and approaches expressed through bilateral and multilateral defense cooperation, shows signs of deepening in new ways that reveal some of the most pressing priorities of Kazakhstan’s defense policies. In Eastern Kazakhstan from June 9 to 11 elements of the country’s army carried out a joint command-post exercise with Russia aimed at testing the cohesiveness of planning and implementing operations at command staff level, as well as promoting interoperability between Kazakh and Russian troops. Enhancing the speed of response to any sudden crisis, strengthening command-level leadership and directing operations are evident in the thinking behind such exercises, while the overall direction may be described as “interoperability.” It is this concept that is driving the current defense planning within Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) and other security bodies.
The exercises involved Kazakhstan’s Vostok [East] Regional Command and the Privolzhsko-Uralskiy Military District Headquarters’ operational group with Russia’s Second Army. “Interaction-2008” was under the command of Chief of Kazakhstan’s Vostok Regional Command troops Lieutenant-General Nikolay Pospelov. “The aim of the exercises is to achieve cohesiveness in the work of the headquarters of the troops’ combined forces on preparing a special military operation as well as to assess the level of their preparedness, to organize interaction between the Kazakh and Russian armed forces’ headquarters, to improve the troops’ tactical and field skills and to form necessary military and psychological qualities in trainees,” Pospelov said (Interfax-Kazakhstan, June 9). In line with agreements between the defense ministries, two further joint military exercises are planned, which will involve deepening and expanding the existing programs of bilateral military cooperation, emphasizing joint exercises similar to “Interaction-2008.”
Indeed, joint exercises are weighing heavily on the minds of Kazakhstan’s defense planners. In September the “Steppe Eagle” joint military exercise will test the standards and potential NATO interoperability of Kazakhstan’s peacekeeping forces (KAZBAT), which is currently expanding with U.S. and NATO assistance to brigade level (KAZBRIG). The joint exercise is an annual event held with the participation of forces from the United States and the U.K., but it has taken on a new significance for Kazakhstan, which may reach the milestone of becoming the first country in Central Asia to achieve NATO-interoperability in any of its military formations. Yet, whether it achieves that landmark in 2008 or 2009, it has not yet appreciated the potential political risks that could follow; particularly increased pressure from Western capitals to deploy troops operationally in the world’s hotspots. Astana has borne some criticism in the region and from its powerful northern neighbor for its decision to deploy a small element of KAZBAT in Iraq, which it has rotated there since 2003. Operational deployment would involve risks not yet faced by Kazakhstan’s armed forces.
This concern about achieving interoperability is therefore running in two directions: NATO and Russia. The participants in “Interaction-2008,” however, unlike those tasked with taking part in “Steppe Eagle 2008,” are not from the showcase peacekeeping forces and, in fact, are much more representative of Kazakhstan’s armed forces; able to act jointly with Russia’s armed forces to some extent but less well trained, armed, equipped and combat ready. Kazakh planners are also showing fears about the ability of their own forces to interact rapidly and effectively with one another.
On June 6 an internal antiterrorist exercise was conducted at the Nuclear Physics Institute of the National Nuclear Center in Almaty. “Atom-Antiterror 2008” rehearsed a security force’s response to attempted nuclear terrorism. The event was held within the framework of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), which now includes more than seventy countries. Representatives of eight state agencies and their territorial subdivisions were involved in the exercise under the aegis of the Antiterrorist Center of the National Security Committee (NSC), which represented Kazakhstan’s contribution to GICNT. According to the scenario, terrorists seized a nuclear facility on the outskirts of Almaty, divided into two groups, one taking hostages inside the facility, while another also with hostages attempted an escape by bus. Decision-making capabilities within the operational headquarters were examined, including devising appropriate mechanisms for assisting in this task, organizing interaction among the various forces drawn from the NSC, the Presidential Guard, Interior Ministry and MoD. Alongside other state bodies they aimed at stopping an act of nuclear terrorism (Kazinform, June 6).
First Deputy Chairman of the NSC General Adil Shayakhmetov praised the outcome of “Atom-Antiterror 2008” saying, “As the supervisor of the Atom-Antiterror-2008 exercise, I positively assess the work demonstrated by all services. The mock mission to localize a terrorist act and eliminate its consequences, which was assigned to participants in the exercise, was fully completed.” As far as interagency coordination was concerned, he singled out the “high level” of military and professional training, though he made no public comment on the practical assessment of how well those forces performed in their coordination tasks (Interfax-Kazakhstan, June 6). The authorities clearly use such exercises for domestic consumption as a way of projecting the impression that the state can cope with emergency situations and defend the country adequately from security threats. Nevertheless, inter-agency synergy and interoperability with foreign forces loom large in Kazakhstan’s defense priorities.
The bulk of Kazakhstan’s armed and security forces remain predisposed to cooperation and interaction with Russian forces. Its efforts to attain “NATO-interoperability” only extend to certain high profile, key formations; and arguably its cooperation on a bilateral basis with Russia and through the multilateral bodies such as the CSTO and SCO do more to enhance its capabilities for dealing with actual security needs. Nonetheless, perhaps Astana is determined to add the accolade “NATO interoperability” to its trophy cabinet for political aggrandizement and the aspirations of an ambitious regime.