Kazakhstan’s Drone Deal with Turkey Showcases Regional Security Focus
Author: Devon Sealander
Jun 8, 2022
Kazakhstan will collaborate with Turkey to manufacture Anka unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) signed a memorandum of understanding with state-owned Kazakhstan Engineering to transfer technology and establish production at a facility to be developed in Kazakhstan. This announcement follows the May 10 diplomatic meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in Ankara where the two parties reaffirmed their commitment to bolstering bilateral trade and set a target of $10 billion, twice the current trade volume.
Kazakhstan’s production deal aligns with the growing trend in the region to obtain UAVs for a range of surveillance uses, strengthening the military capabilities of the Central Asian nations. UAV technology has broad applications for both offensive and defensive purposes at a fraction of the cost of maintaining a traditional air force, which has made UAVs a popular alternative.
Sales of Turkish-made drones to Central Asian countries have skyrocketed over the past few years. The tactical abilities of Bayraktar and Anka UAVs proved effective in Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Ukraine, drawing extensive media attention. Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan appeared to be the first Central Asian countries to purchase Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones in 2021, with Kyrgyzstan citing the country’s security as a top concern. Analysts have noted that the drones granted Kyrgyzstan a significant aerial advantage over Tajikistan in the ongoing border conflicts between the two countries. Tajikistan reportedly followed suit in April 2022, adding Bayraktar drones to its own arsenal. Kazakhstan first inked a deal in late 2021 to receive three Anka UAVs by 2023, making Uzbekistan the only Central Asian country that has not obtained Turkish-made drones. Instead, the country is focusing on domestic development of military technology, including the Lochin UAV unveiled earlier this year.
The increase in Turkish drone sales takes place amid growing concern over the potential threat of terrorist operations emerging from Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S. military’s withdrawal. While the Central Asian countries have sought stable relations with the Taliban and have taken action to minimize potential humanitarian fallout from collapsing state services in Afghanistan, deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan’s northern regions present a critical threat to all Central Asian countries and underscore the importance of the continuing emphasis on regional security.
Despite the interest in Turkish UAVs, Russia remains the largest arms supplier to Central Asia. Two years ago, Kazakhstan announced defense deals worth $14.2 million, including contracts between Russian defense companies and Kazakhstan Engineering for the import and export of dual-use goods. Russian news sources have criticized the expansion of Turkish UAVs into Central Asian markets, suggesting that it would lead to greater influence of NATO in the region and undermine existing Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) security arrangements. Nonetheless, the Anka production deal with Turkey supports Kazakhstan’s multi-vector approach to international diplomacy and shows the growing importance of Kazakhstan-Turkey relations in a push to diversify military imports.
Russia’s support for Kazakhstan and subsequent CSTO deployment in January 2022 hinted at the possibility for closer cooperation between the two countries, but Kazakhstan’s hesitancy to fully support Russia’s actions in Ukraine suggests that Tokayev’s government does not feel beholden to Putin. Conversely, ongoing challenges of doing business with Russia incentivize greater reliance on other countries for critical imports, including weaponry. The viability of current and future Russian defense deals will be compromised by Russia’s war in Ukraine and western sanctions specifically targeting the Russian defense industry. Kazakhstan’s compliance with western sanctions has further impacted Russia’s ability to source needed raw materials, like steel. Therefore, Kazakhstan’s commitment to produce Turkish drones appears to be grounded in pragmatism as much as interest in modern technologies.
However, the strengthening Turkey-Kazakhstan relationship is unlikely to completely dislocate Russia-Kazakhstan relations, and Turkey remains aware of strong Russian influence in Central Asia. While Turkey and Kazakhstan have historically enjoyed positive economic and cultural relations stemming from the two nations’ shared Turkic heritage, Turkey’s NATO membership restricts certain types of military cooperation. Direct military assistance would require consensus of other NATO members.
As the war in Ukraine continues, Kazakhstan will continue to be forced to balance its historical alliance with Russia against current security and economic needs. The agreement to produce Turkish Anka drones is the latest example of Kazakhstan’s ongoing commitment to multi-vector diplomatic strategy.