Amid a week of intense diplomatic activity under auspices of the sixth summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building in Asia (CICA) taking place on October 12-13, Kazakhstan’s authorities on the sidelines announced incremental but important revisions to Kazakhstan’s official military doctrine. Modest though the changes may be, they do signal Kazakhstan’s intention to hold fast to principles of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as to Kazakhstan’s distinctive “multi-vector” foreign policy.
The celebrated and often cited “article 32” of Kazakhstan’s military doctrine – “The Republic of Kazakhstan does not consider any particular government an enemy” — was retained in the new version of the doctrine. The changes and additions to the previous 2017 version of the doctrine did not alter in any significant way Kazakhstan’s basic foreign policy posture. The changes did, however, shift to some extent the balance among the country’s principal security agencies, thereby somewhat further consolidating the authorities of the president’s office.
In an era of global political turbulence and strategic competition in light of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the degree to which changes in Kazakhstan’s military posture would yield to Russia’s pressure to join the ranks of its anti-Western bloc hung thickly in the air. Some mid-level officials in Kazakhstan’s security services expected the new doctrine would tilt Kazakhstan in the direction of the foreign policy goals of its northern neighbor. But the new military doctrine does not mark a tilt in Kazakhstan’s foreign policy. Indeed, the new military doctrine can be seen as redoubling adherence to the power-balancing and power-hedging qualities of Kazakhstan’s existing foreign policy.
Kazakhstan’s new military doctrine is subtly different than its previous versions, informed in its change more by the particular recent events in Kazakhstan than by anything else. What began by all appearances in early January of this year as lawful popular demonstrations in opposition to economic conditions rapidly escalated into unprecedented public disorder and violence. For the first time since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan’s “January events” presented questions of existential peril. The Kazakhstani government gained control of the situation and embarked on a promise of institutional reform. In the wake of these events, a large number of people were arrested and prosecuted on charges ranging from misdemeanors to terrorism and treason. One of the reform measures, first announced as underway in June 2022, was the development of a new military doctrine. The public version of the military doctrine was made available on October 12, 2022.
Kazakhstan’s military doctrine is organized in four sections: an introduction; an analysis of current affairs; a statement of basic principles; and a summary. Military doctrines, as a general rule, do not lead foreign policy but rather serve to undergird foreign policy and ensure the objectives of national security policy. Kazakhstan’s new policy is no exception. The introductory section of the military doctrine consists of 14 articles describing the constitutional and legal foundations for military engagement and providing basic definitions for basic concepts such as conflict, armed conflict, low intensity conflict, and hybrid conflict. The concluding summary section of the military doctrine, articles 74-78, avers that Kazakhstan’s military doctrine may be adjusted on the basis of conditions as determined by Kazakhstan’s head of state. The opening and closing sections of the doctrine contained nothing new. However, the second section of the doctrine, the analysis of current affairs, did include new important new provisions. These changes principally concerned two factors, the rapidly evolving international security situation and new technological developments.
Several of the new provisions stand out as particularly important. First, enhancing the capacity of Kazakhstan’s security agencies to respond to domestic disorder underscores the idea that the revision of the military doctrine was designed primarily to consolidate authority in the domestic context rather than shift Kazakhstan’s foreign policy alignment. Article 19 of the military doctrine calls for enhancing mobility and rapid response capabilities of the Kazakhstan National Guard, a military service administered by the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) but synchronized in equipment and personnel with the Ministry of Defense (MoD) in domestic deployments. Particulars of the scale of “enhanced” National Guard capabilities are not specified in the new military doctrine, but the references to “crisis situations” undoubtedly refers to the use of military force to suppress anything in the future that resembles the “January events.”
A second important provision in the new doctrine announced the creation of a new military territorial directorate. The size, scope, and management of the territorial directorate is not clear in the doctrine, but the language suggests this new formation will be designed to enhance logistics and transport capabilities both domestically and regionally within Central Asian context.
A third important provision in the doctrine provides for the strengthening of cyber and information capabilities across all security agencies. In the past in Kazakhstan, cyber responsibilities were generally considered to be the sole responsibility of the Kazakhstan’s Committee on National Security (commonly referred to by its Russian language acronym, KNB). Article 13 of the revised military doctrine broadens the concept of cyber defense to combatting operationalized electronic media, noting, “An increased influence can be carried out in the information space in order to form negative attitudes in a global context concerning the state.” Article 18 announces the establishment of a new cyber division (podrazdelenie) with both digital cyber as well as “information” responsibilities.
What is not explicitly stated but can be inferred from the new military doctrine is the importance of the January events in guiding reforms regarding the competing so-called “siloviki,” the security agencies. Kazakhstan’s new doctrine is comprehensive in the respect that it provides operational guidance for all aspects of national security establishment, including those components of the MoD, the MIA and the KNB. The legal foundation for the various security agencies is specified in a number of Kazakhstan’s laws outlining authorities and responsibilities. But the interoperability of the agencies and their respective claims to the national security budget has always been hard to discern. The new military doctrine can be seen as a product of the lessons drawn from the January events.
In the past, the MIA was considered to have lead responsibilities for crowd control while the KNB was considered to have lead responsibility for the interdiction of foreign intervention. Both of these agencies are paying the price for the January events. Karim Massimov, a long standing, high-ranking political figure who had occupied important positions — including twice serving as prime minister — and was KNB chairman at the time of the January events, was removed from office by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Shortly thereafter Massimov was indicted on criminal charges and, eventually, for treason. Massimov’s closest aides faced the same treatment. In his address to the Kazakhstan parliament in March 2022 Tokayev asserted that KNB officials were behind the organization of the January events in an effort to overthrow the government and assume power. In late August 2022 the KNB reported that it had completed its investigations and was turning over the materials to judicial authorities for prosecution in a closed judicial process.
Perhaps the major conclusion that can be drawn from the new version of Kazakhstan’s military doctrine is not what it does, but what it does not do. In recent years, political compasses in post-Soviet space have increasingly been pointing toward Moscow as the Kremlin’s relentless economic and political pressure has focused on shaping a unique Eurasian community self-sufficient and capable of competing with the traditional so-called community of Western values purportedly dominated by the United States. These pressures from Moscow increased following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
After the beginning of the war of occupation in Ukraine in February 2022, the Kremlin’s pressure has shifted from competition to overt, military, violent conflict, represented as an existential contest between East and West. The Kremlin’s “List of unfriendly countries” was announced in 2021 and has grown to add countries around the world. Russian news agencies have run articles showing the world divided into “West and the rest.” Kazakhstan, linked by common traditions and by one of the longest international borders in the world, is increasingly pressured by Russia to align with its foreign policy.
Tokayev has been walking a delicate balancing line between East and West, not directly challenging his northern neighbor but not submitting to the pressure to align by accepting Russia’s attempt to annex parts of Ukraine. What may be foremost in the Kazakhstan leader’s mind is that any argument regarding Russia’s claims to border territory could easily be directed at Kazakhstan.