On June 22, Vladimir Shamanov, the head of the Russian State Duma’s Committee on Defense, announced that Russian military officials were holding talks with their colleagues in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan about the potential deployment of Kazakh and Kyrgyz peacekeepers to Syria.
Even though Russian and Turkish officials were cautiously optimistic that Kazakhstan would agree to deploy troops to Syria, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhamov swiftly denied Shamanov’s statement, telling reporters on June 23 that “Kazakhstan is not negotiating with anyone about sending its military service personnel to Syria.”
Kazakhstan’s emphatic refusal to deploy peacekeepers to Syria contrasted markedly with Kyrgyzstan’s openness to a potential deployment, and reveals a growing rift between Astana and Moscow over the mandate of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
While Russia has pushed the CSTO in an interventionist direction to bolster its international credibility as a peacekeeping force, Kazakhstan has argued that the CSTO should refrain from military involvement in the Syrian and Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts. Astana’s support for a hands-off CSTO can be explained by widespread internal opposition to Kazakh troop deployments in conflict zones and Kazakhstan’s desire to assert its foreign policy independence from Russia.
Kazakhstan’s refusal to endorse Russia’s CSTO military intervention proposal in Syria can be explained by President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s concerns that deploying Kazakh troops in conflict zones would cause political instability in Kazakhstan.
Political opposition to Kazakh troop deployments in Syria would likely come from three principal sources: the Kazakh parliament (Mazhilis), Kazakh veterans groups, and Sunni religious leaders.
As public opposition to a CSTO military intervention resulting in Kazakh civilian casualties is so pervasive, Central Asia security expert Uran Botobekov argued in a recent Jamestown Foundation report that parliamentary resistance to military deployments in Syria was possible, even if Nazarbaev acquiesced to Russia’s demands.
Although Nazarbaev’s Nur Otan party overwhelmingly dominates the Kazakh parliament and can easily quash dissent, last year’s anti-Chinese protests over Kazakh land-reform legislation revealed that disregarding public opinion has negative political consequences.
Therefore, deferring to public opinion on military deployments will prevent unrest in Kazakhstan and strengthen Nazarbaev’s position by lending symbolic credibility to Astana’s January 2017 constitutional reforms, which formally reduced the scope of Nazarbaev’s presidential powers.
Afghan War Vets
In addition to the potential for public unrest facilitated by dissenting parliamentary factions, Astana’s refusal to deploy troops to Russia’s proposed CSTO mission in Syria can be explained by Nazarbaev’s concerns about dissent from Kazakh veterans groups.
These concerns are relevant, as Kazakh veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan expressed virulent opposition to Kazakhstan’s May 2011 decision to deploy troops alongside NATO’s ISAF forces in Afghanistan.
In response to Kazakhstan’s participation in the Afghanistan war, the Coordination Council of Public Organizations, which represents Kazakh war veterans, declared that the deployment of Kazakh troops to Afghanistan would endanger Kazakh civilians and cause irreconcilable rifts within Kazakhstan’s Islamic community.
As Afghan war veterans openly called for the resignation of the Kazakh parliament in 2011, Nazarbaev’s desire to prevent unrest amongst this group likely contributed to his decision not to deploy Kazakh troops to Syria.
Sunni Islamist organizations are the third major opposing faction to Kazakhstan’s participation in a CSTO military intervention in Syria.
Cooperation with Russia would overtly align Astana with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawi Shi’ite regime. As Sunni extremists in southern Kazakhstan, like Marat Maulenov, have urged Kazakh Islamists to join the struggle against Assad in Syria, Nazarbaev was concerned that sending Kazakh troops to Syria on Assad’s behalf could trigger a counterdeployment of Kazakh Sunni extremists to IS-held regions of Syria.
This retaliatory counterdeployment could empower underground Salafist movements in Kazakhstan, and increase the likelihood of Syria-linked ISIS terror attacks on Kazakh soil.
Foreign Policy Independence
In addition to the political instabilities that could have resulted from deploying troops to Syria, Kazakhstan’s tensions with Russia over the CSTO’s mandate underscore Nazarbaev’s desire to showcase Astana’s foreign policy independence from Moscow.
Kazakhstan’s responses to regional security crises have consistently emphasized the importance of all-inclusive political settlements and called for a neutral CSTO. This approach differs greatly from Russia’s attempts to link the CSTO’s mandate to its broader geopolitical interests.
Kazakhstan’s approach to CSTO involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh exemplifies Astana’s divergence from Russia on the CSTO’s mission.
On July 14, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to Armenia, Timur Urazaev, stated that the CSTO should refrain from intervening militarily in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Instead of using force, Urazaev argued that the international community should resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by facilitating diplomatic negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Kazakhstan’s strategy contrasts markedly with Russia’s stance on Nagorno-Karabakh, which has consistently emphasized the CSTO’s commitment to protecting Armenia’s sovereignty from Azerbaijani military aggression.
Kazakhstan’s resistance to CSTO involvement on Armenia’s behalf is closely intertwined with its membership in the Turkic Council, an organization that includes Azerbaijan. As journalist Areg Galstyan noted in March, Kazakhstan frequently lobbies for pro-Azerbaijani interests within the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and successfully convinced Russia to move the location of the Eurasian Intergovernmental Council from Armenia to Russia.
Kazakhstan’s solidarity with Azerbaijan could also explain Nazarbaev’s decision to cancel his visit to Armenia for the October 2016 CSTO meeting. Even though Nazarbaev explained his absence on health grounds, Kazakh political analyst Aidos Sarym told the Reuters news agency on October 11, that Nazarbaev’s “illness” was an excuse to avoid meeting with Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian.
Urazaev’s statement suggests that Kazakhstan’s resistance to the Russia-Armenia alliance has extended to the security sphere, and illustrates how Kazakh policymakers are using their disagreement with Russia over the CSTO’s mandate to assert Astana’s foreign policy independence from Moscow.
Kazakhstan’s refusal to deploy troops in a CSTO military campaign on Assad’s behalf can also be explained by Astana’s desire to demonstrate its outsized influence in world affairs. Even though Kazakhstan maintains diplomatic relations with Syria’s Ba’athist regime, Nazarbaev has deviated from Russia’s staunch pro-Assad approach by highlighting Astana’s role as a neutral mediator in the Syrian conflict.
Since the inception of Russia’s military intervention in Syria in September 2015, Kazakhstan has abstained from voting in UN Security Council resolutions condemning the Assad regime’s chemical weapons use and established robust diplomatic links with Syrian opposition factions.
If Kazakhstan had contributed to Russia’s proposed CSTO peacekeeping mission in Syria, its reputation as a diplomatic arbiter in Syria would have been irreparably compromised and the impartiality of the Astana talks would have been seriously questioned.
However, by openly resisting Russia’s proposed CSTO military intervention in Syria on Assad’s behalf, Kazakhstan can showcase its effectiveness as a mediator in the Syrian conflict, bolstering Nazarbaev’s stature in the international community.
Even though Kazakhstan remains a critical Russian security partner, Nazarbaev’s support for a non-interventionist CSTO reveals a growing rift between Astana and Moscow on how best to handle international crises.
As Kazakhstan’s refusal to deploy troops in CSTO peacekeeping missions helps prevent antigovernment unrest, and highlights Kazakhstan’s foreign policy independence from Russia, the Moscow-Astana rift over the CSTO is likely to be an enduring feature of the bilateral relationship for years to come.