PANNIER: Caspian military drills that exclude Russia and Iran have some people in Moscow asking questions

PANNIER: Caspian military drills that exclude Russia and Iran have some people in Moscow asking questions
With the instability brought about by the Russia and Ukraine conflict, the need for higher defence and security footings is all too apparent in capitals across Central Asia and the Caucasus. /
By Bruce Pannier April 12, 2024

Five countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) are planning to conduct military exercises and Russia is not one them.

At the conclusion of a meeting of the defence ministers of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on April 4 in the Kazakh Caspian coastal city of Aktau, the Azerbaijani Defence Ministry’s press service announced that the Birlestik-2024 (Unification 2024) military drills would take place in Kazakhstan this July.

The announcement said that troops from all five countries would participate but did not specify how many.

The exercises were described as “operational-tactical command and staff exercises” aimed at carrying out “combat training tasks in… a zone of armed conflict.”

The Birlestik-2024 drills will be held on Kazakh territory at the Oymasha training grounds in the western Mangystau Province and at Cape Tokmok, south of Aktau on Kazakhstan’s Caspian coast.

Kazakhstan’s troops have conducted joint exercises with Russian troops at Oymasha several times, and also with Uzbek forces.

Unusually, Azerbaijani troops will link up with Central Asian military forces for the drills (Credit:, cc-by-sa 4.0).

The inclusion of Azerbaijan in these exercises is intriguing.

In various combinations, the four Central Asian states involved in the Birlestik exercises have conducted military exercises many times since their 1991 independence, notably after the Taliban seized Kabul in September 1996 and continued their advance northward through Afghanistan toward the Central Asian border.

Russian, Tajik and Uzbek troops held drills along the Afghan border in early August 2021 as the last foreign troops were leaving Afghanistan and the situation there was falling apart.

Troops from the Emergency Situations Ministries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan conducted training in Kazakhstan’s Almaty Province in late September that year.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and in the past have joined troops from two other member states, Russia and China (and later India and Pakistan), for exercises on the territory of one or more of the Central Asian countries. The SCO holds its “Peace Mission” exercises biennially. Central Asian states send servicemen to participate. The latest one was in 2023.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are members of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Uzbekistan has twice been a CSTO member. Its last withdrawal from the defence bloc was in 2012.

The CSTO regularly conducts drills with its members. A notable moment for the CSTO came in January 2022 when it deployed a small force to guard key facilities in Kazakhstan during that month’s widespread unrest.

Nato, within the framework of its Partnership for Peace programme, has also conducted training exercises in Central Asia with most of the Central Asian states, including the Steppe Eagle exercises in Kazakhstan that were held annually from 2006 to 2019.

Something different
The Birlestik exercises are not being held under the aegis of a multilateral organisation. They bring together five countries whose territory stretches from the Pamir and Tian Shan Mountains in the east to Azerbaijan on the western side of the Caspian Sea.

Four of the participants – Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan –  are members, along with Turkey, of the Organisation of Turkic States (OTS). The OTS has significantly increased its influence in the Caspian region, both economically and in terms of security cooperation, since Russia launched its full-scale war on Ukraine in late February 2022.

Tajiks are a Persian people, and so Tajikistan is not an OTS member. That makes Tajikistan’s involvement in these drills especially interesting.

The other CIS state in Central Asia, Turkmenistan, has since 1995 had a UN-recognised status as a neutral country. It neither takes part in joint military exercises nor join any international organisation that is not focused on economics and trade relations.

So, the question is, what brings these five countries together to conduct the Birlestik military exercises?

It cannot be concerns about Afghanistan. If it were, it would make more sense to hold these drills near the Afghan border in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The drills, let’s recall, will take place along Kazakhstan’s Caspian coast. Whatever hypothetical situation the exercises are designed to counter, they do not imagine any role for Caspian littoral states Russia and Iran.

That has not gone unnoticed. One Russian media report asked if observers will be invited since “at a minimum, the Caspian countries should be invited to look at how ‘actions will be undertaken to carry out combat training tasks in determining the zone of armed conflicts…’”

The report noted that “so far the official information about the exercises says absolutely nothing about either Russia or Iran in connection with Birlestik-2024.”

The drills are scheduled for July, thus there is still ample time to send invitations to Russia and Iran to observe Birkestik 2024.

One thread that connects the five countries taking part in Birlestik-2024 is that they are all part of the Middle Corridor, a multimodal network of trade routes in Central Asia and the Caucasus that connect Europe to China without the transit use of any Russian territory.

Could the rise of the Middle Corridor be on the minds of the five Birlestik-2024 participant nations? (Credit: 

The Middle Corridor has been expanding rapidly since the Russia invasion of Ukraine triggered Western sanctions on trade involving Russia. The route has also gained some new importance since Houthi militia in Yemen started attacking shipping in the Red Sea in late 2023.

The Middle Corridor, sometimes referred to as the Trans-Caspian International Trade Route, or TITR, cannot handle the volumes of trade once shipped via the Northern Corridor through Russia, or come anywhere near to compensating for volumes of goods carried by sea through the Suez Canal.

However, the Middle Corridor is the safest and least complicated option for conducting trade between Europe and Asia at the moment and demonstrating that the route enjoys protection might be part of the reason for holding Birlestik-2024.

Whatever the reason, the exercises have started to bother some people in Russia and probably in Iran as well. The countries involved in Birlestik-2024 will, however, see the fact that they are cooperating to solve their common security problems, without resorting to help from bigger countries, as a good sign.