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Kazakhstan's Defense Policy: An Assessment of the Trends

Authored by Mr. Roger N. McDermott. | February 2009

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Kazakhstan's foreign policy, since its independence, has successfully avoided favoring any one country based on what Astana styles as a "multi-vectored" approach to foreign policy. Yet in terms of its conduct of defense and security policies, this paradigm simply does not fit with how the regime makes policy in its most sensitive areas of security cooperation. Indeed, its closest defense ties are still with Russia, which have deepened and intensified at a bilateral level as well as through multilateral initiatives in the context of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

This is most evident in a close analysis of the evolution of its armed forces, including various efforts to reform its military and achieve mobile, combat capable, and professional forces. Since September 11, 2001 (9/11), Kazakhstan's defense posture has favored closer links with the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), while it has also pursued inconsistent efforts to extract better defense cooperation from Moscow. In 2003, shortly after the U.S. intervention in Iraq, President Nursultan Nazarbayev took the controversial step of agreeing to send engineers from Kazakhstan's embryonic peacekeeping battalion (KAZBAT) to support demining efforts placed under Polish command.

Of course, the "deployment," though politically useful for Washington in displaying evidence of the diverse nature of the "coalition of the willing," was also beneficial for a highly ambitious political elite in Astana keen to showcase Kazakhstan's armed forces and project a positive image for the

Kazakhstani military and its contribution to the new international order. It was not without domestic risk, since it represented the first instance of troops being sent beyond the region by any state within Central Asia, but this was managed carefully through the state controlled media and despite opposition from a pacifist contingent within Kazakhstan's parliament. Nevertheless, the Kazakhstani authorities gauged the risk to be manageable, since these engineers were not deployed operationally in the sense of taking on active peacekeeping duties; they were unlikely to see action in the theater itself.

Moreover, the high profile and overemphasized importance of this cooperative initiative, which finally ended with the withdrawal of KAZBAT from Iraq at the request of the Iraqi government in October 2008, reaped dividends for the Nazarbayev regime as it could claim to be active in international stabilization efforts. In reality, the elements of KAZBAT were transported to Iraq using U.S. military transport aircraft since Kazakhstan lacked strategic airlift capabilities, and were maintained and helped through U.S. assistance.

In the aftermath of Uzbekistan's alienation by the West following the tragic events in Andijan in May 2005, Kazakhstan was temporarily willing to acquiesce in being regarded as the region's security leader; NATO officials referred to Kazakhstan as NATO's "anchor" in Central Asia. This, in fact, is way beyond Kazakhstan's capabilities. The authorities have since mostly dropped these claims from official discourse. In other words, by paying close attention to KAZBAT, an entirely false impression of a largely unreformed and cumbersome post Soviet legacy force is engendered, with all the issues this entails, ranging from bullying, poor morale, underfunding, limited combat capabilities, and corruption at senior levels. This is also worsened by the manifold problems stemming from Soviet or Russian manufactured military equipment and hardware, often aging and desperately in need of repair, which severely inhibits the operational capabilities of Kazakhstan's air force, for example.

Kazakhstan proved willing to receive much aid and assistance for its military from Western donors, principally the United States, Turkey, and NATO. Astana deepened its partnership with NATO and made efforts to strengthen its defense ties with Washington by agreeing to implement longer-term cooperation plans in the frameworks of "5-year plans" agreed between the U.S. Department of Defense and Kazakhstan's Ministry of Defense. In January 2007, Nazarbayev appointed Daniyal Akhmetov as the country's first ever civilian defense minister. This, coupled with Kazakhstan securing the Chaimanship of the OSCE in 2010, seemed to herald promising achievements in its defense posture, but these hopes have rapidly faded since.

Understanding the problems, challenges, and continued failings of the defense leadership in Kazakhstan involves first appreciating how limited its military reforms have proven in practical terms. Akhmetov was reportedly shocked in the early part of his tenure to discover how poorly trained, disciplined, and often corrupt Kazakhstan's armed forces remain, despite several years of the state talking up "military reform." Although corruption is something of a sine qua non in the region, it is particularly crucial to recognize its debilitating effect on efforts to reform the armed forces. This will persist as an obstacle to achieving progress in successfully implementing military reform for the foreseeable future.

Also, despite Kazakhstan's closer relations with Western militaries, it has in real terms deepened and strengthened its ties with Russia. The close nature of this defense cooperation relationship, reflected in Kazakhstan's new military doctrine, its intensified military and security training and educational agreements, as well as stepping up the frequency of military exercises, is also coupled with shared multilateral ties within the frameworks of the CSTO and SCO. Washington's military assistance programs have therefore often run into geopolitical issues, such as the limiting effect on its objectives emanating from Kazakhstan's political and defense relationship with Russia, or sensitivities to its close proximity to China, as well as internal issues surrounding Astana's military reform agenda. Defense spending in Kazakhstan will also be subject in the short to medium term depending on how the government handles its unfolding financial crisis and continued exposure to the global financial crisis, coupled with the sliding price of oil on the world markets.

These issues, sharply refocused by the Russian military exposure of weaknesses within Georgia's armed forces despite several years of time-phased U.S. training and equipment programs, serve to question the aims, scope, and utility of American defense assistance programs calibrated to enhance Kazakhstan's military capabilities. While Astana grapples with these internal issues and remains politically sensitive to the anxieties of Moscow as it perceives U.S. training and aid to the Kazakhstani armed forces, success will be modest. New deeper and more closely monitored programs are needed and, combined with multilateral cooperative initiatives, should be a matter of urgent priority; otherwise, such programs will underperform and languish in the repetition of the misjudgements of the past.


Kazakhstan stands on the threshold of becoming the first Eurasian country to chair the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which that country will hold in 2010 and will enter the OSCE troika in 2009. This is seen by the regime as international recognition for Kazakhstan's global role, which has emerged rapidly following its independence from the Soviet state. This period has witnessed the abandonment of its nuclear weaponry inherited from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the harnessing of its vast energy resources, and its avoiding the political instability that has affected other nations in transition in Central Asia. Kazakhstan has also sought to play an active role in the War on Terror, strengthened its relations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) through Partnership for Peace (PfP), and actively pursued defense relations with the United States and other NATO members. At the same time, it has promoted its regional interests multilaterally through, among others, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and balanced its bilateral relations between the neighboring great powers, China and Russia. In conducting its foreign policy, therefore, Kazakhstan successfully developed a model to which it refers as "multi-vectored" or preferring no particular state over another. Yet in terms of defense and security, the "multi-vectored" approach so acclaimed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev as a beacon of his country's moderate yet ambitious strategy in foreign relations does not quite fit; practically, Astana (the capital) simply has to prefer one state over another in defense terms for a variety of legal, historical, and political reasons. Indeed, Nazarbayev has successfully conducted this balancing trick in his defense and security relations with the West, but may now face a serious challenge presented by the deterioration of relations between Russia and the West following the 5-day war in Georgia in August 2008. Many of these fissures and underlying tensions have been present for several years, and in the following analysis of Kazakhstan's defense policy, we will examine these in more detail. We will show in essence that Kazakhstan has calculated its military cooperation activities with the United States and NATO more on the basis of image and showcasing its higher readiness formations, helping to project a positive image of the country abroad, rather than undertaking deep systemic military reform that would result in the formation of forces and capabilities to deal adequately with emerging or future threats to the state.

Policy Recommendations

·      Consideration must be given to finding ways of overcoming the policy planning challenges that emerge as a consequence of USCENTOM currently fighting two wars (Afghanistan and Iraq), and the tendency for planners to view Central Asia as a lower priority and peripheral to these conflicts. Equally, the long-term role of Russia in the region, and in particular its close defense and security relationship with Kazakhstan, needs to be understood and viewed differently among planners.

·      Priority should be given to in-country training that concentrates on developing a skills and knowledge base that can be utilized by the host military.

·      Follow-up assessments need to be built into all military engagement activities with Kazakhstan; left to their own devices, specific areas within which assistance is provided can soon fall into decline or simply deteriorate through institutional inertia and resistance to change.

·      Analysis and identification of the widening gaps emerging within Kazakhstan's armed forces, those elements being prioritized for assistance and developing higher readiness compared with the rest of the force structure should be encouraged at Kazakhstani MoD level alongside input from U.S. and/or NATO planning teams; with the target of bridging these gaps and strengthening security capacities.

·      Kazakhstan's political and military elite need to be convinced that in terms of counterterrorism, the military should not be playing the lead role. Intelligence and police structures need to be placed center stage in this process and encouraged to professionalize and reform away from the Soviet legacy approach which is still endemic with Kazakhstan's intelligence agencies.

·      In the planning processes, attention must be focused on assessment of the success of defense assistance programs, with adjustments and modifications that reflect the evolving and changing nature of the local requirements and progress or failings of individual aspects of these programs.

·      Planning must also include introducing mechanisms through which local interagency rivalry can be minimized or offset as these programs proceed.

·      Financial management is fundamentally important in the successful functioning of any modern military: Kazakhstan needs to receive targeted U.S./NATO support, advice, and expertise in this area in a way that takes account of the endemic corruption in the system.

·      U.S. and NATO military assistance in Central Asia as a whole and especially in Kazakhstan needs to be underpinned by a sophisticated, well-developed, and open public relations campaign that circumvents political pressure from Moscow, and in fact addresses Russia's concerns about the motives and intentions in Western assistance programs.

·      Kazakhstan needs greater human resource expertise in the relevant planning and personnel departments of its MoD in order to maximize the potential benefits that may derive from suitably placing personnel exposed to Western military education and training. This not only involves U.S./NATO staff openly in "alumni tracking" but envisages guidance and recommendations on career development for local personnel. (Such an approach would overcome the tendency for such personnel to be shunned by the system and through their example, over time, senior Kazakhstani planners would recognize the merits of using this underestimated resource.)