From AP: Thousands of troops from Russia and four other ex-Soviet nations began military exercises in southern Kazakhstan on Friday, the first of its kind for the newly formed NATO-style rapid-reaction force.

Moscow is hoping the force will help bolster the power and prestige of the seven-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization, which Russia is hoping will help counterbalance NATO but to date has been seen largely as a mere talking shop.

More than 7,000 troops gathered at the Matybulak training grounds for the maneuvers, which are expected to last two weeks, the Kazakh Defense Ministry said in a statement on its Web site. (photo: RIA Novosti)