On September 4 joint Russian-Kazakh military exercises began at the Chebarkul training range near Chelyabinsk, Russia. The exercises, long planned in the framework of the deepening military cooperation between the two countries, involved around 2,000 servicemen, more than 100 units of armored vehicles, and 30 planes and helicopters (MiG-31, Su-24, Su-27, Il-76 aircraft and the Mi-24 and Mi-8 helicopters). Russian commanders were satisfied with the preparatory work carried out with their Kazakh counterparts before the exercises started. “The training of the tank regiment of the 34th Motorized Rifle Division of the Volga-Ural Military District of Russia and the Fourth Mechanized Brigade of the Kazakh Armed Forces, organized as part of the large-scale joint exercise, ended successfully,” explained Colonel Igor Konashenkov, an aide of the Russian Army commander. He noted the use of 80 T-72 tanks, more than 30 infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), battalions of Grad multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) and Gvozdika and Nona SP howitzers, Tunguska AD units, military engineers, and NBC (using special protective equipment) and other support units. (Interfax, Moscow, September 4).
However, “Center 2008” was more than just an impressive show for the generals and defense officials from both countries; it was in practical terms the largest joint military exercise conducted between Russia and Kazakhstan since the collapse of the Soviet Union. What was unusual about the exercise was the scenario: the Russian and Kazakh armies were rehearsing how to repel an attack on Kazakhstan by an adjacent state. This not only contradicts Kazakhstan’s new military doctrine, passed in March 2007, according to which the principal threat to the state stems from international terrorism; it also begs the question about which potential aggressor state either country imagines as the justification for the exercise. “Center 2008” unfolded around an attempt by an “aggressor state” to seize control of Kazakhstan’s energy assets. Russian military intervention in the exercise saw the use of precision-guided munitions (PGMs), unlike the real Russian military operation in Georgia in August. Kazakhstan contributed to the exercise, by providing reinforcement in the form of Soviet-made infantry fighting vehicles (BMPs) and armored personnel carriers (BTRs). A Russian infantry company from the Ulyanovsk airborne division assault force was finally inserted into the “conflict zone” using two IL-76 transport aircraft, resulting in the rapid disruption of enemy forces, destruction of hardware, and the inevitable fleeing of the enemy from the battlefield. Moreover, the allied response to the aggressive military intervention in Kazakhstan ended with forcing a whole military bloc to “make peace” (ITAR-TASS, Kazakhstan Today, September 4).
Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov highlighted the significance of the exercise and promised more such exercises in the future: “We [will] assign ever more complicated missions. We [will] redeploy quite large numbers of troops. And this year we also plan more exercises, at the end of September, on Kazakh soil” (Zvezda TV, September 4).
While the exercise was long planned, there were signs of nervousness on the part of some Russian officers. On September 1 Lieutenant-General Valeriy Yevnevich, deputy commander in chief of Russia’s ground troops, described the exercise as a “peacekeeping operation.” “Cooperation between the two countries when carrying out a peacekeeping operation in an area of armed conflict will be developed during these exercises,” he affirmed. Yevnevich stressed that no modifications were made to the purpose of the exercises in connection with the events in Georgia and South Ossetia. “We have made no changes. The plan for the exercises was drawn up by the two headquarters long ago. We did not imagine that they would be operating in that way there (in South Ossetia),” Yevnevich said (Interfax, September 2).
The Kazakh military personnel left the Chebarkul range on September 5, while Russian servicemen from the Volga-Urals Military District continued with drills on military ranges in Chelyabinsk and Kurgan Regions. Kazakh Defense Minster Daniyal Akhmetov commented on the joint military exercises without dwelling on the nature of the scenario or the political signal it sent within Central Asia and beyond. “For Kazakhstan, it is highly important, since we tackle interaction issues, issues to do with forces teamwork, so it goes without saying that in the final analysis it makes a contribution to our state security” (Zvezda TV, September 4).
At a political level, allowing for the forward planning of the military exercises, the message seemed clear: Russia will play the leading role in resolving any serious security crisis within Central Asia, while the local military (in this case Kazakh) will play a supportive or even subordinate role. Following the military intervention in Georgia, Russia may be using such military exercises to send out the message that it is re-emerging as the guarantor of security in Central Asia. At a military level, despite the claims from Kazakh defense officials that the exercises were an important way of improving skills and fostering greater coordination between these forces, there is no escaping the wider implications of such exercises: Kazakhstan’s “peacekeeping” formations will be in great demand not only from Russia but also in the context of achieving NATO interoperability in such units, which is anticipated as an outcome of the “Steppe Eagle” exercise in Kazakhstan (alongside U.S. and U.K. military personnel) later in September. Finally, while Western militaries are downsizing and working on counter-terrorist capabilities, it is peculiar to witness the re-emergence of a scenario based on interstate conflict in Central Asia. As these exercises become more commonplace, the underlying message appears: “Russia is back.”