In late June 2017, the reports circulated in mass media that Kazakhstan’s military might be deployed in Syria as part of the multilateral mechanism to monitor the ceasefire regime. The news caused a mixed, though mostly negative, reaction among the country’s general public. While opponents of such a step were arguing that it would jeopardize the domestic stability and negatively affect Kazakhstan’s international reputation, few supporters claimed that participation in peacekeeping operations would help the country’s military forces to gain practical experience of contemporary warfare under real-life conditions. The Kazakh authorities later denied the reports as baseless stating that Kazakhstan would consider the possibility of sending its peacekeepers to any humanitarian crisis spot or conflict area only under a relevant UN Security Council mandate. Nevertheless, this media frenzy put the issue of Kazakhstan’s involvement in multilateral peace missions under the spotlight.
As a responsible player in the issues of regional and international security, Kazakhstan has been engaged diplomatically in promoting confidence building measures between states and facilitating peaceful solutions to various conflicts, but the country has a limited record in the field of international peacekeeping. The deployment of the composite infantry battalion in Tajikistan from 1993 to 2001 is considered as Kazakhstan’s initial peacekeeping experience. However, while the deployment was part of the so-called CIS Collective Peacekeeping Forces, this special battalion made of the Committee for National Security border guards, Ministry of Defense servicemen and Ministry of Interior troops was not engaged in peacekeeping activities in the traditional sense, being, in fact, responsible, along with the Russian and Central Asian forces, for protecting the Tajik-Afghan border from militant and criminal groups engaged in arms smuggling and drug trafficking (United Nations).
Another early example of Kazakhstan’s peacekeeping activities was its participation in the Central Asian Battalion (Centrasbat) formed by the now non-existent Central Asian Economic Community of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in 1996. The Centrasbat composed of the national peacekeeping military units of the three countries participated in a series of U.S. and NATO sponsored exercises designed to increase interoperability of the regional forces and improve their abilities to conduct basic peacekeeping and humanitarian operations within a multinational framework. The annual military exercises conducted under the NATO’s Partnership for Peace program lasted from 1997 to 2000 (McDermott, 2004).
In January 2000, President Nazarbayev issued an edict creating a separate Kazakh Peacekeeping Battalion (Kazbat) composed of contracted military servicemen. The Ministry of Defense considered a possibility of deploying the Kazakh peacekeepers in Afghanistan in 2002, but no political decision was eventually made, mainly due to strong domestic opposition (McDermott, 2004). The Kazbat’s first peacekeeping experience was the deployment in Iraq as part of the multinational stabilization force from 2003 to 2008. Nine peacekeeping contingents totaling 290 military engineers and medical personnel were rotated over five years, contributing to the post-war reconstruction of Iraq. They carried out various missions, including mine clearance, convoy security, perimeter and base defense, traffic control, and humanitarian assistance operations such as water purification and medical assistance. In total, the Kazbat disposed of about 5 million pieces of explosive ordnance and provided treatment to more than 500 Iraqi civilians (Daly, 2008).
In the following years, Kazakhstan continued to develop its national peacekeeping potential, mainly with Western assistance, through participation in military exercises and experience sharing in the planning, implementation and maintenance of peacekeeping operations. Starting in 2003, Kazakhstan partnered with the United Kingdom, the United States and other interested countries in conducting Steppe Eagle, an annual joint training exercise focusing on strengthening peacekeeping and peace support capabilities (Adkins, 2013). In October 2007, the 38th Separate Air Assault Brigade was renamed the Kazakh Peacekeeping Brigade (Kazbrig), and the Kazbat became part of the Kazbrig. In July 2008, under the Kazakhstan-NATO cooperation plan, the first Partnership for Peace training center in Central Asia called the Kazakhstan Center (Kazcent) was opened in the Military Institute of Ground Forces in Almaty. The center’s main objective is to train the relevant military personnel designated to participate in peacekeeping operations, and its curriculum includes courses on English military terminology in multinational operations, NATO administrative procedures, and military-civilian interaction (Nigmetullin).
Currently, the Kazbrig is part of Kazakhstan’s Airmobile Forces and consists of three battalions. The Kazbat-1 is designated to participate in UN peacekeeping missions, while the Kazbat-2 is intended to be used in peacekeeping operations under the aegis of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and the Kazbat-3 is considered the Kazbrig’s backup unit. The selection criteria for future peacekeepers are very strict and include good physical health, athletic abilities, professional knowledge, fluent English, leadership skills, psychological stability and other qualities. The Kazbat-1, which has 550 servicemen, passed the NATO certification that confirmed the battalion’s ability to operate in a multinational peacekeeping environment under a U.N. mandate (Radio Azattyq, 2015; Nigmetullin).
In accordance with the Military Doctrine of the Republic of Kazakhstan approved in October 2011, peacekeeping is recognized as an important part of the country’s defense and national security policy. It is also acknowledged that peacekeeping plays a significant role for advancing Kazakhstan’s military and political interests, as well as for promoting the country’s prestige in the international arena. Kazakhstan will therefore take an active part in UN peacekeeping and humanitarian operations on the basis of mandates issued by the UN Security Council. As the doctrine states, impartiality and complete neutrality are the main principles of Kazakhstan’s peacekeeping activities. Interestingly enough, the doctrine regards the use of NATO methodologies and standards for training peacekeeping units as one of the priority directions in the country’s international military cooperation (Ministry of Defense, 2011).
In December 2013, in an effort to support Kazakhstan’s bid for a non-permanent UNSC membership, the country’s parliament supported President Nazarbayev’s proposal to send Kazakh officers to aid UN peacekeeping missions. Subsequently, the Ministry of Defense selected 20 specially trained officers and notified the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations about their readiness to join the UN peacekeeping forces as observers. Furthermore, the Ministry of Defense announced its plan to train the first Kazakh military contingent of up to 150 peacekeepers who could support UN operations around the world (Reuters, 2013). As of November 2016, nine military observers from Kazakhstan successfully completed their peacekeeping service, while four officers are deployed as part of the UN missions in Western Sahara and Ivory Coast (Sarbaz, 2016). In June 2015, President Nazarbayev signed the law “On the Peacekeeping Activity of the Republic of Kazakhstan” which created a legal base for the country’s participation in peacekeeping operations (Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 2015).
Thus, demonstrating its firm commitment to maintaining international peace and security, Kazakhstan plans to intensify its support for UN peacekeeping operations, especially during its two-year term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. However, for the country’s authorities it is important to understand all the complications associated with the participation in peace missions. A peacekeeping unit deployed on the ground often operates in a volatile, uncertain, and complex environment full of both traditional security threats and new asymmetric challenges, addressing which requires appropriate training, extensive knowledge, adequate experience, and innovative approaches. Successful peacekeeping practice would enhance Kazakhstan’s image on the global arena and promote its national interests, but any failure would damage the country’s reputation and may lead to internal instability.
Dauren Aben holds a Master’s in International Relations from Kainar University, Almaty, Kazakhstan, and a Master’s in International Policy Studies and certificates in nonproliferation studies, conflict resolution, and commercial diplomacy from the California-based Monterey Inst