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Kazakhstan Military Exercises Against "Separatists" -- But Russian, or Uyghur?

Kazakhstani soldiers take part in exercises against "extremist, terrorist and separatist organizations." (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)

Kazakhstan's armed forces are carrying out exercises against "separatists," citing "geopolitical shifts" as the justification. But while the reference to separatists may make the Kremlin a bit uneasy, the scenario seems to be oriented toward Chinese separatists, rather than Ukrainian.

The exercise is being conducted from January 15-17 by land forces command staff. "According to the scenario of the joint staff training, groups from extremist, terrorist and separatist organizations, disguised as refugees, infiltrate the territory of a hypothetical government," according to a release from the Ministry of Defense. "During the course of the training the soldiers blocked and destroyed illegal armed formations and repelled the invasion."

The "relevance of the training" was the result of "contemporary geopolitical shifts," the MoD added. So what geopolitical shifts is Astana worried about?

The last line seems to point to a Ukraine scenario; as Ukrainian website depo.ua suggests, "ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan complain about 'oppression' and eagerly await the arrival of 'little green men' from Russia." While Kazakhstan has clearly been rattled by the events in Ukraine, and has undertaken serious efforts to shore up its statehood as a result, ethnic Russians are hardly begging for Moscow's intervention.

But the MoD cited not just "separatists," but "extremist, terrorist and separatist organizations," which is a clear mimicry of the "three evil forces" of Chinese security doctrine. China, through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, has been trying to get its Central Asian partners to sign on to that goal by focusing on the transborder activities of Uyghur groups opposed to Beijing's rule in Xinjiang, which borders several Central Asian states.

From a Xinhua interview with Zhang Xinfeng, head of the SCO's Regional Anti-Terrorism Agency, in Dushanbe in September:

"Every SCO member state has extremists of this kind who are fighting in Syria and Iraq ... These people have started returning to their homeland, which constitutes a major threat to regional security," Zhang said.

SCO member states have submitted to the agency relevant information earlier in the year, and plan to work out joint measures against those members of the "three evil forces" later this year, Zhang said.

"Our goal is to eradicate threats to the region's stability before they cross the borders," he said.

So this exercise may worry Russia, but not because Astana is preparing a fight against its "little green men," but because it's further evidence that, even in the sensitive sphere of security, Kazakhstan is increasingly cooperating with China.

Kazakhstan Military Exercises Against "Separatists" -- But Russian, or Uyghur?

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