A new military doctrine quietly passed in Kazakhstan on September 29 has received almost no public attention. Neither Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who signed the decree, nor the Central Asian country’s defence ministry has commented on it. Last week, the Eurasia Daily Monitor—a publication of the conservative Washington, DC-based Jamestown Foundation—featured an article delving into the details of the doctrine by Anna Gussarova, the director for the Central Asia department at the Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
The document, outlining Kazakhstan’s “key priorities in military security”, strays away from the focus on terrorism and extremism emphasised in the ex-Soviet nation’s previous military doctrine, adopted in 2011, according to the article. Instead, it stresses the importance of border security and the mitigation of potential armed conflicts. Gussarova also pointed out that the new document is similar to Belarus’s modified military doctrine from 2016.
“Even though the Kazakhstani document does not precisely identify any major conflicts that could pose a threat, it significantly shifts the rhetoric and logic of the country’s security agenda. The overall tone of Astana’s new military doctrine has a geopolitical background,” Gussarova writes. “The text is full of Cold War–style jargon—namely ‘confrontation between global and regional powers for spheres of influence,’ ‘the arms race,’ ‘increased tensions,’ ‘a certain country’s desire to change the existing world order,’ and ‘militarization of the region’—that could easily be attributed more to Moscow.”
The doctrine also introduces a concept of “hybrid warfare”, which appears to echo tactics used in Eastern Ukraine, listing “ways of achieving military-political and military-strategic objectives of an integrated military force (including special operations forces, private military security companies on the territory of the opposing side), via non-military means, as well as by using the potential of other states, terrorist and extremist organisations, and separatist movements to destabilize the situation in the territory of the opposing state”.
The document never explicitly refers to Russia as a source of threats and maintains Kazakhstan will enhance cooperation with the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, of which Russia is a member, among other international organisations. Still, the intentional obscurity of “global powers” that could threaten Kazakhstan specifically on its borders, suggests an attempt by Kazakhstan to potentially stay on the lookout for threats originating from only two neighbours—Russia or China; and China has not been particularly menacing towards Kazakhstan as of late, certainly not with Kazakhstan fully engaged in China’s massive One Belt One Road initiative to create modern Silk Road-type trade corridors boasting modern infrastructure.
Invisible wedge grows after Crimea
An invisible wedge has been growing between Russia and its Central Asian neighbour since Russia seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 in response to the Euromaidan protests and subsequent revolution that drove out a Moscow-friendly president. Any statements made by Russian officials that appear to place in question the statehood Kazakhstan gained after it was granted independence from the USSR tend to prompt collective gasps. The fact that Kazakhstan has a sizable ethnic-Russian minority and a near 7,000-kilometer border with Russia does nothing to ease apprehension.
“The people of Kazakhstan do not want a Ukrainian scenario in the country,” Nazarbayev said early in 2016, promising to punish anyone who might try to enact a Euromaidan-type event in his country.
Other signs of Kazakhstan distancing itself from Russia originate from Nazarbayev’s decision to introduce a Latin alphabet for the Kazakh language and phase out the Cyrillic alphabet by 2025. Nazarbayev on October 26 ordered his office to start preparations for the transition. His previous comments on a possible shift to the Latin alphabet in 2006 and 2012 were largely regarded as empty words, but were also met with remarks of disapproval from Moscow. Since the Cyrillic alphabet is also used in Russia, the latest plans for a switchover have been interpreted as a geopolitical move that emphasises Kazakh culture and Kazakhstan’s drifting away from Russia. Nazarbayev certainly seems serious about the alphabet switch this time around. A new Latin alphabet of 26 letters has already been developed. And Kazakh officials have not stopped short of associating their plans with “strengthening” Kazakhstan's statehood and sovereignty.
Earlier this year, Nazarbayev’s remarks about the new alphabet prompted Russian news headlines such as “Kazakhstan’s transition to Latin alphabet is a signal for Moscow” and “By transitioning to a Latin alphabet Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan would enter China’s zone”.
Yuri Solozobov, a political analyst at Russia’s National Strategy Institute, has suggested in interviews with Russian media that the decision should alert Moscow since “the commonality of the cultural space was one of three [pillars], along with energy [and] defence, which linked, by invisible ties, all the CIS countries”. He ambiguously added that the transition is “not a reason for [Russia to] panic, but for reflection and decision-making”.
Despite hints of preventing a “Ukraine 2.0” in the 2017 military doctrine, Kazakhstan is certainly quite lax about maintaining at least one of the three aforementioned pillars—defence. The Central Asian nation may have lately signed agreements with Russian companies on establishing joint weapons systems production enterprises during an international arms exhibition, KADEX-2016. But Kazakh firms also signed similar agreements with China, Germany, Ukraine and Belarus, nonetheless.
Developing the military-industrial complex
The development of the country’s military-industrial complex is listed as one of the priorities of the new doctrine. Indeed, the oil-rich country would benefit from jump-starting its nascent defence industry not only to improve its security but also to diversify its hydrocarbon-driven economy, which was greatly undermined by the world oil price slump. Some projects to upgrade the country’s armaments and defence capabilities are already in full swing.
Kazakhstan’s navy chiefs in February 2016 discussed possibilities for upgrading ships with anti-ship missile systems with representatives of Zenith Uralsk Shipyard and French military company MBDA. The defence ministry, meanwhile, said at the beginning of March that it was considering new naval mines to protect its Caspian Sea shore. Kazakhstan’s naval defences along the Caspian coast are reportedly sparser than those of Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.
In March 2016, Kazakhstan launched construction of its first ammunition plant, located in the Sary-Arka special economic zone in Karaganda. The new facility will produce 30mn ammunition rounds per year starting from December 2017, according to defence officials. It will primarily focus on meeting the Kazakh army’s needs, namely with 5.45x39 mm, 7.62x54 mm, 9x18 mm and 9x19 mm rounds. Canadian company Waterbury Farrel will provide equipment for the production line. The project’s estimated worth stands at KZT24.8bn (€63.9mn at the current exchange rate) according to reports from 2015 and 2016. The plant will be run by the defence ministry jointly with state-owned company Kaztekhnologii and a local subcontractor in steel manufacturing in Karaganda Region.
The country’s armed forces still use ammunition reserves created before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. With the reserves becoming exhausted, Kazakhstan decided to build an ammunition plant instead of importing ammunition from Russia in a sign of minimising its dependence on its intimidating neighbour. It was announced that exports of Kazakh ammunition would even be possible.
In October 2016, Kazakhstan established a defence and aerospace industry ministry. The ministry’s responsibilities include state policy in defence aerospace and electronics industries, as well as cybersecurity and execution of defence contracts, among other functions. Under the ministry, the government will be forming a number of committees, including an Education Information Security Committee, Aerospace Committee and the Committee for State Material Reserves of the Ministry of Defence and the Aerospace Industry.
That said, the country’s security is widely seen as mostly hinging on a single big factor—the ongoing rule of its 77-year-old leader Nazarbayev and the need for him to guarantee the preservation of that security after his departure by setting in motion the presently uncertain plans for transferring power to his eventual successor.