Russian experts on Kazakhstan-US military cooperation, possible US base in the Caspian

ASTANA (TCA) — As Kazakhstan and the US have recently renewed an agreement on military cooperation, Russian experts consider the impact it will have on Russian-Kazakh ties, specifically with regard to prospects of a US naval base in the Caspian Sea, Russia’s Sputnik news agency reports.

Earlier this month, a delegation from Kazakhstan’s Defense Ministry headed by Deputy Minister of Defense Talgat Mukhtarov met their US counterparts in Washington for bilateral discussions on defense. Following talks, the two sides agreed to renew the Kazakh-US military cooperation for another five year period, up to 2022.

Astana has not indicated any aspirations to join the US-led NATO alliance, but has engaged in military cooperation with Washington since 2003. Since then, the US has delivered equipment, including Hummers and Hewy-2 helicopters, as well as equipment for the KAZBRIG peacekeeping brigade, which the US military has assisted in training.

Washington has provided Astana with security assistance in the country’s western regions, most of it aimed at protecting Kazakhstan’s Caspian Sea oil resources, where US oil companies are heavily invested. The US has also provided Kazakh military personnel training under NATO standards, ostensibly to enable them to participate in the alliance’s foreign operations.

Some observers are concerned that Kazakhstan, seen by Moscow as its key ally in the region, may be turning to the US for help with building up its own navy in the landlocked Caspian Sea. Worse yet, according to contributor Aydin Mehdiyev, it cannot be excluded that the Pentagon’s ultimate goal may be to create a naval base in the Caspian Sea.

“After the collapse of the USSR, Russian warships have been predominant in the Caspian, while Kazakhstan’s military fleet is only under construction. In this connection, it cannot be excluded that the training ground in the port of Aktau may be transformed into a base for the US Navy,” Mehdiyev wrote.

“The Pentagon’s goal is obvious,” Mehdiyev warned; the US seems intent on “gradually ousting Russia from Kazakhstan as Astana’s main military ally, and on placing their own military base [there] at the first opportunity.”

Speaking to Russia’s Svobodnaya Pressa online newspaper, respected Russian military observer Viktor Litovkin said that although there certainly are reasons for Moscow to be concerned about continued Kazakh-US military cooperation, for the moment at least, Russia’s geopolitical and military position remains unassailable.

“As long as Kazakhstan remains a member of the [Russia-led] Collective Security Treaty Organization, no [foreign] naval base – even a symbolic one, can appear on the Caspian Sea,” the expert stressed.

“The Caspian Sea is landlocked; the presence of the US military would cause categorical objections not only from Russia, but from other countries – Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan as well,” Litovkin explained. Furthermore, “NATO or US ships could not appear there without Russia’s consent anyway, because the only way for them to make their way there would be through the Volga-Don Canal,” which flows from the Black and Azov Seas into the Caspian.

In other words, the observer noted, “the fact that Kazakhstan cooperates with the US in military-technical matters is that country’s sovereign right, so long as it does not damage the collective security treaty [with Russia].”

It’s true, the observer noted, that “Kazakhstan apparently wants to receive some US military vessels second hand. It has already done so previously. The country does not have the opportunity to build its own ships, or to get them from Russia.”

For his part, political scientist Maxim Vilisov stressed that while Moscow “shouldn’t fear” contacts between the Kazakh and US militaries, “this process must nevertheless be kept under observation. Kazakhstan is our military ally within the CSTO. The country has certain obligations [within this structure], but beyond that it can carry out military-technical cooperation with others, including the US, China or any other country.”

According to the observer, Kazakhstan has no interest in joining Western security structures, because they do not meet the country’s fundamental security interests.
“Astana understands that today the real threat [to security] comes not from any specific state, but from radical Islamist groups. In this sense, for Kazakhstan, Russia is really the most reliable ally, because we have the same interests.”

Sergey Kwan