In late September, Kazakhstan adopted its fifth military doctrine. The document outlines a shift in strategic thinking that seems, at least in part, designed to respond to potential threats emanating from Kazakhstan’s neighbor and ally, Russia — even though analysts close to the Kazakhstani government argue that it is the actions of the West that pose the greatest danger to the country’s sovereignty.
The cautiously articulated document describes its contents as the product of expert analysis of the global military-political situation, and of the “change to the character of military conflicts.”
Some of the language in the doctrine allows for a flexible interpretation about the identity of the perceived opponent and threats. First among the main conditions posing a potential strategic danger to Kazakhstan is the “intensification in the confrontation between global and regional powers in an effort to change the existing world order.”
Georgy Dubovtsev, a military affairs expert at the state-affiliated Kazakhstan Institute of Strategic Studies, said it was clear that this language reflected the experience of countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, which he described as theaters for proxy wars. None of the unrest that those nations experienced in recent decades was initiated by Russia, but was rather stoked by Western governments, and promoted under the cloak of “promoting democracy” and “fighting against tyranny,” Dubovtsev told Eurasianet.org.
But some novel features of Kazakhstan’s defensive doctrine are strongly suggestive of being motivated by another set of issues altogether. In contrast to the last approved doctrine, from 2011, Kazakhstan’s military planners now express concern over the possible deployment of “hybrid methods.” And then there are the references to the threat of “incitement and escalation of armed conflict on the Republic of Kazakhstan’s border space.”
Those passages, along with warnings about separatist movements and cyberattacks, quickly bring to mind the measures employed by Russia to sow instability in Ukraine.
"The new Kazakh military doctrine is a clear reference to Ukraine. The Kazakh doctrine is very similar to the doctrine Belarus adopted in 2016, but Minsk was more explicit about learning lessons from Ukraine,” Deirdre Tynan, Central Asia project director for International Crisis Group, told Eurasianet.
In the aftermath of the 2014 Euromaidan events that brought about the downfall of Ukraine’s then-president Viktor Yanukovych — who played a strategic double-game in his foreign relations but generally leaned more heavily toward Russia — the Kremlin moved quickly to annex the Crimean Peninsula. While those events proceeded with relatively little violence, it was a different picture in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where pro-Moscow separatist movements were suddenly bolstered by the injection of vast amounts of weaponry and covert armed forces generally agreed to have flooded in from Russia. The conflict that ensued continues to this day.
While spooked by all those developments, Kazakhstan has on paper remained a steadfast ally to the Kremlin. President Nursultan Nazarbayev was not shy in adopting Moscow’s talking points in the weeks after the Crimean annexation, essentially attributing Ukraine’s ailments to “an unconstitutional coup d’etat” and Kyiv’s “discrimination against minority rights.”
But political affairs commentator Ruslan Zhangazy said that this may simply have been a way for Astana to buy time.
“We exercised caution and avoided adopting our [new military doctrine] immediately after the Russian military aggression, that is to say during the period of most acute conflict. We waited until after the attempts to reach a peaceful solution to the conflict,” Zhangazy told Eurasianet.
Back in 2014, if Astana was not anxious already about Crimea's fate, Russian President Vladimir Putin finished the job by making remarks that August, in which he referred to Kazakhstan as a “state on territory where no state had ever existed.”
“The Kazakhs had never had statehood. He created it,” Putin said, referring to Nazarbayev in comments that were widely read as a veiled warning against Kazakhstan displaying too much diplomatic independence.
Whatever their intent, the result of Putin’s words has been a surge in nationalist-lite messaging inside Kazakhstan and a renewal of efforts to boost the status of the Kazakh language. This shift is also informed by demographic developments in the northern regions of Kazakhstan, which are seen as being at most risk of becoming hot-spots for separatism.
At the moment, non-Kazakh ethnic groups are heavily represented in those regions. According to the state statistics committee, the proportion of ethnic Kazakhs living in Petropavlovsk, the administrative center of the North-Kazakhstan Region, is a mere 27.6 percent. In the city of Kostanay, that figure is 37.5 percent. In Oskemen, the capital of the East-Kazakhstan Region, that rises to 40.6 percent, and in Pavlodar, another city near the border, it is 44.5 percent. In industrial cities of the north and east, like Rudny, Lisakovsk and Ridder, it is 28.4 percent, 24.8 percent and 13.9 percent, respectively.
But the makeup of Kazakhstan is undergoing important changes. On the one hand, the rising rate of outward migration is primarily the result of ethnic Russians departing for their perceived historic homeland. The movement is happening in parallel with concerted efforts by Kazakhstan’s government to relocate families — ostensibly of ethnic Kazakh origin — from southern regions to the north. The stated goal of this policy is to alleviate labor surplus in the south and support the economic potential of the north. To sweeten the pot, the government has been issuing advantageous mortgage terms and welfare benefits to those wishing to make the move.
Demography may be the strongest card in Kazakhstan’s deck, since although the country’s strategic posture may be evolving to take greater account of Russia’s potential for threat down the road, Astana’s military expenditure has tended toward the anemic.
According to economy think tank Ranking.kz, Kazakhstan’s defense budget fell by 3 percent in 2016 compared with the year before. And that was in figures calculated in tenge, which has experienced dramatic downward volatility over the past two years. Ranking.kz reported in February that defense spending came in at 440 billion tenge ($1.3 billion at the current exchange rate) last year and is projected to reach an even lower 408 billion tenge ($1.2 billion) in 2017.
Perhaps just as significantly, the budget for law enforcement is seen on the rise — from 453 billion tenge ($1.37 billion) in 2016 to 482 billion tenge ($1.5 billion) this year.
Allowing for the fluctuation of the national currency presents a more ambivalent picture, but the broad trend indicates a growing emphasis away from conventional defense to internal order.
In the broader scheme of things, Kazakhstan is in no position to turn away from Russia and remains wedded to its neighbor economically, as well as in terms of security, through bodies like the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO. In this context, the adoption of a more defensive military doctrine looks more like an insurance policy than a radical change of tack.
"Kazakhstan is a member of the CSTO, it has a high level of cooperation with Russia through the CSTO and bilaterally,” Tynan said. “By enhancing the relationship, Astana may feel that these agreements manage Russia's expectations, and establish Kazakhstan as an equal entity, not somewhere like Ukraine."
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.