The Collective Rapid Deployment Forces (CRDF) held a command and staff exercise in Kyrgyzstan June 2-3, signaling the start of a summer of military exercises which will underscore the organization’s attempts to strengthen its credibility and enhance its image within Central Asia (Kabar News Agency, Bishkek, June 2 2004). Among these exercises, those planned for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in July and August will test combat capabilities of the CRDF. The CRDF is seen by many analysts as an untested “paper organization,” for developing a scenario to respond to terrorist incursion into the territory of the Kyrgyz Republic.
Member states, which include Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia, each contributed a battalion to the CRDF at its founding in May 2001. Moscow, in particular, has consistently alluded to the military component of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as a bulwark against regional and international terrorism within Central Asia. The CRDF further expanded in April 2004 to include an additional battalion each from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia, as well as two additional battalions from Tajikistan. The nine CRDF battalions include 4,500 personnel. Russian Major-General Sergei Chernomordin, commander of the CRDF, has recently led an inspection commission focusing on the combat readiness of the five extra battalions, which is expected to conclude later this month (Interfax, Moscow, May 26 2004; ITAR-TASS News Agency, Moscow, June 1 2004). Russia originally agreed to contribute a battalion from its 201st Motor Rifle Division (MRD), stationed in neighboring Tajikistan, and will now designate another from its 27th MRD from the Volga-Urals Military District. Despite Chernomordin’s upbeat assessment of the CRDF, the exercises will be conducted in the Soviet tradition of a well-rehearsed and meticulously planned centerpiece, following a standard pattern. The exercises are designed to impress top leadership, and in this setting convey the politically important veneer of multilateral cooperation and military preparedness. In fact, the exercises will reveal little about actual combat capabilities.
Kyrgyz President Akayev, understands only too well the significance of his country’s efforts to help bolster the potential and credibility of the CRDF, directly benefiting from Moscow’s attempts to further underpin the body by opening an airbase at Kant, near Bishkek, in November 2003. Russian arms exporter Rosoboronexport has also recently given US$2.2 million in arms to the country, including light weapons, optics, body armor and spare parts for armored vehicles – specifically targeted towards the Kyrgyz special forces attached to the CRDF (RIA Novosti News Agency, Moscow, April 26 2004).
However, Akayev appears to be following the path of his Central Asian neighbors, seeking diverse western security assistance, and not solely depending on Russia as a traditional ally. Thus, reports that the US has now embarked on a serious and costly renovation of the infrastructure of Manas airbase in Bishkek suggests that Akayev does not envisage an early American exit from his territory. The intensity of western assistance to the country is set to deepen in the aftermath of the NATO summit in Istanbul this month, which will witness a practical follow-up to the Prague 2002 declaration of the region as a strategic priority for the alliance.
Part of that diversification of interests can be noted in a Canadian offer to train Kyrgyz military servicemen, concentrating on language training and peacekeeping. This offer partly reflects Canadian commercial interests in mining mineral deposits in Kumtor (Kabar, Bishkek, May 20 2004).
Military exercises conducted by the Kyrgyz border guard service during 2004 reveal that the military agency possesses weapons, such as high caliber machine guns and grenade launchers, and employs tactics that were wholly absent during militant incursions in Batken in 1999 and 2000. Those incursions painfully illustrated the weakness of Kyrgyz security structures. While security forces may employ sophisticated weaponry, that sophistication does not yet extend into areas such as operational planning, management of the Ministry of Defense, development of a strong NCO cadre and other vital aspects of defense reform. Servicemen still complain of low morale, poor training, and instances of desertion have been reported even among the elite formations.
Indeed, Kyrgyzstan still possesses one of the weakest militaries within Central Asia, its reform hindered by the country’s poverty and insufficient capital to invest in developing its own security. International assistance has become increasingly diverse. But as Akayev seeks to balance the country’s international security relations, he may be forced to recognize that Russian models of assistance have more to do with maintaining Russia’s influence and interests in the region, than helping its weak neighbor in defense reform. However, western countries must skillfully target their security assistance to help achieve realistic military reform, not just pour arms into an ailing structure, while understanding that for many years Kyrgyzstan will be a consumer of defense and security.