Kazakhstan has pulled out of an annual NATO training exercise following Russia’s demand that it be canceled. A founding member of the Partnership with Peace, Astana is carefully balancing its relations with the West and its former overlord.

Reuters:

Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia, on Tuesday backed Russia’s position by pulling out. “No, we will not take part,” Defense Minister Danial Akhmetov told reporters. “We are too busy. Yes, it’s our final decision.”

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While keeping close contacts with Russia, Kazakhstan has promoted its role as Washington’s key ally in Central Asia.  Kazakhstan allowed overflights of its territory during the U.S.-led war in nearby Afghanistan and has sought to forge closer ties with NATO by holding joint military exercises and suggesting it could buy military hardware from NATO countries.  The mainly Muslim nation tentatively backed Russia’s actions in Georgia during the August war but refused to follow Moscow in recognizing the independence of Georgia’s rebel regions.

RIA Novosti notes that that annual Cooperative Longbow 09/Cooperative Lancer 09 exercises “are aimed at improving interoperability between NATO and partner countries, within the framework of Partnership for Peace, Mediterranean Dialogue and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative program” and that “NATO has said the drills are open to all ally states, and that Russia would be welcome to join.”

Russia’s attempt to flex its muscles here undermine recent signals by President Medvedev that he’s moving his country back in the direction of democracy and full participation in the community of nations.  His objections to the exercise are manifestly silly and peeling off Kazakhstan will not change that.

At the same time, we must keep in mind that Akhmetov is in a precarious position.  The former Soviet Republic can hardly afford to alienate the most powerful regional actor.  Further, despite this move, the small country has made major strides in its relationship with NATO over the past fifteen years.

Kazakhstan has completed the first cycle of the [Individual Partnership Action Plan] IPAP (2006-2008) and continues to implement the second cycle. The IPAP covers key areas include political, military and security-sector reforms. NATO agrees to support Kazakhstan in achieving these reforms through providing focused, country-specific advice and assistance. Current priorities for Kazakhstan include transforming its public and private sectors in order to promote democracy human rights and rule of law and sustainable social and economic development.

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Kazakhstan has allocated an airborne assault battalion as a peacekeeping battalion for deployment in NATO-led peace support operations, under UN Security Council mandates. Elements of the Peacekeeping battalion have joined NATO Allies in a number of live exercises. In the framework of PARP, one of the major projects is the expansion of this force into a brigade structure (KAZBRIG), giving Kazakhstan the capability to sustain a battalion size contribution through rotation.  Kazakhstan and NATO continue to work towards a transit agreement for ISAF forces in Afghanistan.

Much more at the link.  Suffice it to say that we should not punish or publicly embarrass Kakakhstan for this move.  Rather, we must simultaneously work to instill confidence in our allies in Russia’s “near abroad” that they have nothing to fear from their larger neighbor and improve our working relationship with the Russians.  In an ideal world, Russia would be taking steps to join NATO rather than seeing it as a threat.  In the meantime, we need to accept some ambiguity from actors in the region.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.