NUR-SULTAN -- Alarmed by the Kremlin's predatory behaviour in the former Soviet Union, Kazakhstan is taking steps to protect its national security and upgrade its armed forces.
The most recent examples prompting this concern were the series of irredentist statements made by Russian politicians and journalists over the past two months about Kazakh territory.
Suggestions that the Kremlin should "take back" parts of the Kazakhstan sparked widespread uproar -- and also brought the forefront Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea.
In 2017, Kazakh officials -- mindful of the Kremlin's use of "hybrid warfare" against Ukraine in 2014 -- reformed the country's military doctrine for the first time in six years.
Whereas the previous military doctrine focused more on countering violent extremism and terrorism, the new version put greater emphasis on armed conflict along the border and measures to mitigate it.
The military needs to boost its preparedness with an eye on the realities of the new types of warfare, said Alexei Juravov, a veteran from Shymkent.
"Hybrid wars are a major threat today," he said. "The aggressor no longer declares war and does not openly send forces to occupy another country. Subversion, support of separatists, cyber-attacks and the information war are the tools of hybrid warfare."
Russian foreign policy has "become increasingly aggressive", said Yernar Beisaliyev of Nur-Sultan, a political analyst.
"A strong army and vigilance guarantee the country's independence," he said. "If you want peace, you need to prepare for war. That's a tried-and-true axiom that is still relevant today."
Testing combat readiness
The Kazakh military last month conducted a snap inspection of its own combat readiness, paying special attention to countering threats on the border.
The military must be prepared not only to fend off outside threats but also to engage in the latest forms of warfare, the Defence Ministry said in a January 30 statement.
"The General Staff of the Armed Forces tested the combat readiness of troops," the statement said. "The need to continually build combat experience is one of the top priorities Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has asked the Defence Ministry to focus on."
The first to receive a warning order were the intelligence and communication units of the ground forces; then the air, tank and artillery units joined the drills.
Drones also conducted air reconnaissance at the site of the exercises.
The exercises included the concealment of forces, namely, using mock-ups to simulate fortifications and other military positions.
"To carry out the defence minister's order -- to train personnel for missions in unfamiliar training areas -- the units were deployed in various ways, including transport aircraft, to the regions where they were to complete the combat training tasks," Lt. Gen. Murat Bektanov, chief of the general staff of the armed forces, was quoted as saying in the ministry's statement.
For the first time, one reconnaissance regiment underwent inspection at five training areas in different geographic and climate zones of Kazakhstan, he said.
The exercises took place on the Matybulak, Kyzylagash, Spassk, Saryozek and Jetysu training grounds in Almaty, Karaganda and Zhambyl provinces.
Modern threats and responses
During the exercises, the reconnaissance troops passed testing on military topography; nuclear, biological and chemical protection; sabotage methods; and physical training.
They conducted a nighttime ambush and an air raid on the facilities of a hypothetical enemy.
Pilots completed combat missions with support from forward air controllers in the reconnaissance regiment.
Using drones, military specialists ascertained the co-ordinates of more than 80% of the concealed facilities of the hypothetical enemy, identified real and phony positions, and performed artillery spotting.
At all the training areas, the troops practiced firing all types of weapons.
These exercises were the first in a series of random inspections, said the Defence Ministry. At the end of the inaugural exercises, ministry officials received orders to improve combat readiness and troop training for upcoming large-scale exercises.
Kazakhstan is also taking decisive steps to upgrade its armed forces.
The military has deployed modern anti-aircraft missile systems, strengthened its aircraft fleet and engineering troops' equipment, developed a Kazakh military drone and refurbished more than 900 military facilities.
Last year, Kazakhstan launched computerised services and automated command and control systems as part of its military modernisation.
Military service has become 'desirable'
Under Kazakh law, all men between the ages of 18 and 27 are required to serve one year in the armed forces, unless exempted for higher education or health, among other reasons.
"Evading conscription would be unthinkable," said Daniyar Kashkynbayev, 17, of Nur-Sultan. "In these turbulent times, the country's security is a sacred duty for every young Kazakh man."
Military service "has recently become desirable", he said.
"I want to serve in the border forces, and I hope to be drafted this year."