Kazakhstan's Defense Policy: An Assessment of the Trends

  • February 09, 2009
  • Mr Roger N McDermott

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). 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.