By: Scott Taylor
Back on 7 June, the Liberal government unveiled their long awaited defence policy review which they entitled “Strong, Secure, Engaged.” The gist of the plan will see defence spending increase steadily over the next decade from the current $18.9 billion to approximately $32.7 billion by fiscal year 2026-27. The policy review contained a list of future equipment acquisitions, but for keen eyed observers of Canada’s military, the majority of these hardware items were already on the military’s requirement lists. There were modest increases announced to the manning levels of both Regular and Reserve forces, but there was certainly no drastic change in course for the Canadian military.
The increase in Canadian military spending was tweeted out by U.S. President Trump as “proof” that NATO countries were getting his message about spending a minimum 2% of GDP on national defence. While of course Trudeau liberals denied they were appeasing Trump there was virtually no reformation to defence policy despite months of cross-country consultations prior to them drafting “Strong, Secure, Engaged.”
The same month that Canada announced this future defence blueprint I was to attend the Eurasian Media Forum conference in Kazakhstan. By fortuitous coincidence I received a letter-to-the-editor just prior to my departure from reader Jim Ruddy. His final cryptic advice was for me to watch the video “Happy in Astana” as, according to Ruddy “back in 1917, Kabul [Afghanistan] was the same as Astana or Almaty [Kazakhstan] – 75 years of Russian rule achieved something Western rule did not.”
Being all too familiar with the chaos, violence and insecurity of Kabul – I made a total of 6 unembedded reporting trips into Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013 – I was naturally intrigued to put Ruddy’s comparative observation to the test when I visited both Astana and Almaty.
Immediately upon arrival in Kazakhstan it becomes apparent that while Afghanistan is geographically in the same Central Asian region, these two countries are worlds apart in terms of security, economy and development.
Astana was declared the new capital in 1997 and in just 20 short years, what was formerly a small market town in the rolling Steppes has become an almost futuristic, custom designed showcase with a population of nearly 1,000,000.
Equally impressive were the tree-lined boulevards of former capital Almaty, which are more reminiscent of Eastern Europe than the filthy traffic jammed third world streets of Afghanistan.
In terms of economy Kazakhstan is a dynamic success story. Although blessed with abundant natural resources including vast oil and gas deposits, at the time of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Kazakhstan ranked 13th out of the 15 newly independent states within that former Soviet bloc. Today the Kazakh economy ranks second among that group, with only Russia itself posting a stronger GDP.
Admittedly Kazakhstan is not a western style democracy and it has been firmly ruled over by President Nursultan Nazarbayev since it became independent in December 1991. The strength of the Kazakh economy and relative security should serve to remind us that democracy is but one form of government, which, given the catastrophic results of the West’s attempts to impose democracy in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya – is clearly not successful in all cultures.
Nominally Kazakhstan is a Muslim country with the Kazakh ethnic majority identifying with that religion. While there have been a number of sizeable, landmark mosques built since 1992, both the historical nomadic nature of the Kazakh people and the decades long Soviet suppression of religion has secularized the population.
Like Canada, Kazakhstan is officially bilingual with Kazakh being the primary state language and Russian being the Lingua Franca enabling communication between the ethnic Russian and other minority groups in Kazakhstan.
Geo-strategically Kazakhstan finds itself lodged between two superpowers: China to the east, Russia to the north. Below their southern border lies Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and further, Tajikistan, and of course Afghanistan.
Canada by comparison has only one land border and that being with the U.S., means we have limited independent latitude in determining our Defence and Foreign policies. For the Kazakhs, they have two giants to appease, not to mention a potential vipers' nest of insecurity to their south.
The primary focus of my trip to Kazakhstan was the Eurasian Media Forum conference – which included a panel on the Syrian Peace Talks that are currently taking place in Astana. From the beginning of 2017, six rounds of talks were hosted by Astana resulting, among others, in the establishment of a final de-escalation zone in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province.
I was also curious to get a perspective on the Kazakh Defence Policy and the reformation of their military in the post-Soviet era.
To accommodate my request the Kazakh Foreign Ministry arranged an interview with Rear-Admiral Kairgeldy Yesseneyev at the world class War Museum in Astana. Yesseneyev had been an officer in the Soviet Navy at the time of that empire’s collapse, so he had a very personal perspective of how a new Kazakh Army, Navy, and Air force were born out of the ashes of the Soviet Union.
“Over the past twenty-six years a tremendous amount of work has gone into creating combat capable Armed Forces and the main stages of that reform have been passed,” explained Yesseneyev “However the process of rebuilding is not complete. Further development of the Armed forces will focus on both national security and the capability to contribute to regional and global security.”
One of the most important first steps that Kazakhstan took upon achieving independence was to officially renounce nuclear weapons. A large portion of the Soviet nuclear missile arsenal had been situated in Kazakhstan prior to 1992. Kazakhstan has also shut down the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site where over 450 nuclear tests were conducted during the Soviet time. Renouncing these weapons was “an important step in the manifestation of goodwill and readiness to join the process of peaceful construction of an international society” said Yesseneyev.
The US State Secretary Rex Tillerson mentioned this remarkable contribution to international security during the recent UN Security Council session on nuclear non-proliferation in New York (https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2017/09/274362.htm). Kazakhstan, by the way, has become the first ever Central Asian state to hold a non-permanent seat at the UN SC since January 2017.
In terms of conventional weaponry however, the Kazakhs were able to inherit the equipment, vehicles and aircraft of the former Soviet Armed Forces Turkestan Military District.
However, simply having tanks and planes does not create a new structure or doctrine which would reflect Kazakhstan’s new stature as an independent country – rather than a satellite within the Soviet Union. “The most difficult challenge in this process was the transition of a mass army in corps and divisions being reduced to a small but well equipped, combat capable Armed Forces,” said Yesseneyev.
As President, Nursultan Nazarbayev is also Head of State, and the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. Under Nazarbayev’s direction, in 1993 the first independent Kazakh Defence Policy resolved that the military would have a strictly defensive role.
The Kazakh Armed Forces total approximately 37,000 personnel of which 20,000 are in the army, 12,000 in the Air force, 3,000 in the Navy and another 4000 considered headquarters staff.
While the country still has a policy of conscripted service, roughly 70% of the enlisted personnel are professional volunteers and 82% of the officer corps are regular force career soldiers. There are few exemptions from this obligatory service, should your name be selected, however the policy is not unpopular in Kazakhstan.
“Given the high prestige of military service, there are no problems with conscription” said Yesseneyev “The number of those wishing to serve far exceeds the number of available positions.”
In terms of defence spending Kazakhstan would be a shirker according to Donald Trump’s 2% of GDP formula, as they only spend roughly $2 billion Canadian annually. This amounts to about 1.1% of Kazakhstan’s GDP, which is roughly the same percentage that Canada currently spends.
That said, it is amazing what the Kazakhs can field in terms of equipment on that tiny budget. For example, the Kazakhs have a fleet of 300 T-72 main battle tanks and an additional 1,000 armoured personnel carriers and patrol vehicles (Canada’s Army currently has just 40 main battle tanks). In terms of artillery they possess over 1,000 frontline guns and mortars ranging from 120mm mortars to 152mm howitzers.
The air force possesses 76 combat fighter aircraft (Canada currently has just 77 CF-18 Hornets) and 64 combat helicopters including 18 of the mi-24 Hind attack gunships. The tiny navy has only an assortment of fast patrol boats, but Kazakhstan’s maritime responsibility is only a small coastline on the landlocked Caspian Sea.
Training and education is a cornerstone of the Kazakh Armed Forces and this is something into which they invest heavily. The Cadet Corps is essentially a non-commissioned officer school, that has to date produced over 2,700 professional senior NCO’s, on a par with any top military organization.
There is also the Military Institute of the Land Force through which more than 70% of the officer corps has graduated – including 67 current serving General Officers. Specialized training is conducted at the Military Engineering’s Institute of Radio Electronics and Communication and for Air Force personnel there is the Military Institute of the Air Defence Forces.
A unique initiative undertaken by Supreme Commander Nazarbayev was the National Defence University, which has since been named in his honour. The level of instruction offered at this institute is accepted at the Oxford community and the Eurasian Association of Universities.
In addition to foreign military officers attending the Nazarbayev Military University, Kazakhstan annually sends around 400 officers on exchange to international universities in Russia, China and the U.S.A.
As a people, the Kazakhs have a military lineage dating back to the Mongol hordes of Ghengis Khan. However, as beautifully illustrated by the images and artifacts at the Astana War Museum, their modern history was that of a vassal state to Tsarist Russia or as a component of the Soviet Union.
One large mural in the World War 2 section proudly depicts a Kazakh soldier planting the Soviet flag atop the Reichstag following the surrender of Berlin in May 1945. Their participation in the Soviet Union’s Great Patriotic War against Hitler’s Nazis is a source of great national pride.
It was not until 2013 that independent Kazakhstan staged its first ever full-scale military parade. During that ceremony on 7 May to commemorate the first Defender of the Fatherland national holiday, Kazakhstan also named its first-ever female general.
Last year Kazakhstan garnered international media coverage when they took the unusual recruiting strategy of staging an online beauty pageant. They took photos of the most attractive Kazakh female soldiers, posted them on an official website and encouraged viewers to vote for the most attractive.
The premise was that if young Kazakh girls could see how attractive and professional the female soldiers are, they too would wish to enlist. No one could comment on whether or not the initiative was successful.
In terms of their equipment, the Kazakhstan Armed Forces still field an arsenal that was largely either inherited from the Soviets or is imported from Russia. However in recent years they have begun purchasing weaponry and vehicles from NATO members such as the U.S., Turkey, Czech Republic, Greece, France, Spain, Italy, UK, Netherlands and Germany, as well as non-aligned foreign countries like Israel and South Africa.
Kazakhstan also has an extensive home grown defence industry, which is largely a legacy of World War 2 Soviet emergency relocations.
As The Germans advanced into the Soviet Union in 1941, one of the most strategic successes was the Soviet ability to uproot their factories and relocate them out of Nazi range beyond the Ural Mountains.
As such, Kazakhstan – a landlocked nation became the major supplier of naval weaponry for the Soviet Union. Following the war, the machinery remained in Kazakhstan and to this day they continue to produce state of the art exports to the Russian Navy.
In recent years, Kazakhstan’s military industry has been promoting international partnership. Canadian technology, for instance, is used in the country’s first cartridge-manufacturing plant opened in 2016 in Karaganda. (https://astanatimes.com/2016/03/countrys-first-ammunition-factory-launches-operations/).
Canada and Kazakhstan may be halfway around the world from each other, but in many ways we are far closer than one may first think. We share large landmasses with relatively small populations, we are both rich in oil, gas and minerals.
Geographically and climatically, Kazakhstan is akin to the western prairies up to and including the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. We both have super-powers for neighbours, and we are both bilingual nations, albeit none of the four primary languages overlap.
There are numerous opportunities for increased trade and cooperation between Canada and Kazakhstan. One unique connection is that Canadian cattle from Saskatchewan and Alberta have proven to be adaptable to the Kazakh steppes whereas European cattle breeds have succumbed to the extreme winter cold.
We also now have a shared battlefield and a common loss with the Kazakh military as both our nations have sent soldiers into Afghanistan. In the city centre of Almaty there is a sombre monument dedicated to the more than 500 Kazakh soldiers who died there while fighting for the Soviet Union. The National War Memorial in Ottawa now pays tribute to the 158 Canadian soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan.
Kazakhstan is not so distant after all.
The author wishes to thank the Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry and Rear-Admiral Kairgeldy Yesseneyev for their hospitality and assistance during the visit to Kazakhstan.