Kazakhstan has strengthened its security ties with Washington since 9/11 in order to maximize the numbers of officers from Kazakhstan’s armed forces who receive military training and education in the United States. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Defense has used this as an engagement tool to develop further the existing bilateral military assistance relationship. Pentagon analysts and U.S. diplomats in Kazakhstan have argued that programs such as International Military Education and Training (IMET) have yielded a good return on the investment of U.S. money into the military structures of Kazakhstan. Unfortunately, sources within Kazakhstan’s ministry differ in private, often engaging with U.S. and Western planners in what in many senses appears a “double game”: seeking to gain as much support as possible from Western countries for their armed forces, while continuing to strengthen its military relationship with Russia.
Equally, the dividend on educating Kazakh officers in the United States and elsewhere in the military academies of NATO members is running into a phenomenon that is conveniently beyond the control of the Ministry of Defense: namely there is a hemorrhaging of these officers from the military. Put simply, far from improving standards overall in the armed forces, many of these officers receive their education abroad and return to Kazakhstan only to become disillusioned with the “system,” and then leave the military.
The statistics are alarming; recent reporting observed that out of 250 officers who received an education in the United States, 110 have already quit the military, citing “various reasons.” Despite a contractual obligation placed on graduates of foreign universities to serve a minimum of 10 years, many are finding loopholes in order to exit early. There is little will to enforce these commitments on the part of officials. Kazakh military servicemen attend courses in 160 specialist fields at 55 foreign universities. Around 550 people are sent abroad for education annually. Of these, 300 are servicemen being sent for full-time education, and 250 are officers sent for short-term courses. Approximately one-third of the graduates of foreign courses enter into the service ranks of the armed forces in Kazakhstan. Although retention is significantly higher in the cases of high-ranking officers attending short-term courses abroad, the real problem exists within the junior and middle-ranking officers; here the hemorrhaging appears greatest.
Of the 114 cadets who have received education in Turkey, 23 have left to find employment in the civil sector. Yelena Milyuk, Kazakhstan’s first female graduate of West Point, has become a cause celebre in this context. The high-profile officer entered West Point in 2001, but soon after returning to Kazakhstan she found that her career aspirations had suffered as a result of her privileged foreign education. Although wanting to become a military attaché, she was in fact posted to logistic support of the rear services. Unhappy, she returned for further post-graduate study at West Point then married and quit Kazakhstan’s army. “My views about life have become broader, I have learned how to differentiate between what is important and what is not. It does not matter if there are some difficulties in my life, I am able to face and surmount these difficulties,” she explained (Megapolis, September 3).
It is also clear that since Kazakhstan officially passed its new Military Doctrine in 2007, which gives priority to cooperation within the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), with special reference made to Russia and China, there has been a noticeable shift in this direction. Russian President Vladimir Putin exhorted the Central Asian states to take care of their security “themselves” during the SCO summit in Bishkek on August 16. In Almaty on September 12, Kazakh Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov met Belarusian Defense Minister Leanid Maltsaw to discuss creating joint factories in the military industry. “Kazakhstan’s new military doctrine requires the modernization of the country’s armaments. Therefore, we are interested in developing a national military industry,” Akhmetov noted. This may involve opening factories to modernize T-72 and T-90 tanks and for producing Vostok radar stations.
Kazakhstan’s Defense Ministry’s press service also plugged the need for modernizing MiG, L-39, and Su-27 aircraft, as well as supplying an Igla mobile surface-to-air system. The Baranavichy-based aircraft repair plant in Belarus has signed a $52 million contract to carry out repairs on Kazakh Su-27 fighters. The defense ministers signed two contracts: one for repairing Su-27 aircraft and the other for the admission of Kazakh servicemen to Belarusian higher education institutions, beginning this year. (Interfax/Itar-Tass, Moscow, September 12). These activities meet with the approval of Moscow, and suit the interests of Akhmetov, keen to avoid upsetting the balance between those in the Ministry of Defense keen to strengthen ties with NATO and its members and the traditionalists more interested in military cooperation with Russia.
Uncontroversial projects can bring success, notably where there is no perceived clash of interest with Russia. On September 13 U.S. specialists arrived in Astana to help create a Central Asian web portal for responding to emergency situations, working closely with the Kazakh Ministry of Emergency Situations (Interfax, September 13). Pressure on Kazakhstan to look more toward other CSTO countries for security assistance, rather than placing such an emphasis upon cooperating with Washington is undoubtedly growing as part of Putin’s recent aggressive military posturing. Kazakh government officials can defend policy decisions in this area by pointing to the “multi-vectored” foreign policy, which avoids too much emphasis on relations with any particular state. Nonetheless, there seems little appetite in the Kazakh ministry to tackle head-on the problems relating to how best to use the access of its cadets to foreign education and training.