Russia's Defense Ministry has announced plans to hold large-scale military maneuvers near the border with Kazakhstan. The announcement comes as relations between Moscow and Astana sink to their lowest level since the collapse of the Soviet Union, amid heightened regional tensions over the war in Ukraine.
Military exercises involving 4,000 troops and 400 pieces of military hardware will take place in the southern region of Altay in mid-September, Major Dmitriy Andreyev of Russia’s Strategic Missile Troops said on September 3, as quoted by RIA Novosti.
Andreyev described the maneuvers – in which troops will practice repelling strikes by precision weapons and counteracting saboteurs – as part of the Strategic Missile Troops’ “training plan.” However, Kremlin-controlled RIA Novosti did not miss the chance to note that recent military maneuvers in other parts of Russia “have aroused the concern of Western countries in the context of the situation in Ukraine.”
The announcement came amid a chill in the usually warm Russo-Kazakh relationship. Kazakhstan is a close ally of Russia and a fellow member of the Customs Union free trade zone, which is set to become the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in January. The two presidents, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, generally enjoy an affable personal relationship, too.
However, Astana’s loyalty has been tested to the limits by Russian policy in Ukraine, and by Moscow’s heavy-handed attempts to dictate its own vision of the EEU on other members.
After an exasperated Nazarbayev issued a reminder on August 24 that Kazakhstan has the right to quit the EEU if its sovereignty is threatened, Putin sallied back with the suggestion that Kazakhstan’s statehood is very recent – and, by implication, very fragile.
Russia’s Altay region borders northeastern Kazakhstan, where the mood among the ethnic Russian population is strongly pro-Kremlin.
Astana is ever mindful of uncomfortable parallels between Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Both share long borders with Russia (7,000 kilometers in Kazakhstan’s case) and have large ethnic Russian populations (21 percent in Kazakhstan, with far higher proportions in the north near the Russian border).
The timing of the exercises may be no more than coincidence, but the saber rattling on the frontier is likely to send more shivers down the spine of the administration in Astana.