'Russian NATO' Holds 1st Exercise
MATYBULAK, Kazakhstan - The presidents of five ex-Soviet states viewed military drills by thousands of troops in Kazakhstan as the Russian-led security grouping unveiled its new rapid reaction force Oct. 16.
Moscow hopes the new forces will lend teeth to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a loose seven-nation grouping it has touted as a counterweight to the NATO alliance but which is plagued by internal tensions.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and the leaders of Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan - all in matching army fatigues - sat sheltered from the early morning cold, watching the maneuvers through binoculars.
But the leaders of Belarus and Uzbekistan declined to attend, with Minsk represented by its defense minister, a Kazakh foreign ministry spokesman said.
More than 7,000 troops and 90 aircraft took part in the exercises at the Matybulak training grounds, an arid mountain valley about three hours from Almaty near the Kyrgyz border.
"In December last year in Kazakhstan, we heads of state took the decision to create the Collective Operational Reaction Forces," Kazkah President Nursultan Nazarbayev told reporters at the drills.
"As you know, it is written in the rules of this organization that we will ward off aggression by extremists, terrorists and drug traffickers against any member of the CSTO."
The Oct. 16 exercises attended featured field drills with heavy artillery and two other battle scenarios.
In one, troops intercepted men on horseback in a mountain setting in an apparent simulation of fighting drug-traffickers from Afghanistan.
Paratroopers saved "hostages" from another scene where militants had seized a petrochemicals factory.
At one point during field drills, a mock distress cry from a set of tanks was broadcast over loudspeaker: "We are encountering heavy enemy contact. Requesting Kazakh support."
Seconds later a pair of fighter jets screamed into view pounding positions around the tanks.
But neither Presidents Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus nor Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan - both of whom opposed the creation of the new force - attended, underscoring divisions within the Kremlin-dominated body.
The authoritarian but increasingly Western-leaning Lukashenko refused to show up at the June 14 meeting in Moscow to sign the document establishing the NATO-style rapid reaction force amid a trade dispute between the neighbors.
Meanwhile, Uzbekistan's strongman Karimov has bristled at Russian plans to establish a military base in southern Kyrgyzstan near their restive shared border, plunging relations to lows not seen in a decade.
The Kremlin said in a statement that Belarus had signaled its willingness to sign onto the agreement despite Lukashenko's absence, while Uzbekistan "had reserved the right to join the agreement later."
CSTO General Secretary Nikolai Bordyuzha told Russian television Oct. 15 that the new Collective Operational Reaction Forces (CORF) were designed to combat terrorist sieges such as the Mumbai attacks in 2008.
The new formation, which contains military and disaster control contingents from the five signatory states, is a clear bid to rival the Western military alliance NATO's own joint operations.
It is also seen as a move by Moscow to bolster its sway. Russia has been nervously eyeing increasingly independent behavior by several states in Central Asia, as both Moscow and Washington jostle for influence in the strategic region.
'Russian NATO' Holds 1st Exercise - Defense News