Kazakhstan’s Western Military Cooperation Sparks Tensions With Russia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 50

Kazakhstan has recently undertaken a number of steps towards improving its military capabilities through seeking closer military cooperation with Western countries. These efforts have congealed into what Moscow interprets as an emerging policy in Astana favoring the West. These areas of military cooperation, combined with Kazakhstan’s lack of enthusiasm for initiatives promoted by Moscow, appear to be creating tensions in bilateral relations.

Controversy has surrounded Kazakhstan’s interest in upgrading its air defense systems, since it has opened competition in this area to Western companies including BAE Systems and EADS in Germany. Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbayev strenuously denied that Kazakhstan has in fact reached a deal with BAE Systems, despite reporting in the Russian press suggesting otherwise, and tried to play down these clear efforts to secure Western commercial deals in the sensitive field of air defense. According to Kasymzhomart Tokayev, Kazakhstan’s foreign minister, “Negotiations with BAE Systems are being carried out while Kazakhstan’s governmental commission considers the offers of other companies too.” Reaching a final decision may take several years. In this context, and aware of the suspicion Moscow has indicated over the prospect of Western involvement in Kazakhstan’s air defenses, Nikolai Bordyuzha, the Secretary-General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), recently confirmed that Russian defense companies will also participate in the controversial tender, worth an estimated $1 billion (Interfax, July 7).

Air defense contracts have not been the only source of friction, as more fundamental policy differences have been revealed, which only add to Moscow’s concerns about its traditional Central Asian partner. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has been keen to foster support within the CSTO for the formal creation of joint peacekeeping forces. Ivanov believes the mechanism already exists in the form of the CSTO Collective Rapid Deployment forces (CRDF), which could be afforded the status of a collective peacekeeping force. Unfortunately, the Russian initiative, which perhaps ignores the difficulties in creating a joint peacekeeping force in Central Asia following the collapse of CENTRASBAT, has met a stumbling bloc: opposition from Kazakhstan. Altynbayev explained, “The creation of CIS peacekeeping forces is possible, but, however, it contradicts the legislation in each state. You know, for example, if we send peacekeepers to Iraq, we will not ask the CSTO. We will ask the parliament” (Expert, June 28-July 4). Indeed the continued presence in Iraq of the 27 members of Kazakhstan’s peacekeeping battalion, KAZBAT, clearly irritates Russian policymakers. Kazakhstan was the only Central Asian country to send peacekeepers to Iraq.

Moreover, the countries differ on how best to establish relations between NATO and the region. Russia favors a collective approach, by which the CSTO would deal with NATO in a multilateral capacity. However, since Kazakhstan has established very strong practical military cooperation ties within NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, and appears to be constructing deeper relations with the Alliance on a bilateral basis, the Russian approach does not hold favor.

Moscow also has reservations concerning Kazakhstan’s efforts to create its own naval forces in the Caspian Sea. Rather than seeking to rely upon Russia as a potential guarantor of its economic security in the Caspian, or pursue solutions and assistance through various CIS mechanisms, Astana has preferred to devise its naval requirements without taking into account Russian opposition. The Kazakhstani Navy will be, in addition to its maritime border-guard service, placed under the operational control of the National Security Service (KNB). The Ministry of Defense is attempting to create a functioning Navy that will include marines, coastal artillery, and a military flotilla and be equipped with a combination of battleships produced by domestic defense plants and battleships received from Russia, Turkey, and several Western countries. In early July the first 17 graduates of the Naval Academy at Aktau completed their 22-month courses in ship mechanics, radio operations, and navigation. (Kazakh Television First Channel, Astana, July 4). The academy will also receive specialist assistance from the UK’s Royal Navy in order to facilitate the further improvement and development of the academy in the future.

Bilateral relations between Russia and Kazakhstan are strong and based on deep economic and cultural as well as security concerns. Therefore it is hardly likely that Russia has any vision of Kazakhstan going the way of Uzbekistan in the late 1990s by turning away from Russia and seeking Western assistance almost exclusively. Uzbekistan’s recent strategic partnership with Russia shows that Russian policymakers fully understand the ultimate futility of such a policy. Kazakhstan’s multi-layered foreign policy, which seeks to include good relations with its two powerful neighbors — China and Russia — and foster stronger ties with the West is at the root of the emerging tensions between Russia and Kazakhstan. The latter has branched out, tasking a new sense of independence from Moscow’s traditionally powerful influence in Kazakhstan’s foreign policy. Improved bilateral ties with NATO, and some of its key member states, air defense contracts, and creating naval forces in the Caspian Sea arouse disgruntlement in Moscow, not because Kazakhstan will turn away from Russia, but as another symptom of Russia’s declining influence within the region.