Kazakhstan’s military cooperation with the NATO Alliance appears to be progressing steadily, despite the problems emerging between NATO and Russia. On October 31 Robert Simmons, NATO representative for Central Asia and South Caucasus, met Kazakhstan’s Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov in Astana. An official press release from the Kazakh Ministry of Defense noted “considerable success in a number areas of cooperation,” presenting a highly optimistic evaluation of the current implementation of the Kazakh-NATO Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP).
Akhmetov said “cooperation between Kazakhstan and NATO has huge potential, whose implementation will make it possible to effectively influence the processes of strengthening regional and international security, including the strengthening of a dialogue and cooperation in reforms in the defense sphere and training military personnel” (Interfax-Kazakhstan, October 31). The IPAP enables Kazakhstan to tailor its cooperation individually with NATO to suit its own requirements. This assists its Defense Ministry in reforming and modernizing the military, as well as accessing funds from NATO to encourage efforts to strengthen regional and international security.
Back home, Kazakhstan has also signaled a more pro-active stance on Afghanistan, with the parliament approving a draft law on October 31 allowing Germany military transit through Kazakhstan when taking humanitarian relief into Afghanistan. This in many ways was an easy and safe option, allowing Astana to show some symbolic support for efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. Neighboring Uzbekistan has had such an arrangement in place with Germany for several years.
Kazakhstan is beginning to form its own navy on the Caspian Sea. This process has been subject to internal problems based on rivalries and disagreements over which power ministry should operationally control such forces. A maritime naval component of Kazakhstan’s border guard already exists, under the National Security Service (KNB). However, Akhmetov confirmed that a long-delayed blueprint has now been developed, which will place the military structure under a Ministry of Defense directorate for Naval Forces from January 1, 2008.
The government is accepting bids to supply hardware for the Kazakh navy, with negotiations ongoing with Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, and France. Akhmetov confirmed that Kazakhstan’s Defense Ministry is utilizing the services of an outside consultant to help decide on the production and purchase of military hardware for the navy. “At present we have very good offers from the Russian Federation, including a ship which has no equivalent in the world. There are also very good proposals from France and Turkey,” Akhmetov said (Interfax-Kazakhstan, October 31).
Simmons mooted the idea of NATO assistance in the creation of Kazakhstan’s Caspian Fleet. “During my last visit to Kazakhstan I held talks with the Kazakh Defense Minister on this and several other issues. I visited Aktau [a town on the Caspian Sea] where Kazakhstan intends to set up its fleet, and we are ready to help you create this fleet.” Nevertheless, the nature of this assistance is restricted in its scope, should Astana make a political decision to accept to accept the offer.
This would not involve allocating funds to Kazakhstan, but would focus on consultations on budgeting and planning and encouraging NATO states to allocate funds to help create the fleet. Equally, Simmons suggested that should Kazakhstan want help in this venture, the Alliance might provide support. “If you really intend to create such a Navy on the Caspian Sea, then NATO can assist you in consultations and planning, and overall technical assistance” (Interfax-Kazakhstan, November 1).
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking in Astana on October 29, offered Russia’s unconditional support for Kazakhstan’s bid to become chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009. Lavrov promised to work on helping to achieve this, before the decision is taken in Madrid in late November. Astana, while appreciating this level of support for one of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s most cherished foreign policy goals, also notes the lack of support from leading Western OSCE states including the United States and the United Kingdom. NATO’s relations with Kazakhstan may be damaged as a result of a negative decision in Madrid, but leaders will work intensively to offset any fall-out with Astana (Interfax-Kazakhstan, October 29).
Lavrov also highlighted close energy cooperation between Moscow and Astana and praised highly the allied and “partner-like” relations with Kazakhstan, “It would not be an exaggeration to call them exemplary. Like good friends and neighbors, Russia and Kazakhstan are considerate of each other’s interests in political, economic, military, and other spheres,” he suggested. Moscow appears to be patiently waiting on the sidelines, expecting a quid pro quo from its close friend and neighbor. At the same time, Astana is watching for a signal from Moscow, on whether it will send an outspoken critic of NATO to be Russia’s permanent representative to the Alliance.
It is unclear what specific force NATO envisages helping, using language that seems to suggest confusion between the emerging navy and the KNB Maritime Border Guard Service. Moreover, offering to assist Kazakhstan militarily in the Caspian is undoubtedly the single most sensitive sphere of cooperation, with possible Russian objections looming in the background. More to the point, Moscow’s troubled relations with Washington and London, the historical example of good relations between NATO and Uzbekistan disintegrating rapidly and unexpectedly, and strategic reappraisal of Kazakhstan’s own foreign policy, can Kazakhstan withstand future pressure from its close ally to reassess or limit its cooperation with NATO?