Central Asian political leaders are watching events in Kyiv closely, as the Ukrainian crisis may affect the future foreign policy choices they make between the West and Russia. Meetings of the CIS Defense Ministers Council, at the Staff for Coordinating Military Cooperation in Moscow on November 25, indicated a strong desire for further strengthening the existing CSTO security mechanisms within Central Asia. Indeed, these meetings, partly under the umbrella of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), appear to pave the way for the future expansion of the CSTO Rapid Deployment Forces (CRDF), to as much as 10,000 personnel (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 26).
Nikolai Bordyuzha, Secretary-General of the CSTO, confirmed the interest in enhanced levels of CSTO military cooperation, as member states examined a model concept for forming a joint group of troops in the Central Asian region. In his words, the document approved at the meeting provides for creating a large joint group of troops including formations from the armed forces of CSTO states (Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan). This potentially numbers a total of 10,000 personnel. The group could therefore become up to four times the current strength of the CRDF, currently tasked with operating in Central Asia during a security crisis. Moscow’s foothold in this mechanism is secure, since it has guaranteed the main striking force of the group will be elements drawn from the Russian military base in Tajikistan and its air force base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan.
Of course, attempts to strengthen Russia’s security influence within Central Asia are not new, and have been a recurring theme in the region since the deployment of U.S. and Western military forces into the region in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. But recent developments within Central Asian capitals seem to present a window of opportunity for Moscow to reclaim lost ground in the region.
Kazakhstan has been the only Central Asian member of the CSTO that has espoused clearly autonomous and pro-Western military cooperation policies. While the others have more readily accepted collective-security arrangements with Russia as the linchpin in this system, Kazakhstan, for instance, has advanced its plans to forge ahead with reforming and building its Navy in the Caspian Sea by 2007 with U.S. support. However, as the situation in Ukraine is played out, there will be clear lessons for those pursuing pro-Western policies in Kazakhstan, which may favor Moscow’s efforts to stem the westward drift of the former Soviet republics along its borders.
On November 25 in Moscow, a protocol was finally ratified that creates the legal basis for increasing and offering supplies of military hardware to CSTO countries at preferential financial rates. Valery Loshchinin, Russia’s First Deputy Foreign Minister, believes that the agreement will facilitate further military integration among CSTO member states and compel greater levels of security cooperation.
Kazakhstan’s military reform priorities, announced on November 26, included a commitment to raise the level of defense spending from one percent of GDP to 1.2 percent by 2007. The Kazakhstani Ministry of Defense also defined a set of priority investment projects, which will be implemented in the next three years. These include constructing housing in Astana, military facilities in the country’s south and west, improving the facilities of military airfields, and building a national defense university, as well as developing modernized communications systems. All these plans, from the Caspian-orientated military facilities in Kazakhstan’s western region to procurement of communications equipment, demand closer cooperation with the United States and Western countries in order to be effective.
Kozy-Korpesh Dzhanburchin, Deputy Defense Minister for Economy and Finance, commented that Kazakhstan is determined to tailor its military development to its security needs: “In accordance with national security priorities, close attention is currently being paid to the southern and western directions, where military and other facilities are planned to be built actively as well,” (Interfax-Kazakhstan, November 25).
The uncertain political situation in Ukraine, a key state for the future transportation of Central Asian energy into European markets, has raised fears among the governing elites in Central Asia considering overtly pursuing close relations with the United States. The impetus towards democracy, notoriously slow in these states, is a risk that each has weighed carefully in recent years, while recognizing that similar pressures do not attend close relations with Moscow. Elections looming in Uzbekistan later in December and those in 2005 in Kyrgyzstan, coupled with the recent bombings of Otan offices in Almaty, (see EDM, November 30) magnify still further the concerns in the regions’ capitals. For the Soviet-bred autocrats running these states, democracy may be coming too close to the region. In security terms at least, Moscow has prepared the ground for improved levels of security integration, should its uncertain allies in Central Asia choose this option.