On January 20, the Turkish Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Atilla Gunay, met the Kazakh Defense Minister Adilbek Zhaksybekov in Astana as part of a series of recent meetings to foster bilateral dialogue. Centered on military cooperation, it came three months after Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev visited Ankara to sign a strategic partnership agreement that emphasized closer military collaboration between the two countries. The meeting culminated in an offer to Turkey to hold joint military exercises for the first time as a new feature of their bilateral military cooperation. According to Zhaksybekov, Nazarbayev’s visit to Turkey provided an impetus for enhanced relations between the two states (Turkish Weekly, January 21). “We previously had such an agreement, but this time we have expanded and formalized it. It is aimed at the future,” Nazarbayev stated following the negotiations with the Turkish President Abdullah Gul in October, 2009 (www.kazakhstan.org.sg, October 23, 2009).
Military cooperation between Turkey and Kazakhstan has developed for more than a decade, but the two countries have not staged joint military exercises. Zhaksybekov underlined this very point when he suggested the initiative: “We want to carry out joint maneuvers with the Turkish armed forces as a new aspect in our military cooperation. Turkey is one of the priority partners of Kazakhstan in the area of defense” (Turkish Weekly, January 21). He also invited a Turkish delegation to attend Kazakhstan’s first international armament exhibition KADEX 2010 in May (www.mod.kz, January 19).
According to the defense minister, Turkey assists Kazakhstan in reforming the country’s armed forces, training personnel, and equipping its Special Forces (Rakhat TV, January 20). Indeed, Turkey has supplied free military equipment to Kazakhstan and trained up to 500 Kazakh soldiers. There are approximately 60 Kazakh servicemen currently receiving military training in Turkey (Turkish Weekly, January 21). In an article in the Journal of Slavic Military Studies in December 2008, Roger McDermott noted that Ankara also assists Kazakhstan in upgrading its peacekeeping battalion (KAZBAT) to a brigade, which was the only Central Asian peace support unit sent to Iraq. Turkey has proven instrumental in establishing a Kazakh anti-terrorist unit, building the naval base at Aktau and the naval port at Yeraliyevo, in addition to providing training assistance and military vehicles for Kazakh Special Forces.
Turkish military assistance has helped Kazakhstan to strengthen its armed forces. Experts believe that Kazakhstan is one of the three leading CIS states, and that the country has developed its armed forces as one of the strongest militaries in Central Asia. It conducted 52 military exercises in 2009 alone, 14 more than in 2008. Interaction 2009 was noteworthy as it involved the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Collective Operational Reaction Forces (CORF). According to Zhaksybekov, this was “a serious examination,” which the Kazakh military passed with “distinction” (www.nvo.ng.ru, January 15).
Kazakhstan has participated in military exercises within the framework of both NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) Program and the CIS that included Norak Anti-terror 2009 in Tajikistan, Combat Commonwealth 2009 conducted in Russia and Kazakhstan, as well as Steppe Eagle 2009 with the US and UK in Kazakhstan. It will also host the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Peace Mission exercises later this year (Turkish Weekly, April 29, 2009).
Astana wants to actively promote its “multi-vector” foreign policy by reaching out to countries and organizations other than Russia and the CSTO, SCO, and CIS. Thus, it expects deeper collaboration with the US as part of its new 2007 military doctrine and closer engagement with NATO in the framework of PfP, to foster anti-terrorist and peace support cooperation (EDM, April 17, 2007). NATO and Kazakhstan also adopted a second phase Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) that aims to enhance regional security and modernize the Kazakh armed forces (www.nvo.ng.ru, January 22).
In this context, the Kazakh offer to hold joint military exercises with Turkey, a NATO member state with one of the largest militaries among Alliance countries, represents Kazakhstan’s efforts to pursue an effective “multi-vector” foreign policy linked to its strengthened geopolitical role in the energy-rich Caspian region. Enhanced military cooperation with Turkey might help Kazakhstan to form more effective energy and military partnerships with NATO and the EU, upgrade its counter-terrorist and peacekeeping capabilities, and enhance the combat readiness of its rapidly modernizing military. In turn, Turkish efforts to build strong military and energy connections and seek the normalization of its relations with neighboring regions complement Ankara’s “zero-problem” foreign policy. The bilateral military cooperation between Ankara and Astana further helps to contain the regional ambitions of other powers and enables both countries to serve as secure inter-connectors of trade and energy flows from East to West.
As active regional players still lacking “military muscle,” Kazakhstan and Turkey are therefore well positioned to benefit from enhanced defense cooperation. The Kazakh offer to hold joint exercises may prove appealing for Turkey, since its interests have long been overshadowed in Central Asia by the presence of Russia and China. In this connection, one might expect concern on the part of Russia, since its strategic position is increasingly affected by the regional engagement of China and Turkey in Central Asia generally and in Kazakhstan, the region’s largest economy, in particular.