Foreign Policy Blogs

Kazakhstan Military: Slow Dance in Minefield

Rumsfeld & Kazakhstan's Iraq VetsPresident Nazarbaev's diplomatic agility remains critical in Kazakhstan's military affairs.  New military reform efforts have been bolstered this year, showing that Kazakhstan intends to glide past both domestic and international constraints with as much friendliness, and as many partners, as possible. 

Akhmetov with Japan's Koizumi, 2005Domestic issues
Early this year, Kazakh Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbaev was recalled from his post.  Through April, Kazakhstan's President Nazarbaev has continued to make changes in Ministry of Defense organization.  The newly appointed Minister of Defense, Daniel Akhmetov, is charged with revitalizing Kazakhstan's military reform to overcome at least two constraints: inefficient fund allocation and dwindling re-supply.  On April 5, Mr. Nazarbaev appointed a new deputy defense minister for economy and finance.  Mr. Oynarov was previously a deputy finance minister and deputy chairman on the State Agency on Regulating Natural Monopolies and Protecting Competition.  This appointment lends credence to the belief that much of this defense ministry shakeup involves anti-corruption measures and a kind of "trust-busting" of unofficial monopolies.  Despite ten years of attention to military reform, Kazakhstan has not achieved the supply and readiness goals it has paid for. 

Minister Akhmetov made further changes after troop inspections to enhance readiness and (looks like) to match skill to job.  RFE/RL Newsline wrote on April 17:

 [New Ministry of Defense] appointments come in the wake of a recent first-ever inspection of each of Kazakhstan's regional army commands by Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov, Kazakh Television reported on April 14. The move stems from a broader effort to bolster Kazakhstan's military capabilities and follows an almost 75 percent increase in the 2007 defense budget, to some 143 billion tenges ($1.1 billion). Of that total, 54 billion tenges is specifically earmarked for the modernization of existing weapons systems and new procurement plans . . . . Nazarbaev appointed Kazhimurat Mayermanov as deputy defense minister, elevating him from his previous post as an army artillery-and-missile-battery commander, and named Nikolai Pospelov as the new eastern regional commander but relieving him of his deputy ministerial position. Bulat Darbekov was also named the new southern regional commander, replacing Bakhtiyar Syzdykov.

Amidst these staff changes, Kazakhstan revealed its new military security strategy.  According to Roger McDermott of the Jamestown Foundation, the new policy stresses its partnerships with Russia, China, and the United States.  In particular, the policy clarifies what Central Asian watchers have already seen: that Kazakhstan is coordinating its military policy within collective security organizations such as the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).  Both Russia and China, as strong neighbors, are more natural partners for Kazakhstan in military cooperation; both CSTO and SCO military training and "war games" occur on regular schedule in Central Asian military affairs at large.

Vigorous NATO or U.S. military training in Kazakhstan would no doubt be seen as inappropriate by both China and Russia, but Kazakhstan also means to bolster its relations with the West in military cooperation, particularly in the area of technological upgrades.  As of 2004, NATO has enabled a military language institute, which gives Kazakhstani military personnel the chance to study military English, Turkish, and Chinese.

Re-supply and upgrades
One component of diplomacy between states is the sale and transfer of military equipment, a profitable manufacture that Russia, the U.S., and other states try to promote.  Kazakhstan's military has not just been bedeviled with corruption, but also a lack of domestic defense industry.  As Marat Yermukonov notes, parts and supplies for existing Soviet or Russian-made equipment have been hard to obtain. 

Kazakhstan's reaffirmation of CSTO military priorities is at once diplomatic and rooted in defense spending economics.  In many ways, Kazakhstan's diplomacy with Russia over military affairs must soothe hard-line security experts, who distrust the knowledge transfer implied in collective security, while they arrange for trade in military goods.  Russia needs Kazakhstan to be militarily capable.  Institutionally, they cannot always permit themselves to allow it. 

Slow Dance & Tunemaster, MississippiKazakhstan is therefore lobbying in Russia for the majority of its equipment, which would help coordinate their mutual efforts, but also making strategic purchases from other states where Russia's technology is lacking.  They must also get parts re-supplied, or existing equipment will continue to be unsafe or substandard.

Kazakhstan has approached Spain and other OSCE countries for military assistance. This diplomatic effort seeks to engage not just bilateral cooperation but cooperation among other European collective security organizations.  In particular, Kazakhstan's interest in OSCE leadership is well known.  But Roger McDermott lets Mr. Nazarbaev speak for himself:

Our cooperation with the USA never runs counter to Russian interests.  By working together with Russia or China, we never go against the USA or Europe.  Over the past 15 years Kazakhstan has always had a consistent, clear-cut policy in relation to others.

The policy may be clear-cut, but the execution of that policy is not.  Instead, it's a balancing act well worth observing; an inch-by-inch dance through a minefield of competing domestic and international interests.

References, by date of publication:
Roger McDermott .  (2004, August 11).  Kazakhstan's military reform creeps forward.  Eurasia Daily Monitor.
Marat Yermukanov.  (2007, March 7).  Kazakhstan seeks Russian assistance to modernize its army.  Cacianalyst.
Roger McDermott .  (2007, April 18).  Kazakhstan launches ambitious military reform plan.  Eurasia Daily Monitor
and as always: RFE/RL Newsline, April 7, 10, 17, and other dates.

The February 2007 issue of Silk Road Studies has a longer article by Mr. McDermott here.  You can access Eurasia Daily Monitor, a publication of the Jamestown Foundation, in the links at right.

Photo: Kazakhstan's Embassy to the United States;; Bill Steber's wonderful photo at