Kazakhstan’s Strategic and Military Relations with Russia

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Written by Richard Rousseau, Contributor

Since obtaining independence in 1991, the Republic of Kazakhstan’s policy has been marked by the will to achieve both formal and real political autonomy, strenuous efforts to gain a leading role among Central Asian states, and the desire to return to its national and cultural roots and definitely put behind the Soviet period. Due in part to its so-called multi-vector policy, tenaciously pursued by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, especially in the energy sector, Kazakhstan has become a model of development and modernization in Central Asia. It has boasted continuous annual GDP growth of around 8% since 2000. In the defense, security and military sectors, however, Kazakhstan has remained firmly anchored to Russia, as both countries have mutual interest in maintaining close strategic and military ties.

The military cooperation between Kazakhstan and Russia takes place on two fronts, and more often than not overlaps in some areas: They work together within the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and through more than 60 bilateral agreements that regulate defense and military-technical cooperation. Agreements and conventions are periodically renewed or new documents and addendums added to them, which outline the general framework and other various aspects of their close cooperation. For example, on December 8, 2010, in Moscow, Russian and Kazakhstani Defense Ministers Anatoly Serdyukov and Adilbek Dzhaksybekov signed the Plan of Cooperation for the period 2008-2012.

Joint military cooperation fully involves almost all aspects of their security policy and other related activities, from conducting joint military exercises, especially within the framework of the CSTO (three were conducted in 2010, and as many are scheduled for 2011), the production of weapons and military technology, the training of military personnel (over 15,000 Kazakhstani soldiers were trained at Russian military facilities between 1992 and 2005), to the sharing of military facilities and installations. In addition, as a member of the CSTO, Kazakhstan benefits from preferential terms on the purchase of weapons and systems manufactured in Russia, which is by far the largest supplier of military equipment to the Central Asian country.

From Moscow’s perspective, maintaining – and strengthening – this historic military cooperation with Astana is perfectly in line with its own strategic policy, outlined in the New Russian Foreign Policy Doctrine (the “Medvedev Doctrine”), released in 2008, and which places increased emphasis on the recovery of Russia’s “privileged sphere of influence” in the post-Soviet space and consolidating its role as a Eurasian power. The objective of militarily integrating Central Asian states is a key element in Moscow’s ambition and strategy. One should not be surprised then that Russia is moving in that direction, both bilaterally, through the continuous renewal of agreements with Kazakhstan, and on the multilateral level within the CSTO. The underlying reason behind Russia wanting to reinforce collaboration among members of the CSTO goes beyond fighting terrorism, drug trafficking and other illicit activities. The real purpose is to build a regional defense system which can ensure stability and security and curb NATO’s expansion and potential interference in the regional energy production and distribution. Among CSTO countries Kazakhstan commands the largest military resources after Russia, making it a key country for policy makers in Moscow.

Despite Russian efforts to expand the CSTO’s military activities in Kazakhstan and Eurasia more generally, it should be emphasized that Astana, in keeping with its multi-vector foreign policy, has proceeded to diversify its list of strategic partners. In effect, Kazakhstan takes part in the Partnership for Peace program as set up by NATO in 1994 (Kazakhstan and Russia signed their Military Cooperation Treaty the same year, which underlines once again the Kazakhstani multi-vector foreign policy). Astana further collaborates with the Atlantic Alliance within the Kazakhstan-NATO Individual Partnership Action Plan in place since 2006 (it is the only Central Asian state involved in the program). Kazakhstan receives support from the Atlantic Alliance in counter-terrorism activities and with issues of immigration and emergency response measures to both natural and manmade disasters.

Kazakhstan is able to maintain a delicate balancing act between Moscow and Washington, even in an especially sensitive area as national defense. Central Asia and nearby countries constitute a region where the Cold War logic is still predominant, and walking this tightrope is a daily exercise of contortion. However, Nazarbayev has repeatedly said that cooperation with NATO does not mean that Astana will one day turn its back to Russia or reduce the essential role Moscow plays in securing the country’s interests. On the contrary, Astana has consistently demonstrated that it wants to move away from the logic of a zero-sum game. Recently, Aset Kurmangaliyev, Kazakhstani Deputy Defense Minister, was quoted in the newspaper Kazakhstankaya as saying, “Kazakhstan is a key regional player and an active participant in global security issues and it must be fully involved in international organizations in order to help it respond adequately to current threats. The UN, the OSCE, the CICA [Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia], the CSTO, NATO are among an incomplete list of international institutions that we work with in building regional security.”

Obvious geographical proximity considerations and historical and cultural commonality, in a large extent, explain why, in the defense and security sectors, Kazakhstan and Russia must work hand in hand in supporting each other. The two countries share a large and largely unattended 6,000 km-long border on the northern flank of Kazakhstan. The main security issues faced in Central Asia remain radical Islamic-related terrorism and drug trafficking (two suicide bombers blew themselves up in Astana and Aktobe on May 17 and 24, 2011). Well-organized criminal organizations transport illicit drugs to European markets by crossing both Kazakhstani and Russian territories. Consequently, stability and security in the region are in Russian’s vested interest as well as in Nazarbayev government’s, which has managed, albeit within a system of government that is still quite far from having established acceptable democratic standards, to increase the overall well-being of the Kazakhstani population and to further provide its citizens with the highest standard of living to be found amongst regional states. 

Kazakhstan’s social composition is extremely diverse. But most importantly, one should always keep in mind that 25% of the Kazakh population is ethnic Russian (mainly concentrated in the north of the country, bordering with Russia). Historically, this percentage has been a source of concern for the Kazakhstani government, especially in the early post-independence years. The government feared these ethnic Russians would some day create a secessionist movement that would seek reunification with the motherland, Russia.

Official statistics put the population of Kazakhstan at 16,3 million. It was estimated that in 1989, as a result of the Soviet policy of “Russification,” native Kazakhs, who made up only 39.7% of the total population compared to 37.8% ethnic Russians, had been reduced to the status of a minority in their own national republic. The remaining 22% of the population were Ukrainians, Germans, Byelorussians, Tatars, Uzbeks and an array of Turkish-speaking ethnic groups. The Kazakhstan Soviet Socialist Republic (KSSR) was the only Soviet republic in which the titular nationality formed a minority.

The geographic distribution of nationalities also, in many respects, benefited the non-Kazakhs. In the northern and eastern parts of the republic (Karaganda Kokchetav, Kustanay, Pavlodar, Tselinograd), where during the 1950s and 1960s the Virgin Land program was carried out and where large industrial and mining developments had attracted skilled workers from other republics, millions of non-Kazakh had taken up residence along with their families. They became the driving force in the development of the republic. In the southern and western regions (Aktyubinsk, Alma-Ata, Gurievsk, Djambul, Zhezkazgan, Kzyl-Orda, Semipalatinsk, Taldy-Kurgan, Uralsk, Shymkent), which were the less industrialized and urbanized regions of the KSSR, Kazakhs and Turkic groups represented the overwhelming majority of the population. For Kazakhs, the “colonialist” policy of the Soviet central government was largely to blame for these inter-ethnic economic and social imbalances, which remain a concern for the present Kazakh government. According to many observers, such a concern prompted the Kazakhstani political elites to toe the Kremlin line on foreign policy issues, especially in the vital area of security, in a bid to earn the trust of the Russian component of Kazakhstani society.

One must constantly keep in mind that, regardless of military cooperation and shared common security interests, the true pillar of the “special relationship” (as it is often described by Russian and Kazakhstani pundits) between Russia and Kazakhstan is energy exploitation. Almost all Kazakhstani oil exports pass through pipelines located on Russian territory. Under a 2002 agreement, the production of three oil fields in the north west of the Caspian Sea is exported via Russian pipelines to Europe. There are still major frictions between Astana and Moscow in the energy sector, in particular concerning the fact that Astana, thanks to an agreement with Azerbaijan, exports a fraction of its oil extraction to Europe via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (BTC), the main oil pipeline bypassing Russia, which puts at risk the precious Russian monopoly on hydrocarbon routes.

Kazakhstan has managed to carve out for itself a significant role in a region where the interests of all the major world powers overlap, intersect and compete. However, the “special relationship” between Astana and Moscow is resolutely based on their respective national interests, and seemingly it is difficult to foresee any change of orientation by either party at anytime in the near future.

Richard Rousseau, Ph.D. is a professor of international relations at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy in Baku and a contributor to Global Brief, World Affairs in the 21st Century ( and to The Jamestown Foundation.